Ethical Practice in the “Gig Economy”
By Deirdre A. Pickerell
How to advise in the era of temporary contracts, self-employment and freelance work
This article also appears in the 2017 Summer issue of Career Developments,
the National Career Development Association (NCDA) print magazine
Everywhere we turn, work is changing. Some jobs are disappearing; others are being completely redesigned. At the same time, new jobs are being created. Often these changes are due to technology, but that isn’t always the case. Global economic factors and forecasts and consumer demands also impact how, and where, work is done. Now, more than ever, today’s worker will likely experience a number of work shifts – from different work roles or jobs to multiple employers and even complete career changes (Kasriel, 2016). Temporary contracts, self-employment and freelance work is becoming more common within, what is often referred to as, the “Gig Economy.” For some, this way of working offers more freedom, flexibility and work-life balance. It can also foster engagement and enhance opportunities to learn and grow as people create the work they want to do. For others, however, this type of work is precarious as they struggle to cobble together sufficient “gigs” to survive and cope without the protection of basic rights offered to employees (e.g., workers’ compensation, employment insurance; Zizys 2014).
Although some consider the Gig Economy a relatively new phenomenon, in many ways it has just been repackaged. Self-employment and freelance work, for example, has been around for decades and was the norm in many areas of the labour market (e.g., freelance photographers, artists, musicians and journalists; hairdressers, who rent chair space). What is new, however, is how quickly this work is becoming mainstream; one recent article noted it “could soon represent as much as 50 percent of the U.S. workforce” (Kaufman, 2013). This is up from the 10-15% noted as recently as 2008 (Hartog, van Praag, & van der Sluis, 2008). As the Gig Economy takes hold, thought leaders are beginning to debate who benefits more and who is most at risk; the answer isn’t immediately clear and may never be.
Today’s ever-changing world of work is also having an impact upon career development practitioners (CDPs). Their own careers and work environments are changing and evolving and they must figure out how to effectively, and ethically, serve clients in a rapidly changing labour market. Just like the clients they serve, some CDPs embrace the non-traditional ways of working and see incredible opportunity in the Gig Economy. Others long for the more traditional employment scenarios. Despite their best efforts, these beliefs and biases around what type of work “is best” can influence practice. A CDP who, for example, privileges one type of work over another may be restricting the options a client may want or need to consider. Further, this is likely in opposition to the ethical principle of working with integrity, honesty and objectivity (see Canadian Standards and Guidelines for Career Development Practitioners, 2004).
The following tips may help CDPs begin to think what ethical practice might “look like” within the Gig Economy.
- Attend conferences, take webinars, have access to key readings, and follow thought leaders. Ensure you are immersed in the current discourse regarding both the labour market and ethical practice. Don’t limit your explorations to one side of the argument; always seek a balance between the for and against.
- Know the local context. Staying current is crucial but CDPs also need to interpret that information into their local context. In some regions, almost all available work might be in the Gig Economy; in others, Gig work may be confined by various bylaws or what is common to the sector. The language used might also be different; freelance work may be common but the notion of “gigs” might be foreign.
- Learn the lingo. A “gig” may refer to contract, temporary and/or freelance work; unfortunately, the language isn’t consistent resulting in confusion for CDPs and their clients. In some cases, “gig” may actually refer to how the work is found (i.e., through an app) rather than to the work relationship. Part of staying current and knowing the context is ensuring a common understanding of what is being said and translating that to clients.
- Go beyond your Codes of Ethics. When faced with ethical dilemmas, CDPs will turn to their Codes of Ethics for guidance. However, many codes aren’t keeping pace; they aren’t updated quickly enough to address emerging challenges. CDPs, therefore, must go beyond the specific principles to draw from what codes are, and aren’t, saying. Using an ethical decision-making model will help CDPs explore alternatives (See “Ethical Decision-Making Model” in the Canadian Standards and Guidelines for Career Development Practitioners, 2004).
