What Does It Mean to be a Professional?

Dr. William Marcy, PE,Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas, USA

Key Questions: Professionalism and Ethics

  • What does it mean to be a professional?
  • What does ethics have to do with professionalism?
  • What are the elements of a code of ethics?
  • What does ethics have to do with the responsible conduct of research?

What does it mean to be a professional?

  • A professional is a person with demonstrated expertise in the art and science of applying the principles of a specialized area of knowledge to the benefit of society.
  • The term usually applies to fields that have established rigorous educational requirements, codes of ethics and in many cases professional licenses to practice a profession (engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc.)

The professional has a wide range of responsibilities in four primary areas:

  • To society
  • To clients
  • To employers
  • To his/her professional colleagues and fellow professionals

Beyond this the professional

  • establishes the highest possible technical standards.
  • is accountable for the work they perform or produce.
  • will not undertake work outside their area of expertise.
  • constantly seeks opportunities to improve their skills.
  • exhibits high ethical standards which go far beyond honesty and integrity.

Codes of Ethics

  • Many professions adopt a code of ethics, defining ethical standards for professional practice.
  • Professional codes of ethics tell the public, their clients, and their peers that their behavior conforms to specific guidelines for professional behavior.

An Example of a Professional Code of Ethics for Engineers (United States)

Web Link: NSPE Code of Ethics

I. National Society of Professional Engineers Code of Ethics (United States) Cannons

  • Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public. 
  • Perform services only in areas of their competence.
  • Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
  • Act for each employer or client as faithful agent or trustee.
  • Avoid deceptive acts.
  • Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.

II. Rules of Practice

1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

  • If an engineers' judgment is overruled under circumstances that endanger life or property, they shall notify their employer or client and such other authority as may be appropriate. 
  • Engineers shall approve only those engineering documents that are in conformity with applicable standards. 
  • Engineers shall not reveal facts, data, or information without the prior consent of the client or employer except as authorized or required by law or this Code. 
  • Engineers shall not permit the use of their name or associate in business ventures with any person or firm that they believe is engaged in fraudulent or dishonest enterprise. 
  • Engineers shall not aid or abet the unlawful practice of engineering by a person or firm. 
  • Engineers having knowledge of any alleged violation of this Code shall report thereon to appropriate professional bodies and, when relevant, also to public authorities, and cooperate with the proper authorities in furnishing such information or assistance as may be required.

2. Engineers shall perform services only in the areas of their competence.

  • Engineers shall undertake assignments only when qualified by education or experience in the specific technical fields involved.
  • Engineers shall not affix their signatures to any plans or documents dealing with subject matter in which they lack competence, nor to any plan or document not prepared under their direction and control.
  • Engineers may accept assignments and assume responsibility for coordination of an entire project and sign and seal the engineering documents for the entire project, provided that each technical segment is signed and sealed only by the qualified engineers who prepared the segment.

3. Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.

  • Engineers shall be objective and truthful in professional reports, statements, or testimony. They shall include all relevant and pertinent information in such reports, statements, or testimony, which should bear the date indicating when it was current.
  • Engineers may express publicly technical opinions that are founded upon knowledge of the facts and competence in the subject matter. 
  • Engineers shall issue no statements, criticisms, or arguments on technical matters that are inspired or paid for by interested parties, unless they have prefaced their comments by explicitly identifying the interested parties on whose behalf they are speaking, and by revealing the existence of any interest the engineers may have in the matters.

4. Engineers shall act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.

  • Engineers shall disclose all known or potential conflicts of interest that could influence or appear to influence their judgment or the quality of their services. 
  • Engineers shall not accept compensation, financial or otherwise, from more than one party for services on the same project, or for services pertaining to the same project, unless the circumstances are fully disclosed and agreed to by all interested parties.
  • Engineers shall not solicit or accept financial or other valuable consideration, directly or indirectly, from outside agents in connection with the work for which they are responsible.
  • Engineers in public service as members, advisors, or employees of a governmental or quasi-governmental body or department shall not participate in decisions with respect to services solicited or provided by them or their organizations in private or public engineering practice.
  • Engineers shall not solicit or accept a contract from a governmental body on which a principal or officer of their organization serves as a member.

