Friday, 5 March 2010

Professionalism ?

I'm getting some grief at work from an obnoxious young wannabe execu-type (who I am supposed to manage) about my 'professional values' - or rather lack of them.

My own work 'values' - for myself and for the people I am responsible for - are pretty simple really:
• Try always to do the best work you can
• Try to get some financial security for the people  you work with
• Try to treat people as you would want to be treated yourself
• And given how much time and effort it takes to do the above - try to have some fun too.

It's not exactly the stuff that will earn me an MBA: If required I'll have as  good a go at spinning the business-speak  as the next man -  but in truth I haven't really got a fucking clue what 'professionalism' really means.

The origins of the idea, and the only use of the concept that really bears scrutiny is the strict one that applies to a code of conduct for job roles in a certain number of middle class service industries that require a particular vocational qualification as a restriction to entry. Originally only  medics and lawyers, although over the years this was extended to include architects, accountants  and certain types of engineer. Nowadays it even includes chartered practitioners in  such dubious fields as 'human resources'.

Historically it is a concept that was born out of an inferiority complex of the middle classes in the early days of capitalism. Only the gentry could claim the social status and legitimacy bestoed by birth into the closed shop of land-ownership. The strictly classical eduction offered by Oxford and Cambridge allowed the younger sons of this class to gain a career in the church but for most of the leisure class  education was a non-essential and amusing diversion. 'Professionalism' gave sections of the middle class a means of attaining an almost equivalent  'honourable' status. 

And even more importantly it allowed them to differentiate themselves from other sections of their own class who engaged in the vulgar pursuits of trade and industry. It also differentiated them from those at the  borders of the middle and working classes - the artisans whose occupations depended on serving apprenticeships that in many cases were no less vigorous than the professionals but who got their hands dirty.

We now live in age where everyone from over-paid footballers to poorly-paid shop-workers are considered/expected to be 'professional'. And so the term has really come to mean nothing more than saying that we work for money  - and that to this end have to feign interest and politeness and hide our true feelings. The cliche that prostitution is the oldest profession is so true - because actually any professionalism invariably involves whoring out our talents and abilities and subordinating a part of ourselves. And I very much include myself in this.

But I am proud to occasionally cut through the bullshit of professionalism and unashamedly cling on to the comforting idea that we are honest artisans. 


Anonymous said...

I think the problem is that 'professionalism' has two contracditory meanings. A lot of people use it in the workplace to describe a pride in doing a good job, and treating others in the workplace, and clients with respect and integrity, the qualifities of craftsmanship which have beeen well known to journeymen like you for generations. Others use it in the bulshit manner you describe. Not suprisingly, the former usage becomes more common the futher down an organisation you go....

journeyman said...

The difference between craftsmanship and professionalism is possibly that we try to do good work out of respect to ourselves rather than to clients. Most of our clients are vacuous marketing types working for big businesses. Taking the piss behind their backs makes the whole thing palatable but it isn't 'professional'.

Anonymous said...

fair point, my comment was based on experience is in the public and advice sectors where clients are real people with real needs not corporate whores! Self respect more often goes hand in hand with respect for the client (and a determination not to turn them into 'customers')j