- Consider the “other” skills clients might need. Beyond specific job or employability skills, CDPs may need to help clients develop the skills needed in the Gig Economy including marketing, financial management and entrepreneurship. Clients may also need to be reminded of the importance of engaging in lifelong learning.
- Be aware of beliefs and biases. A CDP’s role isn’t to advise for or against a specific type of employment; CDPs should be mindful of how their beliefs and biases about the Gig Economy, whether for or against, may be having an impact upon how they serve clients. Strive to stay neutral and encourage clients to do their research.
- Consider the ethics of advocacy. In her article, The Ethics of Advocacy: Channelling Outrage to Champion Change, Dr Roberta Neault (2008) offered guidance for CDPs interested in working for more systemic changes within the systems they work. CDPs who feel the Gig Economy is creating more precarious work, may want to explore how to advocate for change. Conversely, CDPs who embrace this type of work may want to share their experiences, adding to this important debate.
- Embrace the possibilities. Freelance and contract work can often lead to a more permanent relationship with an employer. In my own career, one 2-hour contract (i.e., a single “Gig” with no expectation of more) led to a 15+ year history with Life Strategies Ltd., a small consulting firm that does award-winning work within the career development sector. My story is not unique; taking on one small contract often opens the door to incredible opportunities.
- Educate clients and employers. It is likely unethical for employers to hire freelance workers simply to avoid paying mandatory employment-related costs or adhering to employment standards. Truth be told, in some instances this practice might be deemed unlawful. Conversely, some clients may be “working” full-time in the Gig Economy while also receiving disability or employment insurance; this could be considered fraud. Ethical practice may be shining a light on the seedier side of the Gig Economy.
- Lead by example. The career development sector has undergone, and is continuing to undergo, incredible transformation. CDPs may need to embrace the changing nature of their own work, looking at how the changes help, rather than hinder, their practice. Optimism has been found to be the biggest predictor for career success and job satisfaction; hope has also surfaced as an important component of career development. CDPs who have hope and optimism for the future may be more likely to impart those same feelings to clients.
Perhaps most important is to listen carefully to each client’s story. Be mindful of hopes and aspirations as well as barriers. Work collaboratively to establish a career goal and action plan that makes sense for that client, at that time.
Dr Deirdre Pickerell, CPHR, GCDF-i, is Vice-President of Life Strategies Ltd. and Dean of Academics at Yorkville University’s British Columbia Campus. She has been honoured with the 2014 Stu Conger Award for Leadership in Career Development and Career Counselling and the 2006 Human Resources Association Award of Excellence. Pickerell has spent her career gainfully self-employed, with the last 15 years focused on temporary contract work . . . she has been part of the Gig Economy since long before it was called the Gig Economy.
Canadian Standards and Guidelines for Career Development Practitioners (2004). Code of ethics.
Retrieved from career-dev-guidelines.org/career_dev/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Doc-10-CODE-OF-ETHICS1.pdf
Kasrief, S. (2016). By 2030, will we all be our own boss? Retrieved from www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/11/by-2030-will-we-all-be-our-own-boss/
Kaufman, M. (2013). The gig economy: The force that could save the American worker?
Retrieved from www.wired.com/insights/2013/09/the-gig-economy-the-force-that-could-save-the-american-worker/
Hartog, J., van Praag, M., & van der Sluis, J. (2008). If you are so smart, why aren’t you an entrepreneur? Returns to cognitive and social ability: Entrepreneurs versus employees.
Retrieved from ftp.iza.org/dp3648.pdf
Neault, R. (2008). The ethics of advocacy: Channelling outrage to champion change.
Retrieved from ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/5480/_PARENT/layout_details_cc/false
Zizys, T. (2014). Better work: The path to good jobs is through employers. Toronto, ON: Metcalf Foundation.
Retrieved from metcalffoundation.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/2014-10-02-Better-Work.pdf