5. Engineers shall avoid deceptive acts.

  • Engineers shall not falsify their qualifications or permit misrepresentation of their or their associates' qualifications. They shall not misrepresent or exaggerate their responsibility in or for the subject matter of prior assignments. Brochures or other presentations incident to the solicitation of employment shall not misrepresent pertinent facts concerning employers, employees, associates, joint ventures, or past accomplishments. 
  • Engineers shall not offer, give, solicit, or receive, either directly or indirectly, any contribution to influence the award of a contract by public authority, or which may be reasonably construed by the public as having the effect or intent of influencing the awarding of a contract. They shall not offer any gift or other valuable consideration in order to secure work. They shall not pay a commission, percentage, or brokerage fee in order to secure work, except to a bona fide employee or bona fide established commercial or marketing agencies retained by them.

III. Professional Obligations

1. Engineers shall be guided in all their relations by the highest standards of honesty and integrity.

  • Engineers shall acknowledge their errors and shall not distort or alter the facts.
  • Engineers shall advise their clients or employers when they believe a project will not be successful.
  • Engineers shall not accept outside employment to the detriment of their regular work or interest.
  • Before accepting any outside engineering employment, they will notify their employers.
  • Engineers shall not attempt to attract an engineer from another employer by false or misleading pretenses.
  • Engineers shall not promote their own interest at the expense of the dignity and integrity of the profession.

2. Engineers shall at all times strive to serve the public interest.

  • Engineers are encouraged to participate in civic affairs; career guidance for youths; and work for the advancement of the safety, health, and well-being of their community.
  • Engineers shall not complete, sign, or seal plans and/or specifications that are not in conformity with applicable engineering standards. If the client or employer insists on such unprofessional conduct, they shall notify the proper authorities and withdraw from further service on the project.
  • Engineers are encouraged to extend public knowledge and appreciation of engineering and its achievements.
  • Engineers are encouraged to adhere to the principles of sustainable development1 in order to protect the environment for future generations. 

3. Engineers shall avoid all conduct or practice that deceives the public.

  • Engineers shall avoid the use of statements containing a material misrepresentation of fact or omitting a material fact.
  • Consistent with the foregoing, engineers may advertise for recruitment of personnel.
  • Consistent with the foregoing, engineers may prepare articles for the lay or technical press, but such articles shall not imply credit to the author for work performed by others. 

4. Engineers shall not disclose, without consent, confidential information concerning the businessaffairs or technical processes of any present or former client or employer, or public body on which they serve.

  • Engineers shall not, without the consent of all interested parties, promote or arrange for new employment or practice in connection with a specific project for which the engineer has gained particular and specialized knowledge.
  • Engineers shall not, without the consent of all interested parties, participate in or represent an adversary interest in connection with a specific project or proceeding in which the engineer has gained particular specialized knowledge on behalf of a former client or employer.

5. Engineers shall not be influenced in their professional duties by conflicting interests.

  • Engineers shall not accept financial or other considerations, including free engineering designs, from material or equipment suppliers for specifying their product.
  • Engineers shall not accept commissions or allowances, directly or indirectly, from contractors or other parties dealing with clients or employers of the engineer in connection with work for which the engineer is responsible.

6. Engineers shall not attempt to obtain employment or advancement or professional engagements by untruthfully criticizing other engineers, or by other improper or questionable  methods.

  • Engineers shall not request, propose, or accept a commission on a contingent basis under circumstances in which their judgment may be compromised.
  • Engineers in salaried positions shall accept part-time engineering work only to the extent consistent with policies of the employer and in accordance with ethical considerations.
  • Engineers shall not, without consent, use equipment, supplies, laboratory, or office facilities of an employer to carry on outside private practice.

