Reflecting on Ethical Practice with Evolving Career Services Technologies


Julia Panke Makela, PhD, CCC is the Associate Director for Assessment and Research of The Career Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. With more than 20 years of experience in career development, she has dedicated her career to exploring, communicating, and enhancing the value of career services. Julia has a sincere passion for education and ethics, having served as a member of the National Career Development Association’s (NCDA) Ethics Committee since 2005 (Chair from 2009 – 2012). She is the lead author of NCDA’s ethics case study monographs and the founder of the 'Ethics in a Nutshell' column in the Career Developments Magazine. Julia serves on the Board of NCDA (2020 – 2023), is an NCDA Fellow, and a Certified Career Counsellor. 

The work of career services professionals has evolved over time, integrating new technologies as they impact our field. From tele-counselling, to computer-based career assessments and computer-assisted career guidance systems, to client relations and career management systems, to social networking and social media technologies – it is hard to imagine our profession without technology’s pervasive influence.

Technologies often emerge and environments shift at a rate that outpaces the development of ethical guidelines and best practices. The past year has been no exception. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic significantly accelerated the use of technology in career service delivery. Career professionals rapidly embraced new communication, social media, and other technologies to engage with clients in remote service delivery. The motivation was to balance two seemingly oppositional goals – attending to the health and safety of self and clients through physical social distancing, while also providing continuous career services to meet clients’ expanding needs.

Embracing technology provides many benefits, such as building and maintaining communities, and overcoming environmental and personal barriers to providing services. However, technologies also introduce intriguing ethical issues and challenges. For example, technology solutions may raise questions regarding equitable access to services, informed consent, confidentiality, and data security

As COVID-19 restrictions ease and we look toward long-term strategies to support clients, this is an ideal time to reconnect with ethical frameworks to inform our practice. There will likely be some areas where we would like to return to past service delivery practices and strategies. Yet, we are also likely to have learned some new strategies that we can carry forward to improve our practice. Perhaps there are new technologies that we want to integrate for the long-term. How might we think about engaging with these new technologies in an ethical and high-quality manner?

Reflecting Together

One helpful strategy for tackling ethical puzzles like this is to proactively engage with colleagues, bringing together diverse expertise and perspectives. Thankfully, some of the groundwork has been provided by career services professional associations that publish codes of ethics and professional standards documents. These documents are collective statements that demonstrate the field’s consensus on professionalism and ethical behaviors. They provide a compass to guide reflection and decision making.

Common Ethical Commitments 

 Let’s consider some common ethical commitments of career services professionals, in light of technology use. The following table (adapted from Makela, 2015) outlines seven common ethical commitments addressed in the ethical codes and professional standards documents of career services professional associations. Examples are also provided to demonstrate how the integration of technologies can present challenges to these ethical commitments.

Table: Common ethical commitments and example technology challenges

Ethical Commitment   Defined   Example Technology Challenge
Privacy   Only requesting information from clients when it is beneficial to the working relationship   Relationship boundaries become blurred as social media technology can make it more difficult to separate personal and professional lives – what happens when clients “search” career professionals? When, if ever, should a career professional “search” a client?

Confidentiality   Protecting information shared by clients; only sharing information with third parties with expressed permission of client (or in rare cases with legal duty to report)
  Protecting client information requires new conversations. When interactions occur on social media technologies, how are clients informed to be mindful about their actions and their sharing, recognising that many interactions are publicly observable. 

Informed Consent   Reviewing rights and responsibilities of both the client and career professional prior to service provision   Difficulty managing interactions of online clients when identities can be difficult to confirm / clients move unexpectedly in and out of interaction spaces. 

Fair Treatment / Equal Access   All clients have access to equitable services    Digital exclusion is important to remember – who is advantaged and who is left out when a move is made to virtual services? Who is advantaged and who is left out when a specific technology is selected? 

Tested Tools, Techniques, Resources   Only use established professional practice resources. Using “unproven or developing” practices requires acknowledgement and explanation of risks

  Rapid technology development may not allow time for adequate testing with various client audiences to identify challenges or risks. How do we know a tool is appropriate and ready for use with our particular client population?

Data Security   Maintain and secure records of provided services; Only authorised persons have access
  Data storage may no longer be on-site. Who has access to that data? How long will the data be stored? How will it be destroyed when storage is complete? Who has control over this? 

Professional Competence   Work within the boundaries of competence based on education, credentials, training, supervised experience, professional competence, etc.
  Rapid changes in technology resources or features may not allow time for career professionals to receive sufficient training for competent use with clients. What training resources are in place for new technologies? What monitoring and supports are in place for when features change? 

Next Steps

This table is not meant to provide a comprehensive list of technology questions to consider. Rather, the intention is to illustrate reflections related to common ethical commitments as career professionals integrate technology into practice. My hope is to leave readers empowered with a framework to engage in dialog with colleagues regarding ethical and best practices for our career services work. 

Encountering and addressing new ethical challenges will always be a part of our work. They will arise simply because the world around us is constantly changing – presenting unfamiliar situations, contexts, tools, and challenges. The best preparation is to connect with our colleagues in proactive dialog, actively pursuing opportunities to build our ethical sensitivities.