Career professionals need to consider how the online world affects clients in terms of their data, social equity, privacy and access

Tom Staunton

The internet and its effects on society are rarely out of the news. From the impact it has on young people, to its place in fostering extremism, to how big tech firms do (or don’t) pay taxes, the internet is continuously the subject of debate. Despite such controversies, it is ingrained in our everyday lives. This means that, as careers practitioners, we can neither just get on with using the internet without asking any ethical questions, nor can we assume that the right thing to do is to retreat from technology. The world we live in means we have to use the internet, but as career practitioners, we still need to engage with associated ethical questions. This article will explore several ethical considerations related to the internet from a career guidance perspective.

Interactional ethics

Medical ethics is governed by the principle of doing no harm or “nonmaleficence.” This means the first duty of someone working in medicine is to not harm anyone under their care. I think this is a helpful starting point for thinking about career guidance practice. Career guidance practitioners need to make sure that their use of the internet does no harm to their clients or any third parties.

The internet’s potential for harm is often connected to data. The same data that makes the internet’s existence possible also makes the individuals who use it vulnerable. Data that is created through Skype interviews, online forums, message boards, online courses and even email exchanges is often sensitive and can leave clients vulnerable to having their private information made public. These are vital ways individual practitioners and careers services should be thinking about data:

  • Security: Is the data the career professional/career service generates about clients/students kept secure?
  • Transparency: Do clients know what data is collected about them and how it will be used?
  • Platforms: Increasingly, the online world is mediated by platforms (eg, Facebook, Skype, Dropbox, etc.), so career professionals need to know and communicate to clients how these platforms may make use of data.
two people looking at computer screen together
Equity ethics

Career professionals also need to be concerned with how the online world affects our clients in terms of social equity. While the internet may appear free and easy, career professionals need to think more critically about whom it includes and excludes, and how they can help individuals make use of it.

Firstly, we should be cautious about lauding the benefits of technology to people who might be excluded from it. People who are economically disadvantaged may be able to afford less technology, both in the form of hardware and in the form of data and internet access. Similarly, some people with disabilities may find it harder to access the internet without assistive technology. Talking about the internet as essential to a career may end up excluding these populations. This observation might also encourage career professionals to consider advocating for increased technological access for clients with whom they work.

“Career guidance practitioners need to make sure that their use of the internet does no harm to their clients or any third parties.”

Secondly, we need to remember what the internet costs people. Though online tools may often be free (which is a significant part of their attraction), at point of access they often require individuals to subject themselves to surveillance. This is worth reflecting on, partly because we increasingly live in a society where individuals’ data is the means by which companies make profit. Career professionals might find that their actions do more to facilitate private profit than benefit their clients. This is not a straightforward issue but it’s helpful to recognize some of the ethical complexities that are at stake.

More significantly, career professionals need to think about the consequences of surveillance for their clients. Platforms such as LinkedIn and Facebook can be used by recruiters to screen candidates. This can lead to individuals being assessed based on their beliefs, their politics, their social life or even aspects of their identity such as their gender, age or ethnicity. Importantly, digital technology enables this discrimination. Though this discrimination is not created by technology, it can make it harder to combat and counter.

Read more on CERIC’s CareerWise website:
Canada’s lack of digital accessibility is robbing its workforce of resilient talent
How virtual reality is transforming career development
The role of career practitioners changes as recruiters turn to social media

Radical ethics

Radical career guidance looks at how careers practice can engage with transforming and changing society. This argues that ethics does not just involve avoiding negative actions, but includes proactive positive actions to make the world more ethical. We can see the influence of the internet as a place to engage with social change in examples from outside of the world of career guidance, such as the Arab Spring or the #MeToo movements.

The internet can allow individuals to develop relationships and access information that they would not have had access to before. People are often bound by their family backgrounds and their locations when it comes to accessing career-related support and information. The internet has the potential to transform what individuals can access and make use of for their careers. Career practitioners can pursue ethical agendas by helping clients make use of the internet to overcome disadvantages they might face.

From a more radical point of view, the internet can also create spaces where careers work can engage with issues that might improve individuals’ working lives, such as highlighting poor conditions, unethical working practices or discriminatory recruitment policies. The internet can spread stories and allow people with shared interests to network and organize around issues. Career practitioners should think through how they can develop skills to support these sorts of activities or equip their clients to do the same.

In conclusion, these three positions create different but overlapping starting points for individuals approaching how the internet and ethics interact within career development.

Tom Staunton is a Lecturer in Career Development with the International Centre for Guidance Studies based at the University of Derby. His main teaching and research interests are career guidance theory, technology and career guidance, use of LMI and social justice.