7. Engineers shall not attempt to injure, maliciously or falsely, directly or indirectly, the professional reputation, prospects, practice, or employment of other engineers.

  • Engineers who believe others are guilty of unethical or illegal practice shall present such information to the proper authority for action.
  • Engineers in private practice shall not review the work of another engineer for the same client, except with the knowledge of such engineer, or unless the connection of such engineer with the work has been terminated.
  • Engineers in governmental, industrial, or educational employ are entitled to review and evaluate the work of other engineers when so required by their employment duties.
  • Engineers in sales or industrial employment are entitled to make engineering comparisons of represented products with products of other suppliers.

8. Engineers shall accept personal responsibility for their professional activities, provided, however, that engineers may seek indemnification for services arising out of their practice for other than gross negligence, where the engineer's interests cannot otherwise be protected.

  • Engineers shall conform with state registration laws in the practice of engineering.
  • Engineers shall not use association with a non-engineer, a corporation, or partnership as a "cloak" for unethical acts.
  • Engineers shall conform with state registration laws in the practice of engineering.
  • Engineers shall not use association with a non-engineer, a corporation, or partnership as a "cloak" for unethical acts.

9. Engineers shall give credit for engineering work to those to whom credit is due, and will recognize the proprietary interests of others.

  • Engineers shall, whenever possible, name the person or persons who may be individually responsible for designs, inventions, writings, or other accomplishments.
  • Engineers using designs supplied by a client recognize that the designs remain the property of the client and may not be duplicated by the engineer for others without express permission. 
  • Engineers, before undertaking work for others in connection with which the engineer may make improvements, plans, designs, inventions, or other records that may justify copyrights or patents, should enter into a positive agreement regarding ownership.
  • Engineers' designs, data, records, and notes referring exclusively to an employer's work are the employer's property.The employer should indemnify the engineer for use of the information for any purpose other than the original purpose.
  • Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers and should keep current in their specialty fields by engaging in professional practice, participating in continuing education courses, reading in the technical literature, and attending professional meetings and seminars.

A great book to read

Why Things Bite Back by Ed Tenner, (1997 Vintage Books)

Book Review: In this perceptive and provocative look at everything from computer software that requires faster processors and more support staff to antibiotics that breed resistant strains of bacteria, Edward Tenner offers a virtual encyclopedia of what he calls "revenge effects"--the unintended consequences of the mechanical, chemical, biological, and medical forms of ingenuity that have been hallmarks of the progressive, improvement-obsessed modern age. Tenner shows why our confidence in technological solutions may be misplaced, and explores ways in which we can better survive in a world where despite technology's advances--and often because of them--"reality is always gaining on us." For anyone hoping to understand the ways in which society and technology interact, Why Things Bite Back is indispensable reading. "A bracing critique of technological determinism in both its utopian and dystopian forms...No one who wants to think clearly about our high-tech future can afford to ignore this book."--Jackson Lears, Wilson


Your reflective comments are invited on some or all of the following. As part of your analysis include information as appropriate on the stakeholders and how they are impacted both positively and negatively.

  1. What knowledge and skills are needed to implement sophisticated, appropriate and workable solutions to the complex global problems facing the world today?
  2. What interdisciplinary perspectives would help identify innovative and non-obvious solutions?
  3. What insights can you articulate, based your culture and other cultures with which you are familiar, to help understand your worldview and enable greater civic engagement?
  4. What is your position on the right thing(s) to do?
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  • Despite using the engineers code of ethics as an example, the article actually describes what should be invariable truths around professional ethics, regardless of area of expertise. If we were to elevate this set of rules and apply it to all professionals, we could bring commonality and harmony between professions; and by applying them, we could as a collective human race solve major world issues that require inter-disciplinary collaboration, truth and transparency.

