What is the responsibility of professionals?
Is it more (or less) than just being a trustworthy broker – to do the client or employer’s bidding and not to break the law?
Why is this question important?
Professionals sit in and between all of the organs of society: business, government, charity, religion, medicine, law and so on.
Professionals bring technical skill, knowledge, judgement, integrity, experience, relationships - what I’ll call “ability to get stuff done” to the table across a countless number of disciplines and in all parts of the world.
Professionals often have increased social status and influence and a perceived higher level of trust and integrity than would be expected of “an average person”.
As such professionals are instrumental in the process and operations of the world. They do lots of stuff in lots of places. Whether professionals meet or don’t meet their responsibilities matters.
Back to the question
So in the spirit of a high school debate let’s argue each side of the story – but there are three sides: just a trustworthy broker, less than that, more than that. Just to be clear - a trustworthy broker in this case is someone that has an elevated expectation of trust and integrity in the performance of a role or task than "the average person".
1. The responsibilities of professionals should be just as trustworthy brokers.
A professional's reputation is justified by their elevated level of knowledge, judgement and ability to get the job done. Nevertheless, a professional’s job is simply to produce a quality outcome in their area of expertise and not to break the law. Morality not necessarily the primary determinant of "quality" and is sometimes unwelcome in the detached, objective administration of their duties. There is often a general expectation / codes of practice of their profession which may cover ethics within the profession and sometimes outside. A primary dimension of trust is consistency and quality of outcomes over time, and increasing the bounds of knowledge and proficiency in themselves and the profession.
2. The responsibility of professionals should be less than a trustworthy broker (just the same as the average person).
Professionals should not be held to higher standards than the lowest levels of society. The world is dog-eat-dog. Professionals are economic agents and should be able to use their higher level of knowledge and skills to push the limits of the law regularly in order to maximise gain for themselves, their clients or employers.
Whilst legal some of these actions don’t pass “the front page” test i.e. the public reaction to the actions would be negative, if they were published on the front page of a major newspaper (remember I'm assuming in this argument that all the actions are legal - some laws wouldn't seem right to the average person).
It is sometimes ok to be in a grey area where messaging around actions is opposite from the intent of the actions, if that achieves the optimal result. It is ok to exploit laws in other countries that are ineffective or are of a lower standard than the country / countries where most of the customers or stakeholders are based. It is ok to trade off the common good for the specific good. Morality is an inefficiency in the market system and the discharge of duties.
3. A professional is more than just a trustworthy broker.
Based on the perceived trust in professionals from society a professional should always seek to be beyond reproach in substance in form. Their actions pass the front-page test, and seek to push the limits of what society can expect in a positive way. Their actions do not knowingly oppress others or exploit inequality or the common assets of society (e.g. environment) – even where this is legal. A professional transparently fights for what is right, even when it is not in their or their client or employers best (economic) interest in the short term.
This article is open-ended (there will be a Part 2) and a provocation. All the views in the previous section are not necessarily mine (those are in this and the next section). As a metaphor imagine that to make the case for each argument I’ve trawled through the newspapers of the last 50 years and extracted random snippets across the board of domains where professionals are involved.
I think the first obvious point is that to answer the question of “what is the responsibility of professionals” you first have to understand the questions of “who should professionals have responsibility to and why?”.
- Client - Clearly there is a responsibility to the person or organisation seeking help from the professional in order to do the required job to the best of thier ability
- Employer - There may be a separate responsibility to the employer (if different). For example a doctor has a responsibility to the patient, and to the hospital that employs them. A management consultant has a responsibility to try to achieve a legal and quality outcome for a client, but also has a responsibility to do profitable business for the organisation that pays their salary
- The field - There may be a responsibility to the field of practice and any professional organisations that govern the field – these may add additional ethical expectations on the responsibility of professionals, and also expectations to do better – to research / advance the field of knowledge and practice.
- Society – there may be a direct or indirect responsibility to society. We hope that government has a duty to society that it tries to balance with responsibilities to the individual organs and organisations of government (i.e. departments, political parties). I’ve observed that professionals have typically been afforded higher social standing (at least in the past) by society – does that come with additional generalised responsibility to society?
- Truth – professionals are at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of society in every possible way – including to meet and exceed the expectations around the responsibilities above. Does this leadership role go beyond the expectations of society today – into positively shaping the society of tomorrow?
A half-open can of worms
Professional life can afford many freedoms to professionals: intellectual, financial, social, geographic and other types of mobility and other freedoms over and above “the average person”. If so then should the level and scope of responsibility of professionals also be higher?
I think it should, but more importantly I believe this is something that we as professionals should think about and talk about – and act on.
I think we've all seen a general erosion of trust in institutions and organisations - but these are composed of and led by professionals. What does this mean for our individual responsibilities as professionals?
What do you think?