Who people trust - by profession

A new poll suggests that people esteem those seen to place others' needs above their own interests.

The aquarium in Alcala's Auto Body lobby is filled with crawdads, tiny "water dog" eels, and water so clear you'd swear it was mountain air. On the wall are framed testimonies to what clients call one of the truly "clean" auto-care operations - literally and figuratively - in a metropolis where such businesses are more often known for bilking customers.

"Thank you for the most professional and expert care you took of my 1990 Blue Toyota Tercel," wrote a client to owner David Alcala. "You went over and above the call of duty."

The plaudits on Mr. Alcala's smudged wall reflect a rarity in American life these days: customers who respect the honesty and integrity of the people they do business with.

In an age of seeming self-interest and cynicism, Americans often view everyone as the equivalent

of a used car salesman. Or perhaps that should be the equivalent of a lawyer or politician, particularly since "Monicagate" and now "chadgate."

In fact, Americans tend to rate professionals with a consistent standard. Those who are seen as selfless in motive - nurses, teachers, clergy, judges, police - rate high. Those who are perceived as putting their cash registers before a customer's interests come out low.

A Gallup poll released yesterday, while reflecting subtle shifts of opinion from previous years, confirms that same general pattern. At the lowest end of the list are some usual suspects: car salesmen, insurance brokers, newspaper reporters (not including this one). At the top: nurses, pharmacists, veterinarians, (newspaper reporters, just this one) - well, you get the idea.

"It seems to be [that] we rate professional people high if we perceive them to be treating others for the benefits those others might accrue, rather than as a means to their own selfish ends," says Richard Ellsworth, a management expert at the Claremont Graduate School in California.

Many people agree with those on the who's who of scoundrels list. "Absolutely and totally do I feel car salesmen, insurance salesmen, and HMO managers are out to do the least for you and the most for them," says T.J. Schwartz, a sports columnist and owner of his own collectibles shop. "And you can put auto mechanics at the bottom as well. They're in it for nothing but the scam."

If it's true that sports columnists never exaggerate, Mr. Schwartz's assessment is not something Mr. Alcala wants to hear. At least, though, he didn't go after jewelers, which is another group that often doesn't come out well in ethics surveys - all that cheating on carats and stuff. It's that kind of talk that makes Chuck Lire, owner of Riverton Jewelers in Sherman Oaks, Calif., want to nick someone with his diamond cutter. "I don't understand why jewelers are rated below funeral directors, engineers, or dentists," says Mr. Lire with incredulity. "People have to trust us with the most expensive things they own. I have worked years to develop that trust."

Lire's complaint does point up a larger problem with such rankings: In the same way stereotypes unfairly tar whole races of people with the judgement of a few, lumping individuals into broad occupation categories can unfairly brand them.

Low on this year's list are senators and congressmen - 17 and 23 respectively out of 32. "These are the guys who could be choosing our next president, and they have no credibility themselves," says Shirley Beckman, a jeweler from California.

On the heels of an American political decade in which the phrase, "throw the bums out," became the rallying call, the decline of politicians in public esteem coincides with drops elsewhere. "The slide of government officials in our national esteem is consistent with a similar decline in other democracies in recent years," says Robert Ross, a sociologist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who studies the social ranking of professions.

Polls such as these also reflect ambivalence. Lawyers, for instance, are consistently rated among the top five professions for prestige, but near the bottom for ethics and honesty. They come out fifth worst in this year's poll, just below real estate agents, reflecting perhaps the sentiments once expressed in a poem by Carl Sandburg: "Why does a hearse horse snicker hauling a lawyer away."

"There is a love-hate relationship between the public and lawyers," says Angel Gomez, a sexual-harassment lawyer. "As soon as we want someone to uphold our rights, we go running for a lawyer. But if someone comes after us with one, we immediately think, 'How dare they? How can they come after me and be ethical at the same time?"

The often-heard assessment returns the current, escalating dialogue back to one of the central litmus tests for honesty and ethics: Is one acting out of regard for universal principles of right and wrong, or simply trolling for the outcome that suits his or her own best interest?

"The smell test for self-interest is to place respondents in a ... hypothetical situation and then ask them what is right and wrong before they know what role they are to play," says Michael Josephson, founder of the Michael Josephson Institute for Ethics in Marina Del Rey, Calif. "When they have no stakes in the outcome, they usually answer correctly. But suddenly if they're thrust into the same situation in real life, they often lose objectivity."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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