    Climate change mitigation is a prime example of this: from the discourse on the topic over the past decade, we can already distinguish between topics ranging from sustainable finance, climate science, agriculture and farming to transportation. While these are all areas that require different set of technical skills, collaboration between experts in these fields seem critical to solving this complex world problem - one that cannot be achieved without a strong and universal code of ethics.

    Collaboration between groups of people does bring a challenge which could disrupt the implementation of globally recognized code of ethics - culture. Culture has an effect on experiences of reality, time, and our perceptions of right and wrong. Using an example from the article, we can see how performing services only in the area of one's own competence can leave a lot of room for interpretation from different cultures; at one extreme, those that prioritize serving other people (i.e. collectivist cultures where competence loses importance), and at the other extreme, cultures that value the self (i.e. individualistic cultures, where competence is narrowly defined).

    Taking into consideration all of the above, my position on the right thing to do is that there is no right or wrong - it is what we collectively agree on as a human race, organization, country or culture. Much like the association of engineers in this article, it is about coming together and brainstorming on a mutually acceptable set of principles.
  • The article shows us who is a professional, what does it mean to be professional and some codes of ethics. I found this article useful as it tells some key points you need to have if you want to be a professional. You need to work hard for it. Many people have different ideas of who is professional but this article sheds some light on this question.
    The main point is being well-educated in a specialized sphere of knowledge. It goes without saying that true professional should be up-to-date with his knowledge and skills in order to provide high-quality work. I believe that professionalism should be the main goal to achieve in any life sphere as professionals provide best quality work.
    Part about Code of Ethics not only motivate to become professional but also tell what to do to become him. I believe that if people follow these codes, they will develop themselves. And no matter where do they work, they will not only improve their work quality but they will find new customers due to ethical behaviour.
    In conclusion, I want to say that professionalism and Codes of Ethics are connected. We better establish them for all professions in order to have more professionals and to develop our cities, countries and ourselves.
  • In oder to article, acting like a professional means working and behaving in such a way that others think of them as competent, reliable and respectful. Professionals are a credit not only to themselves, but also to others.

    So after reading the article I have determined some key attributes if you strive to work and act professionally.
    First of all, accountancy professionals are known for their specialised knowledge and skills backed up by their accountancy qualification. It is expected and required that they will keep this knowledge and skills up-to-date throughout their careers so that they can always deliver work of the highest quality, in accordance with accounting standards and relevant laws and regulations.

    True professionals plan in advance and never turn up to client meetings unprepared. They honour their commitments and can be relied upon to always get the job done – they deliver what they said they would deliver, and on time. But if things are not going exactly to plan, they do not look for excuses but do their best to put tasks and projects back on track. If mistakes are made, they accept responsibility for the part they played.
    Personal accountability is closely linked to honesty and integrity, another two tenets of professionalism. Professionals always tell the truth and never compromise their values. They will do the right thing at all times and in all circumstances, even if it means others will disagree or disapprove.
    At work, professionals keep calm under pressure no matter what, even though they might act differently if faced with a similar situation in their personal lives.

    Treating all people with respect and kindness is part and parcel of being professional. This includes people junior to you and those in support roles, as well as people you dislike. Sometimes you will have to work with colleagues you just do not get on with or who are not very nice. Remain professional by always being polite to everyone you come into contact with, no matter what their role is and no matter what you think of them.

    To conclude, I'd like to say it is vital to establish ethics codes for any profession to better our social consciousness and the world in general because a lot of things can change if we endeavour to change at least little points.
  • After reading your article, I was even more interested in the topic of ethical considerations by any professional in his field. Talking about such important issues as what is the concept of professionalism and what points experts should strictly observe following the code of ethics, I can assume this article showed quite well all the essences that should be paid attention to.

