Professional Responsibility

These four ways of viewing corporate social responsibility each give us a set of reasons for the corporation (or other business) to act in some specific way. They should focus on things like profits, social balance, the environment, or perhaps the web of stakeholders that support the business. Each of them gives us a direction for the company-as-moral-citizen to move in. None of them, however, have said anything about the individuals who make up the company, and it is to this group that we now turn.

The Professional

In day-to-day life we use the word "professional" in a variety of ways. We speak of "behaving professionally." We refer to "professional attire." We watch "professional athletes" on television. We've heard of "professional codes of conduct." In fact, we often talk about people being "professional plumbers" or "professional contractors." What do we really mean when we use the word "professional," though?

It might be useful for you to brainstorm for a few minutes and come up with a list of people and jobs that you think are "professionals" or "professions." Go ahead. I'll wait. 


Digging Deep

Firstly, we should distinguish professionals from "people who have jobs." A professional almost certainly has a job, but there are many people with jobs that we would not call professionals. Fast food employees, for example. I doubt that many would say that flipping burgers or making tacos makes you a professional taco maker, and it is just as unlikely that we would say that taco-making is a profession. We should look deeper. 

What about using the term "professional" meaning "a person who makes money"? This is often the first thing that pops to mind when we talk about "professionals." Professional athletes are people who do athletic things for a living. They're highly skilled, well paid, and publicly known. They are distinct from "amateur athletes" in that they are paid for what they do. This is one of the divides between collegiate athletes and professional athletes. The term "professional" in this context simply means that they make money, but that can't be all that we mean by the word "professional." There are many other jobs that people might have which make money, but aren't professions. The taco maker above has already shown this distinction. Professional athletes might be professionals, but it wouldn't be due to the fact that they make money for what they do. We'll return to them in a little while.

Another thing that we might mean when we say "Sam is a professional" is that Sam has a career. This is a way of making a living that is distinct from just having a job. It could be that Sam has a career because their current job is the job that Sam has had for a long period of time. It could be that Sam has a career because the job that Sam has is one that Sam intends to keep doing for a long time. This isn't all we mean by "professional," either. There are many careers that people might have which would not naturally be called a "profession." Driving a garbage truck might be a career (and a lucrative and important one), but few of us would be tempted to say that our garbage truck driver is a professional. Other careers follow the same reasoning. Managing a Taco Bell could be a career, but not a profession. 

Another meaning could be "a person who does their job really well." "Professional plumbers do their job really well", we might say. They are experts in the field of plumbing and such. They know all about pipes, drains, and other things related to their craft. If your basement is flooded or your toilet backs up into your house, then you ought to call one of them. By the same token, we have many examples of people who are really good at their jobs, but aren't really professionals. Being talented is not all that it takes to be a professional. 

When I argue that these people above aren't professionals engaged in professions, I am not disparaging them. Being a professional isn't "good" and not-being a professional isn't "bad." I think there's a good chance that we apply the word "professional" as an adjective because it draws on the idea of a professional that we all have, but don't dwell upon. It's a way of conferring the good qualities of a professional (or a profession) upon tradespeople and employees and other talented individuals. It says that we respect these people in the same way that we respect a good professional. In this way, "being professional" is a way of acting that draws an analogy between a job or a person and those jobs and persons that are definitely professionals. I might say that the Ford Ranger is the "Cadillac of trucks" in the same way. I'm drawing a parallel between the truck and the high-quality car brand that has some qualities that people admire in a different way. This isn't to cast dispersions on the Ranger, but it isn't a Cadillac. 

Requirements for a Profession

So, let's talk about what a professional is. Look at the list you made of professions and professionals. I bet that there are some items that made it onto almost every one of your lists.

Scientific researchers







Those are the jobs and careers and persons that we all most strongly associate with the term "professional." They are people who have important jobs. They make money doing those jobs (some much more than others). They all have extensive training in schools and on the job. They've got some sort of certification to do what they do. They've got special skills that the rest of us lack. They have professional organizations that they belong to, and are regulated by. These are commonalities that bind them together as a group, but these are also shared by many other fields, so they're not the sufficient conditions for professionals either. 

The things that really set a profession apart from a job or a career are threefold.

First, a professional has knowledge that most of us can't understand without extensive training. Take doctors and lawyers for an easy example. When you go to a doctor, you do so because they have an extensive knowledge of how the body works and how to fix many of the things that go wrong with it. You go to a lawyer because they know how to navigate the legal system in a way that we non-lawyers can't. These people have spent years training to understand something that is so esoteric that laypersons have a difficult time seeing the connections they make, and the language they use. This is because, in many cases, we just lack the depth and background to understand the way that these professionals think. They are using what might be called a "secret language." If we took the years to get the same sort of training then we might understand the way that they think. 

