Client advocacy: The forgotten part of career counseling?

Don't worry, I didn't forget the stock image. You're welcome!

This all started with a post on my career class discussion board. Typical of the first week of classes, we introduced ourselves and explained what we hoped to learn in career counseling. I expressed a desire to learn what, if anything, career counselors can do to change the American career landscape to encourage a better quality of life for employees. It was a slight tirade, but nothing extreme. I was surprised by the lack of interest in this topic. Shortly after my class posting, ACA blogger Hope Yancey wrote this post about dignity on the job. Bingo! I thought. My professor was kind enough to post it for the class to read. Once again, I was surprised by the lack of interest.

I’ve been thinking about these issues since I graduated in 2007, watched our economy crumble in 2008, and witnessed the effects of it on average Americans. I’m 28 right now and I’m one of the lucky ones: college-educated and fully employed with benefits. My boss is fair and kind. No one has ever stopped me from achieving because of my background, gender, or age. I am able to take a vacation or stay home sick when I need to.

At the risk of generalizing, I will say that we’ve all heard the news reports in the past few years. The Occupy Wall Street movement and its offshoots highlighted, among other things, how hard it is becoming to move up to the middle class and to stay there. Our country still has high unemployment, and those employed face benefit cuts, such as for healthcare and pensions. Those in lower-paid jobs face no benefits and harsh policies for important things like time off. Work-life balance? Doesn’t even exist in some places because tough employer policy feeding on economic pressure ensures that workers are just happy to have a job.

I am not starting political arguments here, and will not respond to any. The point of my post is this: Things are not getting much better for many American workers. Can career counselors (and counselors as a whole) do something about this?

We certainly seem to have this responsibility. Client advocacy is a vital part of the counseling field as a whole, at least as I understand it. I would assume that’s why I spent a great deal of my Intro to Counseling class and other classes learning about various types of advocacy. In fact, every counselor has an ethical duty to advocate for clients. Here are some Official Documents just to illustrate my point:

  • The ACA Mission Statement: The mission of the American Counseling Association is to enhance the quality of life in society by promoting the development of professional counselors, advancing the counseling profession, and using the profession and practice of counseling to promote respect for human dignity and diversity.
  • From the ACA Code of Ethics: A.6.a. Advocacy. When appropriate, counselors advocate at individual, group, institutional, and societal levels to examine potential barriers and obstacles that inhibit access and/or the growth and development of clients.
  • From the National Career Development Association (NCDA) Mission: The National Career Development Association (NCDA) inspires and empowers the achievement of career and life goals by providing professional development, resources, standards, scientific research, and advocacy
  • From the NCDA Code of Ethics: A.1. Welfare of Those Served by Career Professionals. A.1.a. Primary Responsibility. The primary responsibility of career professionals is to respect the dignity and to promote the welfare of the individuals to whom they provide service. A.6.a. Advocacy. When appropriate, career professionals advocate at individual, group, institutional, and societal levels to examine potential barriers and obstacles that inhibit access and/or the growth and development of clients.
  • Also from the NCDA Code of Ethics. Section C: Professional Responsibility:…Career professionals promote change at the individual, group, institutional, and societal levels that improves the quality of life for individuals and groups and removes potential barriers to the provision or access of appropriate services being offered…
  • Aaaaaaand, from our accrediting body, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), the definition of advocacy used for accreditation purposes: Action taken on behalf of clients or the counseling profession to support appropriate policies and standards for the profession; promote individual human worth, dignity, and potential; and oppose or work to change policies and procedures, systemic barriers, long-standing traditions, and preconceived notions that stifle human development (pg. 59).

So what’s the point of all of this? The point is, every single professional counselor has the obligation to advocate for clients, including those working in career counseling, and I think career counseling might be dropping the ball on some aspects of advocacy. The examples of advocacy I found in the NCDA and its state branches were disappointing. As far as I could tell, advocacy meant advocating for the career counseling profession itself. And yes, I checked every. single. one. of the state NCDA branches with a website.

I agree that advocating for the profession is vital—the ACA advocates for the counseling profession, and has made great strides in advancing what professional counselors can do. But if that’s the only form of advocacy that the NCDA engages in or even addresses, isn’t that a little self-serving? Who is looking out for their clients?

After having client advocacy drilled into my head, of course I take issue with this. My career counseling textbook mentioned advocating for clients with disabilities, but I think there is a much larger and more general group in need of help. We can (and should) teach our clients how to keep up with the rapidly changing workplace. At the same time, I have real qualms about prepping someone to find a job in which they may not receive adequate time off, adequate benefits, adequate safety measures, they may be subjected to racism, sexism, or other discrimination, or they may face other demoralizing or potentially dangerous situations.  All of these issues are still very real factors in many workplaces because employers have found ways to get around them.

I feel that in career counseling, we focus so much on preparing workers to meet employers’ needs and wants that we don’t hold employers accountable for addressing their own employees’ needs and wants.  I think that’s why this never even registered with my classmates as a problem.

I’ll admit, advocacy is difficult, time-consuming, and scary. But we have an obligation, and it’s less scary if we join forces. Since I hate to rage about a problem without offering any solutions, please check back soon for some ways counselors can make the workplace a better place for our clients.

In the meantime, do you see today’s work environment as a problem? How have you advocated for clients? Am I totally off base? Do you have any possible solutions? (I would love to incorporate these into my follow up post!)

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