Thoughts on keeping the professional ethics flame burning

George Beaton
September 19, 2012

As big business and big bucks play ever greater roles in the conduct of professional practice serious questions are being raised as to the relevance of professionalism in the modern era.

The questions relate to the continuing need for regulated, as opposed to self-imposed, ethical standards. We have argued in a white paper that professionalism is as relevant today as when it was first formulated as a way of life and conduct for those called to serve in medicine, law and divinity.

Many professional services firms are now much larger than many of their clients. Many owners of these firms earn mega-incomes, often much larger than many of their clients. Many clients are now sophisticated buyers of professional services and are well able to protect themselves in dealings with their professional advisers. Many firms have diversified into offerings that are not regarded as ‘professional services’ – at least in traditional terms.

My white paper explores these issues. Since its publication I have been privileged to deliver many keynote addresses to peak professional bodies and conferences in disciplines as diverse as orthopaedic surgery, in-house legal practice and advertising. The audiences’ responses confirm my own belief that professionalism today is respected, needed, integral to successful and profitable practice and – as a cause of universal concern – threatened.

The threats arise from the neglect and/or unhelpful interventions by many, but by no means all, stakeholders: educational institutions, professional bodies, regulators, parliaments, firms, individual practitioners and public apathy or antipathy.

In this environment we celebrate the fine examples set by some leaders, for example the President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia in her editorial last year reminding all in the profession of the ‘Charge’ – the oath taken by all new members:

“I charge you by probity, diligence and skill to deserve the confidence reposed in you and always to bring honour to the Institute which now honours you.

I charge you by constant study of the profession’s literature and post graduate education material, to acquire new skill and new techniques, and to keep your knowledge up to date in a changing professional world.

I charge you in all your practice, to uphold the profession’s high standards of duty and service and to keep your name and your profession’s name above reproach.

I charge you to be scrupulous in your adherence to professional ethics and thus preserve and enhance the profession’s high reputation.

I charge you; as a recipient of the best from the past, to give your best in aiding and shaping the profession of tomorrow.

And finally, I charge you to uphold the profession’s rich tradition of contributing to deserving community services without thought of fee or rewards.”

Or the inspiring story of why a rough iron Ring is presented to Canadian consulting engineering graduates to remind them at all times of their ethical duties.

Or the Hippocratic Oath sworn by some (but no means all) medical students on graduation.

Tangible, emotive symbols such as the Charge, the Ring and the Oath contribute to keeping the ethics flame burning in these professions. But are they sufficient? And what deep symbolic means do other professions have of nurturing professionalism?

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