Rising inequality means that our community is hurting, as are many of our career counseling clients. In this setting, occasionally the path ahead is clear for our clients. It’s as if the lights on the road ahead all turn green. However, more often, it’s challenging to navigate that road, with unexpected detours and many red lights. We can do much to assist clients equip themselves to navigate this road, where careers frequently unfold in organizational settings. Values and practices in our organizations and society shape opportunities for our clients. Here we comment on those organizational and community aspects and what we can do.
He walked over slowly, slightly reticent, his bag of food waiting by the door. He was in his seventies; originally perhaps from Eastern Europe, English didn’t come naturally. I was one of many volunteers conducting a survey on food insecurity (a euphemism for hunger). When asked whether he was sometimes hungry because he couldn’t afford to buy food he answered yes, almost apologetically. There was a tear in the corner of his eye, and in mine. There was something about his quiet grace that was deeply moving. I found myself wondering then how, in one of the most prosperous societies on earth, we can leave people behind so they depend on sporadic, charitable support for something as basic as food (Elsdon, 2013). And I wonder now, what is my role as a career counselor in addressing such issues of social justice?
The community we choose to create is our legacy. That community, at a deep level, is a reflection of our beliefs and values, a reflection of our common humanity. And it is hurting. We have a particular challenge in the United States since our society is now so unequal, with inequality back to the levels just before the great depression in the 1920s. This inequality creates social, economic and emotional problems. Social problems include increased crime, homicide, lower levels of trust, and lower economic mobility. The fuel to power our economy is depleted, and the engine of our economy stalls. Meanwhile our overall happiness suffers. Here is David Shipler’s (2004, p. 300) view: “The forgotten [in America] wage a daily struggle to keep themselves from falling over the cliff. It is time to be ashamed.” There are voices of hope. Here’s a quote from Muhammad Yunus (1998), Nobel Peace Prize recipient, “We can create a world where there won’t be a single human being who may be described as a poor person.” Shouldn't career counselors also be voices of hope?
Voices of hope were heard 100 years ago. Frank Parsons was director of the Vocation Bureau (created in Boston in 1908). The Bureau's motto was “Light, Information, Inspiration, Cooperation” (Parsons, 1909, p. 92, as cited in Wilson, 2011). Its mission was to educate the under-privileged and immigrants on the importance of making good vocational choices so that they could improve their lives, create a better future for themselves, their families and their communities; thus escaping the vicious circle of poverty. Early vocational guidance pioneers can serve as models for today's career counselors when serving in the role of advocate.
Business, often in collaboration with nonprofits and the public sector, has a big part to play in salving these hurts through socially responsible practices, and career development professionals have a critical advocacy role. Business organizations are part of a network affecting employees, investors, communities, and partner, customer, and supplier organizations. Successful business organizations embrace social responsibility as the essence of long-term value creation, by honoring all of their constituent communities. Recent economic turmoil calls for more socially responsible business practices, supported by enlightened public policy and thoughtful individual responsibility.
Business, nonprofits, and the public sector working together, honoring principles of social responsibility and social justice, have the opportunity to make this a better society for all of us. What are some action steps that can help in this regard? At an organizational level we can focus on establishing effective corporate governance to respect the interests of all constituencies, ensure that compensation is equitable, implement collaborative workforce practices, and sponsor causes that benefit all.
Steps for each of us as individuals, and as career counselors (Elsdon, 2013), include:
Staying informed about emerging social, business, and workplace issues so we can decide where to commit our time, and discern what these issues might mean for our clients.
Being well informed about how organizations approach social responsibility so that, based on their performance, we can decide to engage or not, whether as employee, contractor, supplier, investor, or customer, and we can assist our clients in understanding organizations’ culture and values.
Influencing public policy by supporting candidates who speak to the needs of all in our society and engaging in legislative campaigns and direct action in this regard.
There are growing economic inequities in our society, which have led to reduced circumstances and constrained life choices for many of our clients. Businesses, nonprofits, and the public sector can embrace principles of social responsibility and address these inequities, for the benefit of all. We can play an important advocacy role, which will require courage and conviction. It is in embracing such courage that we can create a better world for our clients and for all.
Elsdon, R. (Ed.) 2013. Business Behaving Well: Social Responsibility, from Learning to Doing. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, Inc.
Shipler, David K. 2004. The Working Poor: Invisible in America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Wilson, F. 2011. The Creation of the National Vocational Guidance Association in 1913: Crucial Issues Facing Vocational Counselors at the Time. Retrieved from http://associationdatabase.com/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/55696/_PARENT/layout_details/false
Yunus, Muhammad. January 27, 1998. Convocation Address, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.
Ron Elsdon, PhD, is a founder of organizations that specialize in career and workforce development for organizations and individuals. He has also been active in speaking, writing about, and promoting a range of social causes. Ron has more than twenty-five years of leadership experience at diverse organizations in a broad range of sectors, and has been an adjunct faculty member at, or affiliated with, several universities. He has authored numerous publications and has spoken regularly at national and regional events. Ron is author of Affiliation in the Workplace: Value Creation in the New Organization (Praeger, 2003), editor of Building Workforce Strength: Creating Value through Workforce and Career Development (Praeger, 2010), and editor of Business Behaving Well: Social Responsibility, from Learning to Doing (Potomac Books, Inc, 2013). Ron received his PhD in chemical engineering from Cambridge University, his master’s in career development from John F. Kennedy University, and a first class honors degree in chemical engineering from Leeds University. Ron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, web site www.elsdon.com.