Professions for Good: Who can you trust?
Summary of Professions for Good’s roundtable series on trust in the professions. A pdf summary of this page is available to download here.
Introduction by Louis Armstrong CBE, Chairman of Professions for Good
Last year Professions for Good decided to explore the role that professional standards and business ethics play in public life via the inaugural Professions for Good Prize. While reviewing the entries, there was one word that came up again and again: trust. Or, to be more specific, the perceived breakdown in trust between members of the public and the business and professional communities in the UK.
To discuss the matter in more detail and, importantly, to explore how we as professions can potentially restore this ‘lost’ trust, we convened a series of roundtables to examine trust in relation to three distinct areas of life: who can you trust as an individual; who can you trust in business; and who can you trust in society/your community? To broaden the debate, and to ensure we gained a perspective on how trustworthy the professionals are from the other side of the table, we extended the invitation to consumer bodies, leaders of academic institutions and public figures, and I am delighted to say that many of them joined us.
This page brings together the main themes and issues covered in the roundtables, which took place between January and February 2013, and includes some thoughts on how the professions, which play such an important role in many key aspects of our lives, can build and retain trust. We will be exploring some of these issues in further detail at a symposium organised by Gresham College on ‘What makes a good professional?’ on Tuesday 23 April, where I anticipate there will be further debate on the topic.
My thanks to the AAT, ICAEW and ACCA for kindly hosting our three events and to all our members who contributed their thoughts to the discussions.
Louis Armstrong CBE
15 April 2013
Professionals gain their status via professional qualifications and accreditations, but it takes more than initials after their name or a certificate to install trust in their abilities amongst the general public. Whatever area they are advising on, whether it be a lawyer providing legal advice; a surveyor involved in a property purchase, or an accountant imparting their financial wisdom, the individuals we are inclined to trust tend to share the same characteristics. They are:
- Transparent about their motivation: we trust the advice of those we consider to be independent, with no vested interest in a particular outcome and a ‘benevolence of purpose’. For professionals operating in the public sector, the motivation behind reaching a decision is normally clear to all to see, recorded in public reports or accessible via Freedom of Information requests. To the general public, the motivations of professionals operating in the private sector are sometimes perceived to be more opaque, although it is important to remember that whether public or private, all true professionals subscribe to the defining principal that they are required to give their best advice, regardless of what people want to hear.
- Transparent and inclusive about their thought process: trust is instilled in those who are not just open and transparent about their motivation but also their process. Professionals are trained to deal with hugely complex issues, and people often do not understand how they have arrived at an outcome, leading to the perception that sometimes decisions have been reached arbitrarily. This is a communications’ challenge the professions need to overcome: by their nature the professions may not be inclusive, but they do have a responsibility to be inclusive not in the way they operate, but in explaining what they do.
- Close to us: we trust those who are accessible and visible to us. We build trust with people. Those individuals we make direct contact with are likely to be trusted more than the institutions they are a part of, for example, people may trust their MP, but do not trust Parliament, or trust their local doctor, but don’t trust the NHS. According to a recent YouGov poll, family doctors, school teachers and local police officers are those most trusted to tell the truth by the general public.
- Have a positive track-record: a proven track-record of putting the public interest above self-interest through carrying out pro-bono work helps to instil trust that a professional is looking out for the ‘greater good’.
What are the challenges to professional trust?
- Modern technology: anyone can access an opinion on any subject, anywhere at any time, thanks to the proliferation of online forums and communities. Whilst the values of openness and responsiveness that this encourages are generally positive for society, to some extent they have led to a weakening in trust in the professions. This is due to two factors: firstly, those who have been on the receiving end of a professional judgment which they personally disagree with now have an open forum in which to air their dissatisfaction. Secondly, with instant access to a range of other ‘experts’, people do not understand the training and experience that has gone into it a professional opinion and do not value it perhaps as highly as they should.
- The increasing divide between expectation and delivery: the public’s expectations of institutions and professionals have never been higher, but in a world where resources are stretched, particularly in the public sector, perceived delivery is low. This disconnect, or misunderstanding, between what can actually be achieved, and what people think should or want to happen, is damaging to the trust between government and society, and potentially also professionals.
- High profile lapses in trust: when professionals or other well-known individuals in the business community fail to live up to the highest ethical and moral standards it can lead to the man in the street losing trust in many or all who operate in the same arena. However, we should take heart that these individuals are few and far between and, importantly, that those who do abuse the trust placed in them are generally publically shamed and, where appropriate, prosecuted. The fact that society does get outraged at breaches in trust shows that a strong level of trust does exist in British society. This is illustrated by the fact that only 18 High Court judges in the Chancery Division are required to oversee the 67m population of the UK.