    Responding to your key question about the necessary skills to implement complex global problems, I desperately hope for a multitude of professionals in their field. These are the people that every country and the world needs. I consider professionalism as the highest and at the same time the very first point that must be achieved in any activity.
    And it is professionalism that includes all the skills and knowledge with which we must overcome most of the pressing problems of our society. With a little experience, I can already identify how these problems can arise.
    For example, my country, Ukraine, suffers from a lack of professionalism. I cannot say about each of us, but the question remains straightforward because we did not fully observe ethical codes in our country. This applies both to our political activities, the field of research and engineering, and the daily life of every citizen.

    I also fully support the points described above in the ethical code, since only with such motivation can we achieve success. I must admit that many individuals are not even aware of the existence of such ethical codes in every area of our society. But I believe that ignorance does not absolve responsibility and every honest person will still rely on their pure considerations.
    Remembering my experience in solving ethical problems that arose in educational institutions, I can conclude that people should try more to understand others.
    I turned to the book that you recommended and became even more convinced that efficiency is not a full-fledged key to development. History has proven many times that methods applied without regard for morally right measures were doomed to failure. And therefore, the ethical codes should be observed regardless of the emerging emergencies and, on the contrary, appeal to him with help.

    And my idea regarding the engineering ethical code, that despite ignorance, with unreliable awareness, you need to follow your only moral goals and developments. And to avoid unnecessary sacrifices, it is necessary to disseminate information about the ethical principals in every area of our world.
  • First of all,I want to say that this article is really great.It reflects an important issue of professionalism. Everyone knows this word,but a lot of people don't understand what professionalism consists of. It is not only to be smart in such fields, it also denotes to be ethical , how to behave with society,employers,clients.Moreover,people should know their rights and duties to be professional. I also liked that there is a Professional Code of Ethics for each job. I quess that such points,that were mentioned in article as hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public; perform services only in areas of their competence and avoid deceptive acts apply to all professions,they are the most important. To my mind, if all of us follow these codes, our country will definitely be developed because everything starts small and then becomes bigger. As a matter of fact, a company, an industry or any others organisations will increase the number of customers thanks to their ethical behaviour and high quality work. It is extremely important to inform government if there are some falsifications or someone wants to offer, give, solicit, or receive, either directly or indirectly, any contribution to influence the award of a contract by public authority. Unfortunately, this problem is very popular in our country nowadays. It means that there are a lot of unethical employers. They don’t want to improve themselves as professionals. So,It is a brilliant idea to form such codes at the legislative level. But whose responsibility it is? I think it should be a person,who is aware of features of all kinds of work. People should be punished if they ignore these rules. The government in it’s order has to control people.
  • The article deals with defining and explaining such concepts as professionalism, a professional, their responsibilities and a code of ethics for a professional. Truth be told, all these issues are quite challenging to be discussed.
    Professionals (in this case engineers) and all other parties connected with them could be regarded as the stakeholders in this particular situation.
    To implement reasonable solutions to this issue, all professions should be provided with a code of ethics for professionals. Therefore, every person doing any profession could know what a professional is and what to strive for. As a matter of fact, we need anyone who could create and elaborate a code of ethics for professionals in different spheres. The creator/the developer should be quite knowledgeable and should be able to analyse the current codes of ethics which can be used as a basis for future codes.

    According to the article, the professional has a great number of responsibilities in four main areas such as society, clients, employers and their professional colleagues and fellow professionals. So, professionalism is a very broad and versatile concept. Due to that fact, since we look at this issue from interdisciplinary perspectives, we can better understand it. Identifying innovative and non-obvious solutions requires some background knowledge. In addition to that, this issue should be viewed from other perspectives such as law, philosophy, social studies and in some particular cases even culture. Interconnection of these spheres may contribute to working towards solutions to this problem as well.

