Workplace Relevance of Professional Standards to Practitioners

  • Paul HigginsEmail author
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Professional Development Professional Association Continue Professional Development Professional Standard Subject Knowledge 
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A professional standard is an explicit, predetermined expectation set by a competent authority that describes an individual’s acceptable performance level (Rooney and Van Ostenberg 1999). Ultimately, a professional standard contributes to the broader processes of licensure and certification, making explicit the learned occupational components of an entire profession. Whereas licensure ensures that an organization or an individual meets minimum standards to protect public health and safety, certifications are voluntarily designed to provide a signal to employers concerning the qualities of established practitioners. Contemporaneously, licensure and certification are the two main ways for an individual to demonstrate the mastery of a body of knowledge that only professions command and are able to perform.

On an individual level, the workplace relevance of professional standards to empirical practice can be garnered by practitioners continually reflecting on their professional socialization and workplace experience. Referred to as continuing professional development, qualified members are expected to maintain, improve, and broaden their subject knowledge and skills giving confidence to the public. In return, professional practitioners expect autonomy at work which means being allowed to perform tasks without the necessity for externalized control over the application of their skills. Whether newly emerging corporate professions share the same values (or traits) as their more established (i.e., traditional) counterparts is an important question in the contemporary debate on professionalization with related implications for practice.


Not only do we expect professionals to command expertise in the subject knowledge of their chosen occupation, but we also expect them to perform work with due process and integrity. In both cases, one is referring to a set of standards that professionals are expected to uphold and which are prevalent in any occupation attaining the privileges of closure, such as accountancy, engineering, and medicine. When the professional standards are sanctioned by law, a license to practice is necessary; otherwise, some form of certification is required. Whereas licensure is sanctioned by government entities and carries the force of law, certification has no legal underpinnings.

Unlike licensure, an individual does not need to be certified to engage in an unlicensed occupation. However, employers sometimes use certification as a job requirement. This occurs, for example, when the certification is required in job descriptions, career-laddering systems, or project specifications. If an entire occupation demands certification, then it becomes a de facto mandatory entry requirement. To become licensed or certified, one usually has to meet eligibility requirements (such as years of work experience) and pass an assessment (usually a test). The licensure/certification assessment typically covers a broad area of knowledge and skills at the entry level (Marberry et al. 2011). In addition, licensure and certification both tend to have ongoing requirements (such as training or retesting and renewal fees) for professionals to continue practicing (ibid.).

Although professional associations do not grant professional licensure, they often play a role in licensure and certification activities. For instance, professional associations can help practitioners prepare for licensure exams and theorize continuing professional development scenarios. Professional associations can also oversee certification to evaluate and recognize that an individual has met predetermined requirements or criteria. While licensure might be the single-best descriptor of a “true” profession, certifications can be just as tough in terms of qualifying criteria and just as powerful institutionally. Normatively, stringent certification and licensure procedures produce an interchangeable group of experts, socialized in the same kind of education and background social class, which forms an identity in the institutional field (DiMaggio and Powell 1983).

Professional Standards of Practice

Professional standards of practice and ethics for a particular field are typically agreed upon and maintained through widely recognized professional associations (also called professional bodies, professional organizations, or professional societies). A professional standard is defined as an explicit, predetermined expectation set by a competent authority that describes an organization/individual’s acceptable performance level (Rooney and Van Ostenberg 1999). Ultimately, the performance level is designed to reflect licensure or certification requirements providing a degree of quality assurance to workplace practice. For instance, in accountancy there are Generally Accepted Auditing Standards, which require adequate technical training and proficiency, independence in mental attitude, and due professional care (Chorafas 2008). The General Standards establish clear expectations of effective practice in the accountancy occupation and enable practitioners to identify areas for their own professional development.

One of the key advantages of an occupation establishing a Professional Standards Scheme is that it distinguishes the association and its members as a recognized profession. In a competitive market, such distinction is critical – because it is increasingly difficult for consumers, governments, and even aspiring professionals to be able to tell the genuinely professional from the growing field of people claiming to be professional (Professional Standards Council 2016). In particular, professional standards are designed to make consumers confident of professional practice providing a form of quality assurance. Quality assurance is achieved through the service provider (i.e., professional practitioner) attaining a formal professional standard maintained through continuing professional development. Membership of a community of professionals encourages each service provider to maintain the standard of the group, regulated either by license or by certification.

Workplace Relevance of Professional Standards

One way to establish the workplace relevance of professional standards to practitioners is to examine the amount of time they spend on regulated activities (Higgins et al. 2016). Another way is to ask practitioners to state the importance of certified activities to actual work, and a third way is to identify aspects of their job that only qualified can do (i.e., the occupation’s exclusive knowledge base) (ibid.). In addition to specific occupational skills, there are generic skills that define the scope of a professional’s workplace activity. For instance, the profession must demonstrate judgment in decision-making to determine the best course of action for any particular circumstance. Judgment can be exercised in two main ways. First, the profession can exercise substantive judgment to diagnose a problem, to decide a course of action, and to strategize or make policy. Second, the profession can exercise instrumental judgment using established procedures to deliver a course of action, to implement policy, and to administer tasks. In either case, the qualified practitioner is expected to continuously reflect on their work experience while positively shaping their professional identity.

