Licensing authorities have always tended to be conservative with regard to behavior they consider to be “crossing the line,” but these days, that line isn’t quite as defined as it once was. Issues that were once black and white are now tinged with shades of gray, which can lead to challenges for both licensed professionals and the bodies that provide their licenses.
Technology is the usual culprit with respect to issues such as confidentiality/privacy, truth in advertising, and dual relationships. “Big brother” seems to be everywhere, facilitated by social media; use of cutting-edge computer technology like the cloud; and the fact that what people say can have a long “shelf life” if it’s memorialized via voice mail or another type of recording device.
What’s a licensed professional to do? In general terms, you must understand that anything you say or communicate, no matter how innocuous you think it might be, has the potential to hurt you. Here are a few more specific tips:
The very notion of being a victim of crime is scary to most people, but potential danger is typically associated with street crime perpetrated by a stranger. In reality, white collar crime—especially when committed by a trusted professional—can be equally dangerous, albeit less physical, but with significant long-term effects.
As a licensed professional, you may think the worst thing that can happen if you abuse your patients’/clients’ trust is a fine or slap on the wrist in the form of a censure, but you’d be wrong. Depending on the misdeed, you may find yourself dealing with the loss of your license, or even criminal prosecution.
The fact is, agencies take a very dim view toward those whose lack of character is reflected in “conduct unbecoming” to a licensed professional. They’re well aware that too many incidents of unethical conduct—alleged or proven—tend to paint the entire profession in a negative light.
While violent crime may have more of a shock effect, think of what’s at play when licensed professionals cross the line. These people fostered trust that led to having access to personal data such as financial information and medical records—and then they abused that trust in some way. Think Bernie Madoff.
It’s because white collar crimes aren’t “stranger crimes” that the punishment for them may be more severe than you might think; nothing random has occurred when someone’s trust has been broken. And licensing agencies may move forward more quickly than prosecutors can—and their burden of proof is lower.
Prosecutors must prove there was specific intent to conduct a fraudulent act and they may decide not to pursue cases under a certain monetary threshold. Agencies (and clients themselves) can cast a wider net and they may have causes of action available to them that the government doesn’t have.
The bottom line: any type of fraudulent behavior has the potential to negatively affect your status as a professional licensee. Even if an allegation is made but never proven, many people do believe that “where there’s smoke there’s fire,” and it can be difficult and even impossible to repair a damaged reputation.
In most communications situations, being mindful is not a requirement. However, when you’re faced with having a challenging conversation—something that’s a common occurrence for attorneys, therapists or physicians—its successful resolution may very well depend on your ability to engage in mindful communication.
What is mindful communication? It’s quite simple to define: you engage listeners in a way that leads to moving forward in a mutually beneficial direction. What’s more difficult is actually doing it.
All mindful communication begins with self-examination, since you need to know “where you are” before you initiate any potentially combative conversation. This includes having a mindful presence—eliminating as much stress as you can before you get started—and taking care not to project your own issues during the dialog.
For example, I have a friend who’s not very organized, and neither is her assistant. She doesn’t feel good about her own behavior, so it would be easy for her to project her displeasure during conversations about workflow—but what good would that do? I recommended that she take responsibility for her behavior, communicate what she needs, and work with her assistant to determine a solution.
Susan Gillis Chapman, author of The Five Keys to Mindful Communication, suggests using a red-yellow-green light approach to address her five keys, which are:
I’m a big believer in Chapman’s approach, which provides all the tools necessary to engage in a natural communication—“green light”—system. This mindful way of communicating will yield far better results than you’ll ever be able to achieve via confrontations, which are inherently uncomfortable and often result in a rocky road moving forward.200e
A vast majority of licensed professionals go through their entire career without being investigated by a licensing agency. Those who do face scrutiny are often unaware of the process they’re about to enter, and as a result, are typically unprepared at the onset to adequately defend themselves.
Do you need an attorney? Do you want to participate in the investigation? Can you continue to practice? How long does the process take? What are the best case/worse case scenarios? These are just some of the questions that may run through professionals’ minds upon receipt of a letter from their licensing agency notifying them that an investigation into alleged unethical conduct is imminent. Here are some answers:
Something to never lose sight of is that it’s a privilege, not a right, to have a professional license. And, like a felony conviction, a license revocation can adversely affect your career for the rest of your life. For example, a Realtor licensing board may look askance at an applicant who had her nursing license taken away; the industries are totally different, but behaving ethically and professionally is a common bond.601d
Once you earn a professional license, you might think your interaction with your licensing board has ended, but it may have actually just begun. Boards that license therapists, lawyers, and other professionals have a great deal of power with respect to whether licensees maintain their status, and make no mistake, their goal is to protect the public—not those they have licensed.
What can you do as a licensed professional to understand your risks and manage them to ensure you remain in good standing with your licensing board? Here are a few suggestions:
What’s the possible disciplinary action that can befall you if your licensing board believes your behavior has crossed the line? A reprimand—public or private—or a citation may be issued, and you may be placed on probation, which means you must abide by extremely onerous restrictions to continue to work. The most serious form of discipline would be to revoke your license.
The moral of the story: understand the consequences of unprofessional behavior and take steps to manage your risk so you never find yourself in the position of defending your actions in front of your licensing board. In the best-case scenario, your communication will be limited to quietly renewing your license.