December, 2003
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

What Makes a Business a Profession?


Comic Rodney Dangerfield’s trademark expression is “I don’t get no respect.” The same complaint is often uttered, perhaps more grammatically, by many licensed professionals.  Real estate agents, surveyors, home inspectors – voice their concerns that the public doesn’t treat them with the consideration and deference often afforded other business people. They question why they aren’t treated like doctors, teachers, and engineers who fare much better in public polls.

There are certainly plenty of reasons why some businesses are not respected or who are, at the very least, considered “respect-challenged.” The annual results of Gallup Polls on honesty and integrity suggest that salaried individuals (nurses, teachers) are thought of more highly than those who earn commissions and continency fees (sales people, attorneys). Individuals who have greater formal education (doctors, clergy) tend to be more respected more than those who aren’t as well educated (labor union leaders, building contractors).  People who are in the caring professions (pharmacists, funeral directors) do better on these polls than those who are in the business professions (stockbrokers, advertising practitioners).

Many industries work very hard at creating a positive public relations image for their members. Witness the recent efforts by accounting companies to tout their firm’s ethics.  Notice the securities industry lobbying for stricter disclosure laws. Collectively, real estate agents spend millions of dollars letting the public know how hard they work. All of these licensed industries try very hard to characterize their businesses as professions.

Actually, any group that can distinguish itself by virtue of a distinct task or tools may call itself a profession. However, the true characteristics of a profession are the ethical conditions of the group, rather than its techniques or tools. While many disagree about the meaning of the term profession, most agree on the following characteristics:

• a clearly defined field of expertise that distinguishes it from others

• a period of education or training prior to membership

• a procedure for testing, licensing, and re-licensing generally approved by a state agency under guidance from the profession itself

• a dedication to meeting obligations to society and an emphasis on service over income and wealth as a primary motivator

• a provision for free services for those who cannot afford them

• the application of a sliding scale of fees according to circumstances or ability to pay

• a set of self-governing rules that instill a code of ethics regarding relationship among members and toward society

• a means of self-governance, including the application of penalties for inappropriate
behavior or negligence

It would be difficult to argue that any group – doctors, attorneys, plumbers, teachers – can meet all of these criteria. Nevertheless, it can also be argued that all state-licensed industries provide special services at a high level of skills and expertise as well as meet many other guidelines that define a professional. What is arguable is whether licensees can self-govern and police their ethical conduct. Let’s face it: if licensees could govern themselves, state legislatures would not have had to create regulatory licensing laws.

This problem of self-governance is ultimately why licensees “get no respect.” The late senator Patrick Moynihan once said in reference to the demands placed on professional that “[they] need to say ‘no’ to requests that will make life worse.

Saying no is what makes a profession a profession. That’s how you can tell the difference between a market-driven business and a profession; a profession can say no to things that it knows it shouldn’t do.” Unfortunately, we have had too many examples in recent years, of professionals and corporate and government leaders saying “yes” when they should have said “no.”

Ultimately, being a professional and getting the respect one deserves is not about compensation or how it’s earned; it’s not about the years of formal education; and it’s not about being in the medical field or on Wall Street. As James Baldwin said,
“The price one pays for pursuing any profession, or calling, is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.” True professionals recognize that every business has its ethical quagmires, that every day can be filled with moral land mines, that the very tasks for which they demonstrate expertise can be done incompetently without bringing much notice or suspicion. It is resisting those temptations and saying ‘no’ to the easy answers that gets the public’s respect.

Copyright July 2003, Deborah H. Long. Reprinted with permission.

Deborah H. Long is a licensed real estate instructor in North and South Carolina, Missouri, Indiana, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Illinois, Maine, Alaska, and Kentucky. She teaches licensing courses as well as specialty programs on ethics, cultural diversity, brokerage management, and Internet research skills for real estate agents, appraisers, surveyers, interior designers and architects, state regulators, engineers, and other licensed professionals.