When Career Assessments are Not Enough: Helping Clients after an Unexpected Career Transition

By Jennifer Del Corso

Have you ever found yourself in a situation with a client or student in which you thought to yourself, “I don’t know where to go from here”? At this point, you have administered a variety of career tests, reviewed the results with your client, helped identify a variety of careers, and where to research occupations and organizations based on the results; but it’s just not enough. The client still seems stuck, resistant, or unenthusiastic about the future.

If this has happened to you, then it’s important to ask yourself, “Has this client experienced an unexpected career transition?” Clients may have had to suddenly depart a job due to any number of factors, such as

  • a lay-off,
  • firing,
  • breach in contract,
  • personal injury or illness,
  • workplace violence or bullying,
  • discrimination or sexual harassment,
  • or dissolution of a workplace romantic relationship or extramarital affair

These clients may not be fully ready to engage in the career exploration process (Del Corso, 2015). 
Unanticipated career transitions often evoke an emotional grieving process–– disbelief, anger, yearning, depression, and acceptance (Kubler-Ross & Kessler, 2014). Each stage in the emotional process requires a different response on the part of the career counselor. There is a process in which people must feel: 1) concerned about finding a new job and making the transition, 2) re-establish a sense of control about their choices, 3) be curious about how to adapt their skills and work experience for a new job and 4) re-establish a sense of confidence and safety moving forward. Career counselors may unintentionally, fast forward to addressing career curiosity concerns (providing a wide array of various assessments), before the client is emotionally prepared to engage in the process. In other words, resistance may occur when clients are still in disbelief, shock, anger, or sadness over the loss of their previous job. Focusing on what they can now transition to without addressing the emotional impact, is the equivalent to suggesting possibilities for a new pet immediately after an individual’s pet has just died.

Here are some tips on how to help clients manage their emotions and work through processing what they have experienced by using a “Trip to Key West” metaphor:

Stage 1 Initial Disbelief
Imagine we are taking a road trip to Key West. We are all packed, excited and have prepared for this trip a long time. Suddenly we check our weather app, expecting sunny skies, only to see a hurricane making its way straight to our destination path. At first we may view the situation as temporary–– “maybe it will pass” or “maybe it won’t hit us”. We might question the accuracy of our weather app and verify the report by checking other sources of news.
Tip: In the first stages of loss or a decision to leave, the client may be in disbelief that this is “really happening." When clients are in this stage, it’s important to patiently help them process the reality of what is occurring. This is not the time to give them an assessment, but rather to just listen as they process how this could have happened and what this might mean for their future. You can ask them how they have worked through difficult situations in the past or inquire about people they know who may have experienced something similar. The goal is to help clients feel supported and not alone.

Stage 2-4 Anger, Yearning, Depression or Sadness
Now the reality that a hurricane heading to Key West has started to sink in. Emotions are high. Responses vary- anger, yearning and sadness set in as potential solutions are offered. Some are stuck in anger as they continue to bargain that there has to be some way to still go to Key West, even if it means waiting for another time. A decision must be made- cancel the trip altogether, stay in a holding pattern hoping something will work out, or create a new plan. Even when a new plan has been decided, grief remains. As we decide to go to North Carolina instead, strong feelings emerge- this is not what we planned on. This is not what we wanted.
Tip: When clients are in this stage, many feel as though they lack a sense of control. Things are happening to them. This is the time to help clients recognize what power they do have to choose how to write the next chapter in their career story. They are the protagonist in their own struggle, and they get to write how the story ends. The counselor may begin to identify some options they have to empower them, but this should be tempered with patience as they work through the layers of loss. They may need to develop a sense of confidence again in themselves and/or belief in the workplace (knowing that everywhere is like where they left). Counselors should be on the lookout for negative generalizations and fortune telling errors at this point.

Stage 5 Acceptance and New Opportunities
After working through the grief, we began to notice all the things that North Carolina had to offer that Key West did not. For example, we went para gliding off the sand dunes––that certainly wasn’t something we would do in Key West! Over time, we felt good about our decision. A few people from our group appreciated a temporary solution, and now are making their way down to a new beach with sunny skies.
Tip: When clients have accepted the loss, they are far more motivated to be engaged in the process of deciding what they want to do. They are less resistant and this is certainly an appropriate time to help them clarify what matters to them and what they want to do in the future. To get to this stage, counselors must help clients story their experience by helping them process what happened that led to their unexpected transition, and how they can feel safe and confident to handle such situations in the future.

In summary, career counselors have a wonderful opportunity to help clients work through the emotional issues that surround unexpected career transitions by offering a lot more than a career assessment.

Del Corso, J. (2015). Work traumas & transitions. In K. Maree & A. DiFabio (Eds.), Exploring New Horizons in Career Counselling: Converting Challenges into Opportunities (pp.189-204). Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Kubler-Ross, E. & Kessler, D. (2014) On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss. New York, NY: Scribner.


Jennifer Del CorsoDr. Jennifer Del Corso, PhD, LPC is a Lecturer at Old Dominion University in the Graduate Counseling Program and an Adjunct Professor in the ODU Athletic Department. Jennifer works with professional and collegiate football players working through career transitions and has published and presented extensively nationally and internationally in the in the area of career adaptability, work traumas and career counseling. She currently serves on the Editorial Board for and is a guest reviewer for the Journal of Vocational Behavior. In 2015, she won Chi Sigma Iota Counseling Honor Society's national Most Outstanding Practitioner Award and has won several awards from the National Career Development Association.  As an active member of NCDA, she has served on numerous committees and has collaborated with CEU OneStop to provide continuing education in the field of career development. Jennifer can be reached at jdelcors@odu.edu.  

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Janet Wall   on Monday 05/02/2016 at 11:06 AM

Persons interested in this important topic should listen to Dr. Del Corso's recorded webinar (1 NBCC clock hour) from www.CeuOneStop.com.

Larry Robbin   on Monday 05/02/2016 at 11:07 AM

Thanks for this excellent and very important article. Career planning is based on self-awareness and people going through trauma may not be self-aware. Many career practitioners begin counseling without considering this issue. I would add to your list people coming out of domestic violence situations, people having the onset of mental illness or some other form of severe disability, people that have survived a natural disaster and some returning veterans. Also I would add that sometimes this is beyond the career counselor's skill set and requires the help of a mental health or other professional. It is very important to know the limits of our expertise.

Janet L de Vries, Casper, WY   on Monday 05/02/2016 at 03:47 PM

This article is very timely since we are having major industry layoffs in our state.

Nancy J. Miller   on Saturday 12/30/2017 at 04:52 PM

Thank you, Jennifer. Assessments are not enough and sometimes not the best option. Career counselors are trained to work with the emotional side of career development that is often missed or not addressed. Your article describes a creative approach to discussing emotional job changes. Even expected job changes can have a strong emotional element. I agree that not all career professionals are trained to work with the emotional side of career development, and there can be a need for a referral if other factors or traumas are disclosed. This approach would be much more likely to bring out associated issues than an assessment.

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