Known as continuing professional development, members of professional associations are expected to maintain, improve, and broaden their subject knowledge and skills while developing the personal qualities required in their professional lives (Law Society of Northwest Territories 2016). Continuing professional development encompasses all types of facilitated learning opportunities including academic degrees, formal coursework, conferences, and informal learning opportunities situated in practice. However, in order to contribute to the professional practitioner’s recertification or licensing claim, the continuing professional development outcomes need to be properly documented, self-directed, reflective (i.e., learning from experience), and prospective (i.e., set development goals). Along with licensure and certification, continuing professional development gives the general population, and professionals themselves, confidence that they are being supported by qualified, capable, and competent practitioners.

Traditionally, professional practitioners are expected to uphold and attain certain professional values which include an altruistic norm of service and a code of ethics that implies responsibility to performance. At the same time, a socially responsible professional (Brint 1994) has recognition in society and is expected to share the outcomes of their wisdom (if not the exact knowledge) for the public good. In return, because of their specialized knowledge and skills, professionals expect autonomy at work, which means being allowed to perform tasks without the necessity for externalized control over the application of professional skills. It reflects the solidarity in the guild training system where the skill of the expert remains a mystery to laypersons (Krause 1996).

As Greenwood (1966) maintains, whereas a customer in a market determines what services and/or commodities s/he wants and shops around until s/he finds them in a professional relationship, the professional dictates what is good for the client who has no choice but to accede to professional judgment. The associated premise is that because the client lacks the requisite theoretical background, she/he cannot diagnose her/his own needs or discriminate among the range of possibilities for meeting them. Accordingly, professionals traditionally believe that their performance can be best judged by other professionals and not by supervisors who do not possess the same knowledge. The expert-layperson relationship has implications for reward structures in that professionals may struggle to accept hierarchical authority as legitimate.

Whether newly emerging corporate professions, distinct from traditional professions, share the same values (or traits) as their more established counterparts have become a pertinent question in the contemporary debate on professionalization. Traditionally, professional standards provide a national reference point that organizations can use to support the development of their staff. Contemporaneously, just as traditional professions, such as medicine and law, are highly dependent upon the nation state in terms of accreditation and enforcing jurisdictions, so too are the nation states dependent upon professions in constructing stabilizing institutions of justice and health (Suddaby and Muzio 2015). Originally, the relationship between professions and government was referred to as a “regulative bargain,” where the state devolves power to the profession provided that it acts in the public interest. If the power is abused, the state may alter or avoid the contract.

However, with the emergence of often large global organizations that employ or buy the services of expert labor for the financial benefit of individual companies and investors, the regulative bargain could be waning. Particularly noticeable is the observation that while professions have historically had a distinct national focus, newer forms of corporate professions (e.g., personnel, marketing, and consultancy) increasingly display a distinct international dimension and vocation (Muzio et al. 2011). At its simplest level, the international presence is realized through membership of a global umbrella body, which coordinates such initiatives as the development of international qualifications, codes of practice, and competence frameworks (ibid.). However, as professional service firms increasingly become the dominant actors in the structuring of modern expert occupations, rather than professional bodies or the state itself, traditional professionalization processes may no longer be relevant. Consequently, as newly emerging corporate professions rely less on barriers to entry and monopolies of practice and more on a market-based entrepreneurial approach to professional practice (Butler et al. 2012), the workplace relevance of professional standards will need to be adjusted accordingly.


In addition to locating this brief entry on professional standards within the institutional context of licensure and certification, it has also considered ways that practitioners might assess the workplace relevance of professional standards. The entry has also detailed the contribution a continuing professional development can make to professional identity. Inevitably, to gain a full understanding of the workplace relevance of professional standards to practitioners, each profession needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. This entry has only provided general details of professional practices as a whole. Professions come in all shapes and sizes, and it is difficult to produce a definitive list of traits to define each and every one.

Although licensure provides a potentially important distinguishing factor in professions, newly emerging corporate professions with certifications could become just as equally powerful institutionally. Alternatively, without coercive institutional power, corporate occupations are not professionals in the true sense of the word and can be ultimately challenged as such provided that the political will is there. The values upholding the profession must, then, be accessible to public scrutiny just as the accompanying professional standards should remain relevant to the occupation, while continually being reflected upon. By fusing standards and development, the profession avoids unnecessarily reinventing itself but instead remains susceptible to incremental change in the light of contextual transformation.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Public PolicyCity University of Hong KongHong KongChina