 This inaccessible expertise leads to the next requirement. A professional has independence. We aren't talking about the sort of independence that means they don't have a boss or work for a company. It also doesn't mean that they don't have teammates or depend upon other people. It means, rather, that professions are self-regulating. They have professional organizations which are made up of (chiefly) people from within the profession. These organizations set the rules, requirements, and boundaries for the profession. The chief reason for this is that there might not be any other parties who are fit to make the rules for professions. If we non-doctors and non-lawyers cannot understand the job of the doctors and lawyers and other professionals, then it would be (at best) inefficient or (at worst) damaging for us to try and make rules for that profession. Simply put, the professionals in the field are in the best position to make the rules, and we must trust them to do so.

This trust is a crucial component to the existence of a profession. If we cannot trust that professionals will make good rules and set the best standards, then we cannot allow them to be independent. We can trust doctors (as a profession) because their regulatory commissions and professional groups set high standards for conduct, and they take measures to make sure that their doctors adhere to those standards. As long as the public's expectations are met, and the rules the professionals set are good ones, we can continue to trust the professionals in society. Without this trust, we would have to regulate them from the outside. The accounting profession was almost lost following the scandals at ENRON, WorldCom, and others. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act placed new restrictions and rules on the accounting firms and professionals which aimed to stem the tide of accounting scandals. It didn't remove the independence of the profession, but it was certainly the threat to do so. Accountants were motivated by massive profits instead of the thing that all professionals must be primarily motivated by: their obligation to the public.

This last requirement is perhaps the most important of them all. A professional has the unique requirement that they are obligated to parties other than the ones which are paying them. Other employees have an obligation to their bosses. This is the claim that Friedman was making about the CEO. He is only an employee of his stockholders, and so he must do as they wish him to. The same is true of most other employees. If you don't do what your boss tells you to, then you're out. Your obligation is to follow their directives. As an employee, you might not have other obligations.

The professional, on the other hand, has an obligation to the public and to the profession before they have an obligation to their employer or their clients. The accountants involved in the scandals are auditors, and they have a responsibility to all of those people in society who are investors or potential investors in the stock market. Without their truthful reporting that a company's financial report is fair, investors can't know which companies are doing well and which are not. So, really, their obligation is to the market itself. A doctor has an obligation to public health in addition to the health of their patient, and they have the duty to help people even when those people aren't paying them because the duty is to health instead of individuals. A lawyer has an obligation to the system of justice that overrides their obligations to their client or their firm. Engineers have a duty to public safety that overrides their obligation to their employer. 

The heart of this requirement is that these professionals are necessary to the proper functioning of the systems they are intimately involved in. Public health, justice and accounting are some of the most complicated areas of today's society, and without the professionals involved in them they would cease to function well. Professions are often aimed at public wellfare, and it must be the case that the professionals place public wellfare above their own wellfare (as police officers often do) and above profits (as accountants must if they want to remain a profession). Professionals are often granted a great deal of respect in society, their jobs often (though not always) pay well, and their statements are taken more seriously than other people's. These perks are great, but they come with the attendant responsibility towards the public and the responsibility to represent their profession well in the public eye. When they fail, they fail in a way that harms the whole profession and society. Accountants are an easy example to call on, but so are the police and military. When a police officer (or a group of them) or a soldier acts poorly, they should be held responsible for their activities by the public and the profession itself. They've damaged not just their reputation, but the reputations of all those people who put on the uniform. We expect more from the professional, and they're obligated by their position to give it to us.

So, Are Athletes Professionals?

Above, I said that we would return to the idea of the professional athlete. Making money isn't sufficient for a person to be a professional, but perhaps there is another way that we can interpret the concept of the professional athlete. If an athlete is to be a member of the professions, then they must have this obligation to the public over their managers, coaches, and teams. It's not entirely clear what this obligation would entail. Maybe they have an obligation to provide quality entertainment for people, but that seems like a long-shot. Perhaps the most important function that an athlete can serve is their position as a role model. Few people achieve the acclaim and the visibility of a pro athlete. People in all walks of life look up to them. They're a visible symbol of what human beings can do when they have the focus and the work ethic to accomplish great things. That said, most of them fail this obligation. Hardly a week goes by when we don't hear about an athlete using drugs, abusing their spouses, breaking the law, or acting like a huge jerk in public. All of those things make them poor role models, and it seems that if they recognize that they have this obligation to the public they are failing to uphold it. Perhaps in the future the professional athlete will fully join the ranks of the other professions, but their current status is certainly questionable