At times, counsellors, career practitioners, educators, and HR professionals hear stories never before told. We are skilled at creating a safe and comfortable environment and building trust. In response, people reveal experiences of abuse, bullying, discrimination, and other forms of injustice. Such stories touch us at the core of our beings. We may be deeply saddened, frightened, or outraged by what we hear. We yearn to advocate - to make wrongs right.
The dilemma, however, is determining what we can ethically do with troubling information shared by our clients. The National Career Development Association's (NCDA 2007) Code of Ethics calls us to advocacy (Standard A.6.a): "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." On the other hand, foundational to the Code is respect for confidentiality (B.1.c): "Career professionals do not share confidential information without client consent or without sound legal or ethical justification." Standard A.6.b advises career professionals to "obtain consent prior to engaging in advocacy efforts on behalf of a client to improve the provision of services and to work toward removal of systemic barriers or obstacles that inhibit client access, growth, and development."
Clearly, then, it is appropriate to work directly with a client (with that client's consent) to advocate for changes that will improve his or her unique situation. This fits with the spirit of the Code: "Career professionals encourage client growth and development in ways that foster the interest and welfare of clients and promote formation of healthy relationships" (Introduction).
However, sometimes it is a pattern of injustice that troubles us. After years of experience working with clients, the stories we hear have a cumulative impact - what may have originally seemed like an individual issue is revealed to have much deeper and wide-spread roots. What are we ethically to do in terms of advocacy when we no longer have access to the storytellers to get their informed consent?
Perhaps guidance for advocacy could be drawn from research ethics? When embarking on an intentional research project, there are clear ethical guidelines for inviting participants, getting their informed consent, and preserving confidentiality (Sections B.7 and H). This is similar to getting informed consent for direct client advocacy. However, the Code also provides guidance for "use of data derived from professional relationships for purposes of training, research, or publication" specifying that it "is confined to content that is disguised to ensure the anonymity of the individuals involved" (B.7.d).
Perhaps advocacy could be considered training? Social justice is unlikely to occur without educating those responsible for injustices - whether they are abusive family members, bullies at school or in workplaces, policy-makers, funders, or average citizens unaware of injustice in their communities. Many professional training programs use a case study approach. Case examples could also be powerful tools for advocacy. Once we begin to use cases in public, however, it's much more difficult to ensure that individuals won't be identified. A former client may recognize his or her story on a webpage or in a published article, connecting the author's name and an earlier confidential conversation. Worse yet, the client's abuser may make a connection, recognizing the author's name as a local career professional, seeing familiar elements in the story, and blaming the client for revealing private details of their relationship.
When sharing individual case examples, it is clearly challenging to ensure confidentiality and abide by the spirit of the code to "promote the welfare of the individuals to whom they provide service" (A.1.a). Composite cases can help to accomplish this, particularly if the cases are attributed to a diverse group of counsellors rather than one individual's practice.
Called to Advocacy
Career professionals are called to "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" (Introduction, Section C). The Code provides standards for consultation: "Information obtained in a consulting relationship is discussed for professional purposes only with persons directly involved with the case. Written and oral reports present only data germane to the purposes of the consultation, "every effort is made to protect client identity and to avoid undue invasion of privacy" (B.8.b), and "when consulting with colleagues, career professionals "disclose information only to the extent necessary to achieve the purposes of the consultation" (B.8.c).
It seems, then, that advocacy can be handled ethically - we have both the right and responsibility to share the substance of our clients' stories as long as we (a) have their informed consent, or (b) are diligent about protecting the identity of individual clients and limit the information shared to only what is essential to making a case for change.
Our concern for the well-being of all of our clients (past, current, and future) must, of course, always outweigh our concerns for ourselves. However, an extra benefit of advocacy relates to our responsibility for self-care. Channelling our outrage to champion change can promote our own "emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being to best meet [our] professional responsibilities" (Section C, Introduction). Silencing our emotional responses to clients' stories can lead to burnout. Using our reactions to fuel advocacy efforts provides a healthy outlet and has the potential to make the world a better place.
Dr.Roberta Neault is a counsellor educator at Yorkville University (www.yorkvilleu.ca), editor of the Journal of Employment Counseling, and active advocate for policy changes that impact career practitioners and their clients. She can be reached at: Roberta@lifestrategies.ca.