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Anthony Suchman
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Organizational Professionalism

A framework for assessing how organizations affect their workforce and community

Do you remember the provocative 2003 documentary “The Corporation”? In it the filmmakers ask the question, “if corporations are regarded under the law as people, what kind of people are they?” They proceeded to answer that question by holding corporate behavior up against standard psychiatric diagnostic criteria, concluding that if people behaved the way corporations do, they would be diagnosed as psychopaths...
 
The topic of how organizations behave and what impact they have on society are if anything even more salient today when questions are being raised about the quality of our society – how well it is caring for its members. Organizations are the fundamental social structures for carrying out many societal functions including commerce, education, justice, housing, nourishment and healthcare. It’s important to examine what role they play in creating inequities in wealth, health and opportunity based on class, race, gender and geography (and caste, some now argue). Most of these inequities have been worsening, fueling epidemics of despair, addiction, suicide, intolerance, authoritarianism and violence. As just one example of a corporate contribution to this pattern, a recent article in The Atlantic documents the effect of Eastman Kodak’s discriminatory employment practices in the 1950s and 1960s which continue to have repercussions today in my hometown of Rochester, NY.
 
Also, because most people earn their livelihoods in organizations and spend a big part of their lives within them, organizational culture – the way people are treated, and the way they are influenced to treat others – has a profound effect on their mental health and that of their families. Written in 1993 by Michael Lerner, a psychologist at a union health center, the book Surplus Powerlessness documents this in heartbreaking detail. The phenomenon of moral injury – the consequence of strong conflicts between personal and organizational values – has been receiving a lot of attention lately as an important contributor to what healthcare professionals are experiencing as burnout.
 
Given the enormous impact organizations have on society and on our well-being, it would be useful to have a systematic framework for examining the behavior of organizations, holding organizations accountable for what they do and guiding organizational leaders. One such framework is Organizational Professionalism, which grew out of work on fostering professionalism among medical practitioners. Its authors recognized that individual behavior was heavily influenced by the behavior of the organizations in which they work. A 2012 article on Organizational Professionalism proposes 5 organizational competencies that should be expected of a healthcare organization, though they can be applied readily in other industries: service, respect, fairness, integrity/accountability and mindfulness/self-motivation. Specific organizational behaviors are listed for each competency. Five years later the Charter on Organizational Professionalism was published offering a set of principles and specific organizational behaviors in four domains: Patient Partnerships, Organizational Culture, Community Partnerships and Operations & Business Practices. Taken together, these documents offer a comprehensive framework for organizational assessment and a guide for leaders who want to assure that their organizations are doing right by their workforce and their community.
 
I’m pleased to announce that Barry Egener, MD, one of the leaders of the Organizational Professionalism project and an author of the two articles above, will be the featured guest presenter at this year’s Finger Lakes Dialog on Relational Workplaces, to be held near Watkins Glen, NY on April 22-23, 2022. This small conference (15 people maximum) will provide abundant opportunity for dialog and reflection, all in a relaxed pastoral setting in the wine and waterfall region of upstate New York. More details about this event and online registration are available here.
 
If we want to have a more relational society, we have to have more relational organizations. I hope you will find the above resources useful and I hope you’ll consider joining us in April. Meanwhile stay healthy and keep putting kindness into the world.
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