Professionals or pretenders?
Many occupational groups are regulated by associations that don't have the legislative teeth to properly protect the public
By: Barbara Bowes
Date: August 21, 2010
The Winnipeg Free Press
The recent spate of news announcements relaying incidents of unprofessional conduct by lawyers, doctors and financial professionals has been downright unnerving. Thankfully, there are a wide variety of professional associations that focus on protecting the public by monitoring the safe practice of their members.
The earliest professions of law, medicine and divinity are sometimes known as the "true" professions. Over the years, these occupational groups have been joined by others, such as accountants, engineers, pharmacists, nurses, dentists and, more recently, social workers.
What a so-called "true" profession means is that certain professional associations are regulated by legislation or statute. This legislation or law gives the organization the power to set competency requirements and to license members who qualify as professionals under their guidelines. This also gives the professional association the right to formally discipline its members and to decertify them from practising, if need be.
However, over the past number of years, the government has been reluctant to legislate other occupational groups such as those in the social and human sciences, as well as several of the business fields. This means that human resource professionals, project managers, business consultants, executive coaches and/or management consultants do not have any authority under law. Yes, they can prevent membership and decertify an individual, but they cannot prevent people from practising in their fields. In other words, they cannot afford the protection to the public that the regulated and legislated associations can offer.
So how are these occupational groups attempting to overcome this dilemma? First of all, the associations attempt to "professionalize" through other means, such as developing specialized education and experience requirements, offering examinations leading to certification either provincially or nationally and developing codes of ethics for members. All of these efforts are combined with public relations initiatives that strive to develop a sense of trustworthiness and altruism.
Typically, the standards of an unregulated professional organization will be similar to those of a regulated organization. They will direct members to place the best interests of the client above all others while applying integrity, competence and objectivity in the use of their technical skills.
But, does a professional code of ethics guarantee professionalism? My answer is, definitely not. Does a professional designation guarantee professionalism? Absolutely not.
Let's face it, people will be people. There will always be individuals who hide behind a professional designation, but who are consistently unprofessional. They engage in conflicts of interest, take advantage of client innocence and deliberately attempt to damage the image and reputation of competitors or anyone else who stands in their way. Self-centred and narcissistic, these people often don't even recognize their behaviour as unprofessional.
As mentioned, unfortunately the unregulated professional associations can only block membership and decertify an individual; they cannot prevent the individual from practising in a given field. Therefore, in most cases, there is no way for the public to be made aware of any issues with a particular individual. However, although it will take time, the reputation of these people will eventually be sullied by their own doing. The saying "what goes around, comes around" will eventually ring true.
On the other hand, the public needs to pay more attention to the growing number of so-called "professions" and the proliferation of certifications and designations. A really good example of current market confusion is the sudden growth of executive coaching. This profession is in its early developmental stages. In other words, there is no consistent body of knowledge and no one group that represents the profession.
Universities, colleges and the private sector are all offering coaching certificates and/or opportunities to be "certified." The problem is that an individual can be certified as an executive coach through a two-day course, a 10-day course or a one-year course. Each offers a different methodology and a different focus. So, which program is superior? What consistency is there between the learning elements? What is the designation and what does it mean? And once again, does a professional designation guarantee professionalism? It will more than likely take 10 or more years before this profession is solidified into a cohesive whole, but again, will it ever be a regulated profession? That's up to our governments.
I guess that's the crux of the challenge facing the public clientele. It doesn't matter what profession, human resources, management consultant or project manager, the designation, while helpful does not guarantee professionalism. There will always be unscrupulous individuals who lose touch with the goal of professionalism and instead focus on ways and means to gain individual benefit.
This certainly puts more onus on clients, business owners and organizational leaders to be more diligent in their initial and ongoing assessment of their professional service providers and/or new employees. Check references, comparable assignments and ensure there is a cultural and ethical fit with your corporate goals and objectives. If the individual claims a designation, ask for confirmation from their professional association.
If the individual does not have a designation, enter into a discussion about their experience and professional ethics and how they apply to your organization. If your projects are large and complex, requiring a team of professionals, ensure that roles and responsibilities start and remain clear, and that the technical expertise of each is respected. There is nothing more damaging to any project than power conflicts and political manoeuvring between your technical professionals. Keep an eye out for danger signs such as time delays, meeting cancellations, report rejection and excessive critique and blame. Typically, these issues point to underlying conflicts among your professionals that must be addressed.
Professionalism today is a complex issue. Neither local nor national designation nor certification can guarantee professional behaviour. Laying a complaint that leads to an individual being decertified as a member of an unregulated professional association does not prevent an individual from practising their trade. So where does that leave the general public? Where does that leave business owners and organizational leaders? Once again, the onus is back on your shoulders. Due diligence is one key, while ongoing performance management is another. Be sure to do both.