What are the consequences of a loss in trust?
- Reputation damage associated with untrustworthy behaviour: there are very few places to hide for organisations that indulge in poor behaviour and lose public trust. The reputational cost of a breach in trust, and the potential damage to the bottom line, can be catastrophic.
- The impact on UK PLC: the UK’s professional community and standards are admired around the world and attract global institutions to the UK. A fundamental loss of trust in the professions would have a major impact on the UK’s reputation as a leading centre for global business, and by extension the economy.
How do you strengthen trust, or rebuild it when it is lost?
- Firstly, if mistakes have been made, own up to them and take responsibility: in general, the public is more forgiving of organisations and professionals which are willing to say that they got it wrong. In fact, taking responsibility, followed by taking visible pro-active steps to remedy the situation, can actually lead to the public eventually having greater trust in an organisation than before.
- Change needs to come from the top: CEOs and MDs need to lead a culture which rewards the highest standards of integrity and ethical behavior which in turn build trust. This needs to go beyond the bare minimums of what is required by legislation to consider true best practice, and be done in collaboration with the workforce so they understand and can embody the values and cultural change.
- Change focus: as a country we tend to be driven by the ‘bottom line’ and ignore bad behavior unless there is a commercial impact or the threat of sanction. Is it possible to change the reward structure in society to recognise good, trustworthy ethical behaviour taken for the greater good, and penalise those who place self-interest over the public interest?
- Educate young people: with the extra transparency the internet has brought, people come into contact with others’ views and breaches of trust more often and at an earlier age. Talking about ‘ethics’ and ‘trust’ as conceptual ideas isn’t interesting to most, but talking about how they apply to young peoples’ lives helps them understand them a lot better. Engaging with young people and building trust is crucial so we have the next generation of professionals already ingrained with the values needed to ensure the professions continue to behave to the highest standards.
Would a code of ethics/regulation across the professions help instil more trust?
- The vast majority of professional organisations already have mandatory units on ethical behaviour as part of achieving professional qualification, and Codes of Ethics which sit within the framework of existing regulation.
- Major lapses in trust are few and far between and further regulation is not required at this stage: what would be more effective than regulation would be to put the issue front and centre in UK boardrooms and lead from the top (see above) to ensure that these codes are embedded in every level of an organisation.
Can trust be turned into a competitive advantage?
- In a perfect world, organisations and professionals will want to be regarded as trustworthy as an end in itself, but if this isn’t enough, can trust be turned to competitive advantage? For example, should public sector procurement consider a suppliers’ ethical standing? Most tender based on quality, price, and technical ability. Should we as a society add trust to the mix? Giving trust a commercial value may convince some to give it more attention than they currently do.
- Commercialism is not divorced from ethical or trustworthy behaviour: sustainable commercial performance is often better in companies which personify the highest values, as they are less likely to suddenly face sudden lapses in trust and threats to their reputations. Clients are also more likely to stay with you, as they recognise professionals are doing the best for their clients, rather than themselves.
To build and retain trust in professionals and professional organisations, the following values are crucial:
- Increase transparency and accountability in the decision making process, and communicating this effectively to the general public;
- Take leadership responsibility when mistakes happen and involve all staff in the necessary cultural shift;
- Promote the public interest role of the professions and change the reward-culture in society to acknowledge best practice and the highest ethical standards;
- Educate young people about the true role of trust and professional ethics so they are aware of their importance and can form the next generation of professionals.
Thought leadership by members of Professions for Good on professionalism and professional ethics:
- ACCA: ‘What does value and professionalism mean?’
- CII: Formal submission to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (discusses the importance of professionalism, standards and ethics within the financial services and insurance industries)
- CII: ‘Pro bono as a hallmark of professionalism’
- CII: ‘Culture and ethics’
- CII: ‘Getting professional about ethics’
- CII: ‘Professionalism for the 21st Century – Revisited’
- ICAEW: ‘Real Integrity: practical solutions for organisations seeking to promote and encourage integrity’
- RICS: ‘A vision for sustainability’ – pages 16-18 on professional ethics
The Law Society has published its thoughts on equality, diversity and social mobility in a discussion document, available for download here. Jump to page 32 to view their summary of the issues faced by the industry and their recommendations for further action.