June 18, 2013, by ICCSR

Is Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability Practice an Emerging Profession?

I recently moved to the UK after writing my PhD dissertation on the topic of professional ethics (at the University of Toronto). Upon arriving at ICCSR, I was interested to learn that several organizations in the UK (e.g. GACSO and CRG) are considering establishing professional bodies (or institutes) for Corporate Responsibility (CR) and Sustainability practitioners. What could my work on professional ethics bring to this discussion? The first fundamental hurdle to be faced by proponents of professionalization will be to demonstrate that CR and Sustainability practice is worthy of the title “profession.” When we call someone a “professional,” we imply that she is a qualified expert who may be trusted with important matters. Conversely, the label “unprofessional” implies incompetent, even undignified behavior. But although the title “professional” is a weighty, evaluative signifier, there is a fair bit of ambiguity and disagreement over what a “profession” consists of in the first place.

Tracing its origins back to the 13th century, the term “profession” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “declaration, promise or vow made by one entering a religious order,” or “the action of entering such an order.”[1] By the 16th century, the franchise was extended beyond the religious sphere, and the verb “profess” was taken to mean “to declare oneself expert or proficient (in some art or science).”[2] Later on, a profession came to be known as “the occupation which one professes to be skilled in and to follow.”[3] The professionalization movement grew exponentially during the twentieth century, but despite this growth, widespread disagreements persist over the modern definition of “profession.” Specialized technical knowledge, power, autonomy, and educational pre-requisites are some prominent candidates for essential attributes. However, while each of these characteristics explains some set of professional activities well, they have been shown to fall short of explaining other typical professional features and behaviors. A dispute over the nature of professional morality lingers in the background of these definitional debates. While some argue that professions are a locus of morality and altruistic service orientation, others insist that professions constitute a more cynical attempt to rig the market and create cartels that will benefit members of professional associations.

In my research, I propose a minimalist definition of “profession” that is based on the concept of information asymmetries. Consider the patient-physician relationship, for example. The complex nature of medical service tends to prevent the patient from adequately evaluating due diligence and the quality of the care she receives. Due to information asymmetries, the patient may struggle to evaluate the physician’s training and experience, as well as the physician’s incentives to recommend and provide accurate diagnosis and treatment. Patients’ distrust of professional medical services and prospective doctors’ misgivings about professional medical standards can both lead to inefficiencies arising from lost transactions. Thus, in essence, professions are institutional mechanisms that arise in response to a deficit of trust, which is caused by information asymmetries, in the market for professional services. Professional institutional mechanisms, such as educational certification, ethics standards, peer assessment, and complaint investigation, all facilitate the creation of an environment of trust among professionals and their clients. Distinctively, in addition to incentive-based and regulatory responses to information asymmetries, professional associations draw on trust-creating norms, e.g. the ethos of service orientation and codes of ethics.

Is CR and Sustainability practice an emerging profession? According to my approach, the answer is “yes,” since practitioners’ work in NGOs, think-tanks, corporations, and governments is subject to information asymmetries. Despite the broad consensus on the importance of the sustainability agenda in corporate practice and public policy, the information problems surrounding the work of CR practitioners, to some extent, preclude proper evaluation of their expertise, their due diligence, and their relevance. Thus, practitioners may struggle to convince decision-makers in charge of implementing corporate responsibility initiatives to trust their services and to value their advice. The lack of trust surrounding the work of practitioners may in turn dissuade prospective candidates from joining the field. Establishing professional institutions for CR and Sustainability practitioners can be socially beneficial, at minimum, since responding to the prevailing deficit of trust is (Pareto) efficiency improving. The question that needs to be answered by proponents of CR and Sustainability professionalization is as follows: given the nature and purpose of their practice, which of the typical professional institutional mechanisms should be drawn upon, and how, in the process of professionalization? Sample mechanisms include institutional qualifications (educational pre-requisites and experiential requirements in the process of certification and licensing), institutional evaluation (peer-assessment, complaint investigation, and exclusion), and regulations (entry and competition rules, service standards, and ethics codes).

By Sareh Pouryousefi, Research Associate at the ICCSR, Nottingham University Business School

[1] OED, s. v. “profession”

[2] OED s.v. “profess”

[3] OED, s. v. “profession”

Image by Mihail Gikov source: http://vector.me/browse/766132/warning_professionals_only.


Post Script: The Institute for Corporate Social Responsibility (ICRS) has now been established.  For further information visit www.icrs.info

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