How professional fluidity can hurt you and the public

by | Apr 20, 2024 | Blog | 2 comments

Professional fluidity. Done intentionally and carefully, it’s a win/win for professionals–often independent consultants, coaches, and authors–and the individuals they serve. Done selfishly, it’s the shadow side of growth and development for professionals. And it can be detrimental for individuals receiving the services.

If you’re not familiar with the term, those who practice professional fluidity get projects and assignments differently from others. The former rely on their relationships and market demand, rather than their credentials along with their affiliations with professional organizations and companies.

The authors of the 2020 article Professional Fluidity: Reconceptualising the Professional Status of Self-Employed Neo-professionals describe practitioners of professional fluidity this way: “individuals who assume multiple roles and apply chameleon-like tactics to establish their legitimacy and build relationships with clients and collaborators to get jobs.”

For years, individuals have shifted into new careers, often by adjusting their identity combined with learning on the job. Learning on the job is fine if you’re not doing any harm. For example, I’ve worked with a number of PhDs in literature, music and the arts who have become experts in organizational issues. It’s also common for health care professionals to transfer into administrative and leadership roles. Their deep technical expertise complements their colleagues who have extensive administrative and leadership experience.

And in full disclosure, my own career features fluidity. I have a degree in journalism, an MBA, and a master’s in communication management. Initially I worked in corporate communications (primarily employee communications) and change management. Then I decided to move into leadership coaching after extensive training in coaching, neuroscience, and leadership.

However, fluidity can be problematic depending on how professionals position themselves, especially if they push boundaries without acquiring skills associated with their new role. That’s the dark side of working outside one’s scope. The public can get hurt, especially when individuals misrepresent their credentials, refuse to share their background, or pretend to be something or someone they’re not.

While I was a student at Northwestern University decades ago, one of the university’s professors created public relations problems. Northwestern still employs the tenured engineering professor who became a Holocaust denier and wrote a pseudohistorical book. Just recently an entrepreneur who self-publishes books about brain science wanted to advertise a webinar and her new book in a LinkedIn group I co-manage. When I asked her about her background, she declined to share any details.

Then there’s the 1989 New York City Consolidated Edison steampipe explosion, a classic case of a mishandled crisis. ConEdison utility workers accidentally caused a steampipe to explode in front of the 18-story apartment building where I lived. The force of the explosion killed three people, including a mother and her infant who were in their apartment. Asbestos also blew all over the building and around the neighborhood. Because airborne asbestos is especially dangerous, the city condemned our apartment building and closed off access to the church next door and the sidewalks.

ConEd immediately made arrangements for us residents to stay in a neighborhood hotel. A couple of days later to respond to all the news coverage, ConEd representatives convened an open meeting in the hotel’s ballroom to describe how they planned to conduct the cleanup. With the TV cameras focused on the ConEd PR person, she began the meeting by assuring everyone that the company was working on several fronts to help residents as well as to decontaminate our building.

Her initial priority was introducing the company’s medical doctor so he could explain the health impact of the airborne asbestos on us. The first words out of his mouth corrected his professional title; he must have wanted to avoid any problems with his newly assumed professional fluidity.

The good doctor said we needed to know that he was not a medical doctor, but instead a doctor of waste management. My neighbors and I—about 200 people–all howled in disgust. So much sloppiness! And for the next six months, ConEd found itself paying our living expenses, including picking up the tab for our room and board plus clothes until the building was habitable again. For those of us who owned our apartments, ConEd also provided a cash payment to reflect that our investment had decreased in value.

This life experience as well as others have contributed to my unease with professional fluidity. It disturbs me when people say they’re an expert in an area and practice in it without the related education and credentials.

And it’s also affected how I work and for whom I work. Some of my longest client relationships are with health care organizations whose purpose is to protect public safety, including providing certifications and accreditations to professionals. I also seek out the background and credentials of those I work with.

However, professional fluidity probably will become more popular based on current trends. Consider individuals’ desire for increased workplace flexibility, growing competition from AI, and constant pressures for upskilling.

From my perspective, career flexibility is a more palatable alternative than professional fluidity. Regardless though, our actions should not hurt the public. What’s your take?


  1. Andrew M O'Hearn

    Disturbing “fake it until you (maybe?) make it” trend. Reminds me of the Keanu Reaves “Neo” character in “The Matrix,” who just pops ju-jitsu learning cartridges into his neck, and then, “Voila!” He is instantly a kung fu master. “Flowers for Algernon” (dated reference, I realize) didn’t work out that great, either.

  2. Susan

    Thanks for sharing the article and the dark side of the term. I agree with your suggested change in terminology to “Career Fluidity” versus Professional Fluidity. I am reminded that the underlying issue is someones integrity/honesty and driving values. If their focus is solely on personal gain often times they will say. and do anything to achieve their results. So a question, how do you confirm someones integrity?

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