Maryam Kouchaki — Professions, Professionals, and Morality

The November 7, 2012, Lab seminar was led by Edmond J. Safra Lab Fellow, Dr. Maryam Kouchaki. Dr. Kouchaki recently received her Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior in 2012 from the Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. Her research focuses on the moral dimension of social life, in particular, ethical behavior in the workplace. During her time as a Lab Fellow at the Center for Ethics she will examine the systemic ways in which professional self-conceptions influence ethical behaviors.

Dr. Kouchaki opened her presentation by discussing public hearings on auditor independence rules, which were held by the Securities and Exchange Commission between July and September of 2000. Stemming from a concern that auditors were at risk of becoming too dependent on their clients, the SEC proposed that certain restraints be placed on auditors to prevent the risk of unethical behavior. In response to this, auditors and accountant firms argued that the proposed regulations would limit auditors' ability to perform their jobs and in turn hurt the economy. As part of their argument, they claimed that because auditors are professionals who follow a code of ethics and practice the highest moral standards, that self-interests and personal financial well-being would never jeopardize auditor independence. Dr. Kouchaki used this example to introduce her research concerning professional self-conception, self-regulation, autonomy, and ethicality. At the core of here research, she explained, is determining if seeing oneself as a professional can lead one to behave in moral or immoral ways.

At this point in the presentation, seminar participants were eager to inquire how perceptions of power relate to Dr. Kouchaki's research. Specifically, how can one distinguish between professionalism and power, and how might one begin to empirically untangle these differing concepts? In response to this, Dr. Kouchaki argued that different occupations have different levels of power. Though her current study does not specifically investigate this, she cited that there would be obvious differences in perceptions of power between a nurse and a physician, for example. Another Lab participant questioned how occupations in the business sector, which unlike law and medicine is not considered a profession, might impact ones self-perceptions and behavior. A lengthy discussion ensued on the subject, and one participant suggested that regardless of the occupation, she might first try to measure the extent to which people in certain occupations understand themselves to be professionals, and then determine the outcomes of their behaviors. Dr. Kouchaki agreed with this point, but specified that she is more interested in the psychology of individual self-perceptions of professionalism.

In summary, notions of ethicality, autonomy, and self-regulation were discussed as they relate to professionalism. Dr. Kouchaki gave a presentation on her research concerning self-perceptions of professionalism and the impact it has on ethical behavior. Seminar participants debated the different ways in which the term professionalism can be construed and considered how group membership influences self-conceptions and ethical behaviors.