The first records of the word professionalism come from the mid-1880s. The word professional is recorded earlier, in the mid-1700s. It comes from the word profession, referring to a persons occupation—what they do for work. The root of all these words is the Latin professiō, meaning “public acknowledgment.” Someone who shows professionalism is good at their job—they’re skilled and competent—but the word often implies more than that. People described as true professionals conduct themselves in a way that shows respect for those they work with, as well as anyone else they might interact with as part of their job. The word is often used in reference to those with experience and a knowledge of how to act in the workplace, but you don’t need to have experience to show professionalism.
Is housing a profession?
There have been many a debate and academic research looking at the characteristics of a profession – largely, a recognized profession will:
- Require specialist knowledge and skills to practice
- Provide an essential service
- Require its members to have a level training and education often in the form of a recognised professional qualification
- Specify an expected standard of professional behaviours
- Hold its members to account for their actions
- Exist predominately to deliver in the public interest
I think it would be fair to say that housing ticks all those “profession” boxes. So, why is it not recognised more widely as a profession outside of our own field? There may be a few reasons for this. There is no one word to articulate what we do – like lawyer or doctor; we don’t describe ourselves as professionals and demonstrate pride in what we do – like health professionals; people aren’t always clear what “housing” is – unlike a midwife for example. And finally, maybe there is, rightly or wrongly, a negative perspective of our sector, where the media, government and others are better at highlighting the bad rather than the good.
A spotlight on culture and values
But, we need to take some accountability as a profession. Since the Grenfell Tower tragedy in June 2017, there has been a spotlight on the culture and values of the housing sector and the behaviours and attitudes of staff towards tenants and residents.
- Witness statements from the Grenfell Inquiry revealed “a lack of respect, tenants not listened to, no transparency” “institutional indifference”
- The Green Paper put a focus on how housing staff contributed to the “stereotyping and stigmatisation of social housing”
- The Social Housing White Paper put how residents are treated at the heart of its charter for social housing tenants “when residents interact with landlords they should expect and receive a professional service from “competent and empathetic staff”; “all landlord staff act professionally, listen to their residents and, at all times, treat them with courtesy and respect”
- In January, DLUCH launched the Social Housing White Paper Professionalisation Review, to understand the tools and resources available and need by the sector to professionalise their staff
- More recently, the media spotlight has focused on the condition of existing stock revealing poor working practices combined with poor attitudes towards residents.
On 7th April 2022, Fiona McGregor, Chief Executive of the Regulator for Social Housing (RSH) sent a shot across the boughs to all CEOs of registered providers in England….
“Where change is needed, it requires a culture change within the relevant registered providers. The quality and safety of the homes you provide, your ability to maintain them, and the quality of your services to tenants are vitally important. Where these are not as they should be, you should act now; before we proactively assess whether you meet the new consumer standards. Leadership and good governance from Boards, councillors and management teams are the key to getting this right. Boards and councillors should be challenging management teams now about whether homes and services need improving and whether tenants are able to bring problems to their attention effectively.”
Be in no doubt that the culture and values of organisations, and the attitudes and behaviours of your staff, are going to come under the spotlight of the Regulator for Social Housing.
In addition to this, government announced a “professionalisation review” earlier this year. Launching the review, Minister for Rough Sleeping and Housing Eddie Hughes MP said:
“Too many social housing residents have told me they feel like they are not listened to or treated with respect – raising complaints time and time again only for the problems not to be fixed.”
Taking a positive spin, this review could be seen as an opportunity for us to highlight the positive role we play and focus on our social values and purpose and promote professionalism. But, the review itself presents a problem – the initial focus is to ‘review staff training and qualifications to improve social housing services’ This narrow approach seems to miss the point of “professionalisation”. Don’t get me wrong, qualifications and training are important – and I say that as Fellow of CIH who studied the old-fashioned way – but largely these things focus on knowledge and skills to do a job. This missing piece of the jigsaw is attitudes and behaviours – not something easily taught in a virtual classroom. And something that really is at the cornerstone of the “professionalisation” piece that government seems to think is lacking.
The CIH professional standards are an excellent starting point to review professionalism on an individual behaviour and I encourage everyone to proactively engage with them. However, this is the starting point not the end. While having professional staff in housing is critical; people can only really practice their professionalism in professional organisations which have the right culture and values that drive the right behaviours.
Professionalism within your organisation
Now is the time to take a good look at your own organisation and ask yourselves the following questions?
- Are your current values reflective of the culture you have or want to achieve?
- Are your values uniquely appropriate to and reflective of your organisation?
- Is there a shared understanding of those values across the whole organisation?
- Do your leaders role-model these values?
- Have your values been well embedded and are they being lived every day?
- Do your values shape the perceptions, attitudes and professional behaviours of your staff?
- Do your residents understand what values and behaviours they should expect from your staff?
The services your deliver and the objectives you have must be underpinned by a relationship with tenants based on trust, honesty, courtesy, empathy, transparency, fairness and respect.
The values you have as an organisation are uniquely relevant and appropriate to you and reflect the expectations of your residents. Secondly, it is important to be clear that your values will drive the right behaviours in your staff. Finally, values need to be lived and breathed – do your staff understand them and understand what they mean for them on a day-to day basis?
In a nutshell, professionalism must be a golden thread running through your organisations and the lens through which everything should be seen, developed and delivered – from partnerships, strategy, processes, practices and engagement.