A profession is an occupational community that has specific education, expert knowledge, and a framework of practice and behavior that underpins community trust, respect, and recognition. Most professions emphasize an ethical approach, the importance of good service, and empathy with the client.
Professions have grown in size and number over the last century: the rise of new specialist areas of expertise has created new professions. Driving forces of a new profession include governments and regulators, which encourage the formation of an ethical relationship between professionals and society at large. There is also demand
for professions from individuals who see an advantage in working as a professional and from clients who desire to work with professionals.
Professions have not developed in every country. But in most countries, those who work in specialized areas—such as doctors, lawyers, actuaries, accountants,
architects, and engineers—are subject to some combination of licensed status and technical standards. These standards distinguish professions from the craft guilds and trade bodies that were established in many countries. In particular, the requirement for members of professions to uphold high ethical standards is one clear difference.
Another difference is that trade bodies do not normally have a mission to serve society
or to set and enforce professional conduct rules for practitioners.
How Professions Establish Trust
For a profession to be credible, a primary goal is to establish trust among clients and among society in general. In doing so, professions have a number of common characteristics that, when combined, greatly increase confidence and credibility in professionals and their organizations.
Professions normalize practitioner behavior. Professionalism is underpinned by codes and standards developed by professional bodies. Regulators typically support professional ethics and recognize the framework for ethics that professions can provide. Many regulators around the world have engaged closely with professional bodies to
understand their codes and standards, as well as how they are enforced. Codes and standards developed by practitioners can be complementary to regulations, codifying many more individual practices than the high- level principles set by regulation.
Many governments have recognized that a profession can develop a more sophisticated system of standards than a regulator can, via continuous practitioner input and a strong mutual interest within the profession to maintain good standards and adopt best practices. Government support of professions is attributable to the role of professions in helping the public and ensuring expert and principled performance of complex services.
Professions provide a service to society. There is an obligation for professionals to go beyond codes and standards. Professionals should advocate for higher educational and ethical standards in the industry, individually and through their companies. Professions can widen access to services and support economic activity by encouraging trust in
the industries they serve. Professions have realized that earning community trust not only creates professional pride and acceptance but also delivers commercial benefits.
A profession that earns trust may ultimately have greater flexibility and independence from government regulators to manage its own affairs, which allows members of the profession to develop service models that are both useful to clients and beneficial to members.
Professions are client focused. An integral part of a profession’s mission is to develop and administer codes, best practice guidelines, and standards that guide an industry. These codes, standards, and guidelines help ensure that all professionals place the integrity of their profession and the interests of clients above their own personal interests.
At a minimum, professionals must act in the best interest of the client, exercising a reasonable level of care, skill, and diligence. The obligation to deliver a high standard of
care when acting for the benefit of another party is called fiduciary duty. Other entities, including employers, regulators, trade associations, and not- for- profit organizations, may also support an industry but are not the same as professional bodies. Unlike professions, these other entities generally do not exist to set and maintain professional
standards. Most employers encourage employees to be members of relevant professions, and many give financial support for this membership to ideally improve the quality of client service and reinforce ethical awareness.
Professions have high entry standards. Membership in a profession is a signal to the market that the professional will deliver high- quality service of a promised standard, going beyond simply academic credentials. Professions develop curricula that equip future professionals with competence, including technical skills, knowledge, and ethics.
Professions possess a body of expert knowledge. A repository of knowledge, developed by experienced and skilled practitioners, is made available to all members of a profession. This knowledge helps members work effectively and ethically and is based on best practice.
Professions encourage and facilitate continuing education. Entry into a profession does not, on its own, guarantee that an individual will maintain competency and continue to uphold professional standards. After qualification and throughout the working life of a professional, there will be changes in knowledge and technical skills
to perform certain jobs, in technology and standards of ethical behavior, in services that can be offered, and in the legal and business environment in which professional services are delivered. These all require the development of competence and ethical awareness. Most professional bodies make it a condition of membership that a specific
amount of new learning is undertaken each year. Typically, such conditions specify a time commitment, which may be separated into different competencies and types of learning activity. This is often referred to as continuing professional development and is seen as an important part of maintaining professional standards. The training and
education that professionals undertake increase the value of human capital, which can contribute to economic growth and social mobility.
Professions monitor professional conduct. Members of a profession must be held accountable for their conduct to maintain the integrity and reputation of an industry.
Doing so often involves self- regulation by professional bodies through monitoring and imposition of sanctions on members.
Professions are collegial.
Professionals should be respectful to each other, even when they are competing. At the very least, they must respect the rights, dignity, and autonomy of others.
Professions are recognized oversight bodies. Many professional bodies are not- for profit organizations with a mission emphasizing excellence, integrity, and public service.
Although it is the responsibility of individual professionals to remain competent, an oversight body typically monitors this responsibility. Such bodies provide individuals with ongoing educational resources and access to information about changes in standards and imposes a framework of discipline. Continuing membership indicates
sustained competence in (and updating of) practical skills while maintaining ongoing compliance with an ethical code of conduct.
Professions encourage the engagement of members. Participation by members as volunteers is part of the essence of a profession. Professionals are more likely to refer to, use, and adhere to values that they have helped develop, and they typically have the power as members to revise these values. A good professional will want to mentor and
inspire others who recently entered or wish to enter the profession. Professionals should be willing to volunteer to advance the profession and engage with peers to develop expertise and ethics. Professionals should volunteer to help educate new generations in ethical knowledge and ethical decision making and to foster a productive debate
about new areas of ethics. Most professionals find that the experience of volunteering within the profession enhances their skills and widens their contacts within the industry. Membership in a professional body allows the necessary engagement with other professionals.