The Ethics of Advocacy: A Canadian Perspective
By Roberta Neault
Do you remember Art Linkletter (Linkletter & Schultz, 2005) and his “Kids say the darndest things” television segments? Similarly, career practitioners hear the darndest things – some sad, some funny, and some completely outrageous. Without an outlet for those stories, career practitioners may keep them bottled up. Similar to the pressure cooker my mom used when I was a child, if the pressure builds up too much without release, the lid will eventually blow off—and that’s a scary experience for everyone involved (as well as a very challenging mess to clean up!).
Bound by confidentiality, however, what outlets do career practitioners have for the stories they hear? In recent presentations and articles, I’ve been encouraging individuals to “channel their outrage to champion change” (Neault, 2008a, 2008b). Advocacy is one powerful tool for doing just that; the challenge, however, is ensuring that advocacy efforts are ethical.
Within Canada, career practitioners adhere to a wide variety of ethical codes, developed by several different professional associations (e.g., Canadian Counselling Association [CCA]; Career Development Association of Alberta [CDAA]; Employment Network, Education, and Training for Rehabilitation and Career Development Practitioners [ENET]). There is also a national code, attached to the Canadian Standards and Guidelines for Career Development Practitioners (National Steering Committee, 2004). A comparable national code in the United States has been developed by the National Career Development Association (NCDA, 2007). Earlier this year, I wrote a feature article for their newsletter on the ethics of advocacy using the NCDA code as my benchmark (Neault, 2008a). Similarly, in this article, I will examine the ethics of advocacy using the Canadian Standards and Guidelines Code of Ethics as a framework.
In a recent survey of career practitioners in British Columbia (Neault, 2008b), respondents highlighted some of their ethical concerns regarding advocacy. These concerns clustered into four major themes: the foundational question of whose rights to privilege—an individual’s or society’s; loyalty to employers or funders and their policies; dual relationships (e.g., the impact of bias, favoritism, or emotional involvement); and a sense of futility, including concern about setting clients up for failure. I’ll use these four themes as the framework for this analysis of the ethics of advocacy from the perspective of the Canadian code (National Steering Committee, 2004).
Individual Rights vs. the Good of Society: The Great Debate
The Canadian code (National Steering Committee, 2004) privileges individual rights: “Career development practitioners respect and stand up for the individual rights and personal dignity of all clients” (Section 1.g., p. 132)† and “assist clients to realize their potential and respect clients’ rights to make their own informed and responsible decisions” without imposing the practitioner’s personal values and issues on their clients (Section 2.a., p. 132)†. However, career practitioners are also tasked to “comply with all relevant provincial/ territorial and federal legislation and regulations” (Section 1.h., p. 132)† and are required to release confidential information “where there is clear evidence of imminent danger to the client,…to others, [or] where required by law” (Section 2.c., p. 133)†.
From an advocacy perspective, the implications are that career practitioners are to support their clients’ rights and dignity (which may, in some cases, require advocacy to employers, funders, or policy makers) but not to impose their own issues or values. Therefore, if clients don’t want to “make a fuss” or ask you not to tell others about their challenges, it’s important to honour those requests and not let your own need for justice over-ride your clients’ right to privacy and independent decision-making.
On occasion, however, you may recognize a bigger issue—a systemic problem represented by several clients’ stories. In such cases, you may believe that advocacy is for the good of society, even if individual clients choose not to self-advocate or engage your support. The Code of Ethics provides clear guidance if the issue involves a colleague within our own field—“Career development practitioners take appropriate action to try to rectify a situation if ethical, moral or legal violations are perceived to have taken place by a colleague, whether a career development practitioner or not” (Section 1.h., p. 132)†. However, the principle of “informed consent” must also be considered. “Career development practitioners fully inform clients as to the use of any information that is collected during the offering of service. Career development practitioners ensure that information collected will only be used for its intended purpose or obtain the consent of clients for any other use of the information” (Section 2.d., p. 133)†.
A dilemma, therefore, is whether or not to share information that a client has asked you to keep confidential. Clearly, if the information puts the client or others at risk of imminent harm, you are required to breach confidentiality. However, some of our advocacy concerns are not immediately life-threatening. One option is to fully explain your concerns to your client—this may result in your client’s informed consent to use his or her information for advocacy purposes. Another option, but with significant risks attached, is to share your own experiences and insights without the specific details from any individual client (e.g., “I have noticed a significant pattern of ___ within the past six months”). One of the risks, of course, is that clients who were unwilling to share their stories may be recognized in the examples or issues you share. Another risk is that your concerns may be minimized or result in limited changes because of the lack of supporting detail. Consultation is a third alternative, one that is clearly supported by the Code of Ethics: “Career development practitioners reserve the right to consult with other professionally competent persons ensuring the confidentiality of the client is protected” (Section 3.a., p. 133)†. So…if in doubt, consult!
