Simon HoyleIt doesn’t matter how much I might pretend, I cannot in good conscience describe myself as a professional. And before you jump to a conclusion as to why that’s the case, let me explain that it’s got nothing at all to do with my conduct as an individual, but merely reflects the fact that the industry in which I’m employed is not a profession. Journalism may have pretences to being a profession and journalists may have delusions of being professional but the industry just doesn’t have the right structure.

For a start, there are no minimum educational qualifications needed to start working in the industry.

There’s no real disciplinary process – if I stuff up, it’s entirely at the discretion of my employer as to whether I keep my job or not.
There’s a code of ethics – but there’s no clear consequence for breaching that code. There’s no formal requirement for ongoing
training or development. I might personally conduct myself with integrity, with care and with diligence. But that’s not enough.

I might honour requests for anonymity – and be prepared to protect the identity of a source in the face of potential contempt of court charges and a jail sentence. But that’s not enough.

I might report with the utmost accuracy, clarity and faith every quote and piece of information I’m given. And the people I write about might even respect me. But that’s not enough, either.

Journalism isn’t structured as a profession, and therefore I cannot describe myself as a professional – regardless of how I conduct myself as an individual. And in any case, the word is bandied around a bit too freely these days.

The teams battling it out in The Ashes at the moment would describe themselves as professionals. But since when has cricket been a profession? In a sporting context, “professional” is likely to mean that an individual gets paid to play, or that they earn an income exclusively from playing a particular sport. We don’t need to look very far to find examples of individuals’ conduct that are a long, long way from “professional”, yet the label is still used.

The plumber who comes to fix my taps and leaky pipes describes himself as a professional. He turns up when he says he will, does a first rate job, tidies up after himself, gives a quote or an estimate before he starts, explains all the costs (breaks them down into parts and labour), and provides a guarantee on the work he does.

But plumbing isn’t a profession – it’s a trade. And he’s more likely to spend his spare time at the pub than with his nose buried in a textbook or sitting in a seminar learning about the latest developments in tap washers. So when we talk about professionalism in fiancial planning let us be clear what we mean, and what we are aiming for.

When we talk about “professionalism”, we are not necessarily talking about the integrity, quality, class or ethics of individual planners. We’re really talking about a much bigger issue: the structure of the industry itself, its place in Australian society, how it governs itself and how regulators and the public perceive it.

In a recent posting on the Professional Planner website, a reader referred to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) definition of “profession”.

The ACCC says that “while there is no agreed definition of a profession, the ACCC has adopted the definition proposed by the Australian Council of Professions”.

The Professions Australia website defines a profession as “a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards and who hold themselves out as, and are accepted by the public as, possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education and training at a high level, and who are prepared to apply this knowledge and exercise these skills in the interest of others”.

It adds:“It is inherent in the definition of a profession that a code of ethics governs the activities of each profession. Such codes require behaviour and practice beyond the personal moral obligations of an individual. They define and demand high standards of behaviour in respect to the services provided
to the public and in dealing with professional colleagues. Further, these codes are enforced by the profession and are acknowledged and accepted by the community.” (Emphasis added.)

This definition was adopted by Professions Australia in 1997 – so it’s not like it’s something new. It’s a definition against which any occupation can be compared to assess its structure and status.

The debate about professionalism in financial planning has understandably annoyed and insulted a number of individual planners, who take criticism of the industry in which they operate as direct personal criticism.

It’s not that at all except in cases where an individual is clearly and undeniably shonky, and criticism is therefore warranted.

But to question the professionalism of an industry is not the same as to question the personal morals and ethics of the people engaged in it.

The debate about professionalism should be seen as being about the structure of the industry, about relationships that exist between different parties in the industry, and about how the industry interacts with society.

The challenge for everyone involved is to engage in the debate on that level, and not to take it personally.

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