Hallmarks of Professionalism

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From the seemingly endless discussions as to what constitutes a profession, four characteristics appear to be indisputable. In seeking professional recognition, aspirants offer a unique knowledge set (often represented by skills) and affirm that it will be used in the public interest (service ideal). The public responds by granting autonomy (self-regulation) to the profession. This exchange leads to an authority situation in which the state or government grants privileges, such as the need for licensing, to the profession. However, government retains the final authority with respect to professional activity and intervenes legislatively or through the legal system to correct neglect and abuse. Thus, a profession's domain must be viewed as a mandate rather than a natural prerogative, for professions can and do lose autonomy and authority where they fail in their responsibility to the public.

Through observation we know that some professions have more status than others. The range is vast, beginning with illegitimate "professions" such as prostitution and thieving, passing through some presently dubious candidates such as management and labor, and moving upward until we reach the zenith professions of medicine, law, and the ministry.

Given that scholars are able to rank professions in very nearly the same order (at least in general categories), it is surprising that the principles of differentiation have not been drawn with greater clarity.

The search for commonalities is elusive. Licensing, for example, does not appear to be a critical variable. Physicians are licensed but so are plumbers. Economists, on the other hand, are not licensed, yet in most quarters are viewed as distinguished professionals, as are sociologists and scientists generally.

Or take codes of ethics. Medicine has a most abbreviated one; accountants have an elaborate one, as do engineers; but other professions have none. Management consultants have developed a rather detailed code of ethics, yet suffer from professional agenesis.

Consider the question of organization. Again, certain prestigious professions have tight organizations (law, medicine, accounting) while others are less structured (architects, engineers, scientists). Labor unions and some other groups with tight organizations do not place high on the professional ladder.

Glossed-over intangibles such as deportment and erudition are more powerful discriminators than the foregoing. Culture, propriety, and even a little detachment go further toward promoting the status of a profession than is admitted to in the literature,

Exclusivity is an important discriminator. By regulating inflow into the profession, membership always appears desirable. Exclusivity serves the additional purpose of maintaining full employment and an income level commensurate with the profession's aspired social status. The volatile nature of careers such as engineering and science in recent years cannot help but lower the perceived social status of these professions.

Attempts to improve status involve changing the public image of the profession. This generally is done in one of two ways: (a) changing the name of the group, or (b) drawing a tighter boundary, such as raising the entrance requirements to those with advanced education. As examples of the former we have seen hospital superintendents transmute into hospital administrators, relief investigators into social workers, newspaper reporters into journalists, undertakers into funeral directors, and garbage collectors into refuse workers. An example of the latter is the attempt to define the boundaries of accounting such that bookkeepers are excluded, or the emerging demand for five years of education as the prerequisite for certification.

Many professionals act as individuals or in small groups in rendering services to the public. Medical and legal practice is essentially in this mode. Some professionals, however, work in large industrial and governmental organizations. Corporate doctors, lawyers, and accountants are cases in point. Then, in some professional organizations such as the major accounting firms, individuality yields to the interests of the firm. Maintaining professionalism within the context of bureaucratic organizations is a matter of concern to sociologists. Professor Sorenson distinguishes between a bureaucratic and professional environment and notes that the behavior in large accounting firms tends toward the bureaucratic rather than the professional. The preservation of professionalism in the large accounting firm is of concern to many thoughtful persons in the profession and, indeed, afflicts all large organizations. Remedies should follow the growing awareness which attends this problem.

The service ideal of most professions is exhibited in the form of a code of ethics. The current code of ethics was approved by a referendum held on November 15, 1972. It represents the latest in a series of codes of ethics which date from 1906 when the by-laws of the American Association of Public Accountants (which was a predecessor organization to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants) were extended to provide for rules of professional conduct.

The principal areas covered by the current rules of conduct are: (a) independence, integrity, and objectivity; (b) competence and technical standards; (c) responsibilities to clients, (d) responsibilities to colleagues, and (e) other responsibilities and practices.

Independence is a cardinal principle in public accounting. As Louis H. Rap-paport observes, "public accountants know that their reputation for independence and integrity is their principal stock in trade and the justification for their existence as a profession. They are impelled by enlightened self-interest, and admonished by rules of ethics and professional conduct to maintain their in-dependence at all costs, since it is obvious as can be that independence is the very foundation of the public accounting profession."

Independence is crucial in that the public accountant occupies a position of trust and mutual confidence which is necessary to the orderly conduct of business relationships, whether they are between management and investors, borrowers and lenders, or purchasers and sellers. As the Executive Committee of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants noted in 1947, "It has become of great value to those who rely on financial statements of business enterprises that they be reviewed by persons skilled in accounting whose judgment is uncolored by any interest in the enterprise, and upon whom the obligation has been imposed to disclose all material facts. With the growth of business enterprises, the public accountant makes a vital contribution in meeting the need for independent, impartial, and expert opinions on the financial position and results of operations. This is his unique contribution, a service for which no one else offers or is qualified to perform."

Allied to the principle of independence is the requirement of competence, i.e., that a CPA should only undertake engagements which he or she is qualified to perform by reason of education or experience. The test of competence is measured by the degree of judgment and skill that would be applied in a given situation by a typical, well-trained accountant.

Most codes of professional conduct distinguish between efferent and afferent ethics. The former prescribes the relationship between the profession and its client, such as confidentiality or service above fees; the latter promotes harmony within the profession by reducing competition and other disruptive behavior. The accountant's code of ethics addresses both areas of concern. Confidentiality with respect to the client's information is the major efferent ethic, while professional courtesy and non-encroachment are the principal factors in terms of responsibilities to colleagues.

Setting accounting standards and policing the code of ethics are functions which vest partially in the public and private sectors under the jurisdiction of these organizations: (a) Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC); (b) American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA); (c) Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB); and (d) Cost Accounting Standards Board (CASB). While a number of other public and private organizations contribute to these matters, we will concentrate attention on the four organizations which assume the essential responsibility for policy and professional affairs.
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