Acting professionally is more than being a professional

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We were helping a client develop an article recently which referred to the increasing professionalism of financial planners.

When Harvey Kalman of Equity Trustees talked about “taking on the trappings of a profession” it prompted us to think about what a profession is. Harvey’s point is that if financial planners are to be seen in the same way as accountants and lawyers they need visible signs of trust and reputation.

His example was that financial planners’ qualifications should automatically allow them, by virtue of their profession, to sign statutory documents. It’s a good point.

It’s one thing for people providing services to claim they are in a profession, but what does it actually mean? What makes a profession and how do clients recognise it as such? How do they recognise the quality of service and advice provided as being professional?

This is a question to be asked not just by financial planners but by many of the “new professions” including public relations.

In answer to the question “What is a profession?” there are several common characteristics usually mentioned in discussions.

These include:

  • Qualification and skills training
  • An enforceable Code of Ethics
  • Continuing professional development
  • A service to society
  • A body of knowledge, and
  • Membership of a relevant association or institute.

Some would argue for other elements but to me these cover the main requirements usually mentioned. I would add that membership of a professional body, that has disciplinary powers and professional standards, should be a prerequisite before anyone can call themselves a true professional.

Indeed where the “new professions” such as public relations fall down is in the need for professional qualifications and membership of an institute or association before practice is allowed. The professional body must have the power to sanction members for unethical or unprofessional behaviour – including expulsion from the association, which in turn means they are no longer able to practice.

However, being a member of a profession is one thing, acting professionally is another. A practitioner can fill all the requirements of being in a profession but still behave unprofessionally in the eyes of clients.

This includes being late for meetings, not providing relevant information, not following up, not keeping promises, overcharging, and just going through the motions when developing advice, to mention a few unprofessional habits.

Recently financial planners have been reminded that their overriding objective must be putting clients’ interests first. Everything else in a professional relationship really flows from this basic premise.

Indeed expertise and experience may be pre-requisites for a professional but they are wasted unless they are used in a way that adds value for clients.