    Taking my experience into account, I can claim that different people will interpret such concepts as "professionalism" and "professional" quite differently due to their cultural backgrounds. As a Ukrainian, I can say that some people used to falsify their qualifications to get a better position. Nowadays the situation is changing, however, some people still tend to give bribes or artificially enhance their qualifications. I believe that this is not ethical at all and neither those who give a bribe and falsify their qualifications nor those who are given a bribe can be regarded as professionals. With the reference to the article mentioning that professionals should serve the public interest, I cannot but claim that for instance some lawyers/doctors/politicians in Ukraine do not strive for the benefit to society. Therefore, they are unlikely to be professionals.

    From my perspective, I can say that if anybody wants to be a professional, they should take a lot of things into account. I agree with the article saying that being a professional involves not just being competent and knowledgeable but also being confidential and objective. Judging from this code of ethics for engineers, I can say that such codes are perfect guidelines as they give us an idea of what a real professional should be.
  • I really like this article because it contains very important information that everyone should read. Today the topic of professionalism and ethics is relevant and should be discussed in all countries. The article succinctly identifies the general concepts and responsibilities of a professional. Moreover, the code of ethics for engineers has been published, so it gives a better understanding of this issue.
    A professional is a member of a profession or any person who earns a living from a specified professional activity. The term also describes the standards of education and training that prepare members of the profession with the particular knowledge and skills necessary to perform their specific role within that profession. In addition, most professionals are subject to strict codes of conduct, enshrining rigorous ethical and moral obligations. Professional standards of practice and ethics for a particular field are typically agreed upon and maintained through widely recognized professional associations, such as the IEEE. (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Some definitions of "professional" limit this term to those professions that serve some important aspect of public interest and the general good of society. Accordingly, I believe that creating codes of ethics for professionals in various fields will help to establish trusting relationships between clients, colleagues, society and employers. Such codes outlines the standards that you must work according to, what is expected of you as a registered professional by colleagues, employers and members of the public and what your professional responsibilities and accountabilities are. You may sometimes be faced with situations which require you to challenge the actions of colleagues, or which require you to challenge and question things that they are asking you to do if you feel that these things are unsafe or are not in the best interests of the patient or organisation. To most people, acting like a professional means working and behaving in such a way that others think of them as competent, reliable and respectful. Professionals are a credit not only to themselves, but also to others.
    Professional codes of conduct provide benefits to: the public, as they build confidence in the profession’s trustworthiness; clients, as they provide greater transparency and certainty about how their affairs will be handled; members of the profession, as they provide a supporting framework for resisting pressure to act inappropriately, and for making acceptable decisions in what may be ‘grey areas’; the profession as a whole, as they provide a common understanding of acceptable practice which builds collegiality and allows for fairer disciplinary procedures; others dealing with the profession, as the profession will be seen as more reliable and easier to deal with.
    To conclude, the intention of codes of conduct is to provide guidelines for the minimum standard of appropriate behaviour in a professional context. Codes of conduct sit alongside the general law of the land and the personal values of members of the profession.
  • Briefly speaking, I strongly support all these points which were mentioned above. What is more, the fact of absence of the papers, which can regulate and designate all professions and issues related to them really fascinate me. Following all the statements you can not only do your work honestly and without any violation of the law but also succeed in appropriate sphere. Being aware of codes that have to be followed by you as someone, who is accounted for all pieces of work, will definitely improve the quality of your primary products. There is no doubt that these codes of ethics were created to make us gaine a powerful quality in some certain field -professionalism. As it was mentioned in this article, a professional, in this case engineer, has to achieve high standards not only visibly, but also “behind the scene”. They always have to do decision-making in favour of benefits for society and avoid all conduct or practice that deceives the public. Additionally, having taken into account the specificity of our mentality, the regulation about accepting financial or other considerations is crucial in such case. Ukraine is struggling with corruption and bribes hard, and to ensure the whole world, especially its Western part, that it is time for our changing ,it`s of prime importance for us to follow this point. So, no matter what you are, but be professional in it)
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