Monday, 2 July 2012

Professional demands

I do not want to be called "professional."

Some of my friends and most of my colleagues think this is odd.  After all, the word "professional" is a term of praise - isn't it?  

But if you go back a little bit, you can find other uses of the term.  There are many theological attacks on those who are called "mere professors of religion."  They are seen as people whose entire concern is with formalities and outward show rather than real belief and action.  Within my lifetime the term "professional woman" signified a prostitute.  And the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary offers a sense in which "professional" is uncomplimentary, giving examples of people who treat themselves as commodities.  One of the examples is the old term "professional beauty."   

It may seem rather strange to go back to earlier meanings of the word.  We all know that language develops and words change their meaning.  But in an important sense, those older meanings of the words cling around the term "professional".  

I'm not so worried about the idea that people are paid.  I like my job - well, most of it - but I do it for money and I don't need to be coy about the fact.  If I weren't paid I couldn't do it.  But jobs - particularly those jobs that are labelled "professional" - can take more than the energy and dedication with which most employees perform their primary work.  They can, by degrees, sap the integrity of those who work.

Behaving in a "professional manner" often means acquiring a veneer of false confidence which creates a distance between the "professional" and any member of the public.  This isn't something that I would always criticize.  When I go to see my doctor, for instance, I accept that she will adopt a confident and reassuring manner, even if she's just had a bad weekend and is personally feeling a little unsure of herself.  I don't mind the distance either.  She really can't ask all her patients to be her personal friends.  But I hope her determination to appear confident never gets the better of her honesty.  If one day she can't work out what is wrong with me, she'd do best tell me so and send me for tests elsewhere. 

While professionalism distances professionals from the public, it also draws professionals together in their workplace and can begin to separate them from the world in which others live.  Here it can be closely related to the kind of corporate loyalty which leads employees to forget to question what they are doing and why.  An inside account from an unnamed bank suggests how easily a number of professionals forgot about the ethics of banking practice and their responsibility to the wider society.  Instead they showed their loyalty to the well-being - primarily the financial well-being - of their employer and, as a group of professionals, broke the law.  Manipulating the Libor rate had an effect on the wider economy and on numerous individuals but some of the professional employees of the banks involved put the banks' interests first.  They placed the good of a corporation and the good opinion of their colleagues above the good of individuals.  They may also have broken the law, though that isn't yet clear. 
Almost all employers have a rule somewhere that employees must not damage the reputation of the company or institution for which they work.  It's a vague rule which employees have come to accept - not that they have much choice.   But what does that rule really mean?  

I take for granted the idea that I shouldn't tell lies about my employer and that I should behave in a reasonable way and work hard at my job.  I worry that the reputation rule may give my employer the right to police my private life or my public life away from work.  Suppose I, acting in a private capacity, go on a demonstration against the government or the arms trade, and am recognized by someone who knows me through my job.  Would this be regarded as bringing my employer into disrepute?  If my employer were dependent on government funds and good will, or if my employer wanted to make money by hosting a reception for arms traders, I might find myself in a difficult position.  I hope the clause doesn't extend so far.  If it does, it gives government and global corporations a very easy way of stifling dissent.  And it means that an employer can control my free time as well as my working hours.

But what if I wanted to tell the truth about my employer?  There are circumstances in which honesty would be seen as "unprofessional."  So would whistle-blowing, although society as a whole owes a great deal to whistle-blowers who have seen where their wider loyalty lies. 

The best employers I have worked for have encouraged open discussion and haven't been afraid of criticism.  They create an atmosphere in which the workers do their best but know that they aren't perfect.  Anyone who needs help or advice can ask for it.  If a worker sees that something isn't working, that worker is free to say so.  The aim is not to hide behind the mask of professionalism but to do the work as well as possible.

These days, however, the market is more firmly and forcefully present.  Everything seems to be for sale: sport, arts, education, health.  Every public good is forced into competition and instructed to sell itself and explain its value in solely economic terms.  Organisations concerned with sport, arts, education and health are told that their primary aim is to acquire customers, and that the approval of those customers is the means to acquire and retain sponsorship.  Every school and GP's surgery is busy competing with others and every sports team and art gallery spends days and weeks writing funding bids, surveying customer opinion and producing the kind of jargon that will enable them to keep going. 

No-one tells employees to lie but the rhetoric everywhere is about "marketing," "branding," "presentation" and "networking."  Apparently these are key elements of professionalism.  In these panicked times they make employees look inward, focus their attention on the survival of their own jobs, and discourage them from looking at any question larger than the immediate good of their own company or institution.  When the competition is so fierce, there's a danger that the competition will focus only on the first impressions of the "customer," whether a patient, a parent, a pupil, an enthusiast for museums or the local football team.  There's no time to consider the longer term or the good of the "customer" in five or ten years. 

But humans have a tendency to ask questions and make ethical judgements.  I can't stop questioning what my work is for and what its value is, and should be, in society.  These are difficult questions and may produce answers that go against my personal interests and the interests of my employer.  It's a dangerous path.  If I think too much, I may find myself saying something my employer doesn't like.  I could even be accused of damaging my employer's reputation.  Yet I believe in freedom of speech and I believe in speaking the truth.  It's a matter of integrity - and, next to integrity, professionalism looks pretty hollow.

 I hope my employer agrees.

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