Loyalty and Policies
Many career practitioners experience being “between a rock and a hard place” when it comes to advocacy initiatives. They recognize the mandates and policies that guide their work but, on a daily basis, encounter needs and issues that don’t neatly fit within those guidelines. Informed consent can help here as well: “Career development practitioners inform clients and customers about the types of service offered and the limitations to service” (Section 2.d., p. 133)†. Referral to an appropriate resource may also be an advocacy response; this fits with the principle of “respect for other professionals”: “Career development practitioners make full use of the resources provided by other professionals to best serve the needs of the client” (Section 3.b., p. 134)†. In some cases, career practitioners may recognize gaps in services; advocacy may take the form of “making a case” for such services, through funding proposals, meetings with funders, or liaising with other service providers within the community.
The Code of Ethics recognizes the inevitability of dual or multiple relationships (Section 2.e)†, advising, “If such a relationship cannot be avoided the career development practitioner is responsible to monitor the relationship to prevent harm, ensure that judgment is not impaired and avoid exploitation” (p. 133)†. This is particularly important when considering advocacy— as a career practitioner, you need to ask yourself, “Whose issue is this? Why am I so concerned? Would I be considering advocacy for a similar client if I didn’t have another relationship with him or her?” If in doubt about whether your advocacy agenda is your own or truly that of your client, consult with a trusted colleague or supervisor. Emotions impact interest in advocacy—considering your multiple relationships with a client may help you to determine whether advocacy is an appropriate option.
Related to the notion of dual relationships is conflict of interest (Section 2.f)†: “Career development practitioners do not exploit any relationship to further their personal, social, professional, political, or financial gains at the expense of their clients” (p. 133)†. It is therefore important that career practitioners monitor their own political and cultural beliefs, ensuring that they are not imposing their personal social justice initiatives on clients who might prefer to just get on with their lives.
The principle of “informed consent” (Section 2.d)† is crucial in minimizing any negative impact of multiple relationships and in avoiding conflict of interest. By informing clients about how their information will be used, the options available to them, and your willingness to engage in advocacy on their behalf, you are including your clients as full partners in advocacy initiatives that involve them as individuals. Should clients not be ready to participate in self-advocacy or have you advocate on their behalf, it may be necessary to refocus your attention on what the client is identifying identifying as a priority, using this particular experience as background information for future advocacy efforts.
Sense of Futility
In our preliminary advocacy research (Neault, 2008b), some career practitioners reported a sense of futility, wondering whether their advocacy efforts really made any significant difference and worrying that they might be setting up clients for failure. In other research, optimism surfaced as the single best predictor of both career success and job satisfaction (Neault, 2002); a sense of futility, therefore, has implications for both career practitioners and their clients.
To combat this sense of futility, it is likely important that career practitioners choose their battles wisely. Sometimes a “quick win” inspires ongoing advocacy (i.e., choosing to engage in an advocacy initiative where you are confident that a small intervention such as a phone call or email will make a significant difference). In other cases, it may make sense to focus energy on a narrow but consistent program of advocacy (e.g., although you may be aware of hundreds of injustices, choosing one group or issue to focus consistently on may allow you to make a significant difference over time as you gain expertise on a particular topic or segment of the population). Advocacy is hard work—to sustain your energy, it may help to work with others who share your concerns. Passionate helping professionals can suffer from compassion fatigue— therefore, self-care is also important to sustain advocacy.
An Ethical Decision-Making Model
When making decisions about advocacy, there will inevitably be pros and cons to consider. The Canadian code (National Steering Committee, 2004) provides an ethical decision-making model to help sort through ethical dilemmas. The five steps include:
- Recognize that an ethical dilemma exists.
- Identify the relevant ethical issues.
- Examine the risks and benefits of each alternative action.
- Choose a solution, take action, and evaluate the results.
- Learn from the situation. (pp. 134-135)†
When you encounter client stories that concern, confuse, or even outrage you, use those feelings as indicators that an ethical dilemma may exist. As you consider what to do with the information your clients have shared, consider the ethical implications of various actions you could take. Next, review the pros and cons of the alternatives before you—use the Code of Ethics as a starting place but also consult with colleagues and/or supervisors. In examining your professional role and your ethical responsibility to advocate, make the best decision you can, given your careful analysis of alternatives. Finally, reflect on the outcome of your decision; understanding the ethics of advocacy will be a lifelong process.
† National Steering Committee. (2004) Canadian standards and guidelines for career development practitioners: Code of ethics. Retrieved from
Linkletter, A., & Schultz. C. (2005). Kids say the darndest things. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts.
National Career Development Association. (2007). Code of ethics. Retrieved from
Neault, R. A. (2002). Thriving in the new millennium: Career management in the changing world of work Canadian Journal of Career Development, 1(1), 11-21.
Neault, R. (2008a). The ethics of advocacy: Channelling outrage to champion change. Career Convergence. Retrieved from
www.tcssoftware.com/cgi-bin/WebSuite/ tcsAssnWebSuite.pl?Action=DisplayNewsDetails &RecordID=1161&Sections=01&IncludeDropp ed=&NoTemplate=1&AssnID=NCDA&DBCo de=130285
Neault, R. (2008b). That’s just plain silly! Channeling outrage to champion change. Manuscript submitted for publication.