The following case study describes the role of career centers when a student’s identifiable demographics are sent via email by staff personnel and shared with others outside the university. The student has come to the career center for assistance in finding a job in a specific field as well as the regional area. The Principles for Ethical Professional Practice is used to address this scenario. This case study provides insight into the following:
- The role of career centers in this situation;
- Implications for the career coach given their actions;
- Considerations for privacy and confidentiality;
- Exposure of a protected class using identifiable information; and
- Potential legal implications.
Scenario: The following inquiry was posted to a 1,000-person online forum (hereafter referred to as a “group”) for career coaches:
“I am working with a 54-year-old Latinx student who is attempting to identify their career options. Their previous work history includes:
- Writer (loves writing about foods and restaurants; is a gourmet cook)
- Freelance proofreader/editor
- A mediation specialist for community disputes
- They handle a customer service in the private sector.
- Public information specialist—created brochures for government agencies
- Radio broadcasting, sales, and advertising
They have an undergraduate degree in communications and media (1988) and are completing their master’s in English. Their thesis and area of greatest interest focuses on media literacy. It deals with educating the public about the impact media has on us, particularly the influence of violence.
Here are the “kinks” in helping them explore their options:
- The client really wants to live in a rural area, preferably in the Northwest or New England.
- They developed a vision disability that is making any close work difficult. They are seeing specialists for this condition and are not losing their sight, but too much eye strain causes their eyes to cross. As much as they enjoy desktop publishing and proofing work, they estimated that they could do this work only about 25 percent of the time.
- The student has developed a loss of range of motion in their right wrist making typing difficult. At home, they use voice recognition software.
I would love suggestions of positions they might pursue in the public relations/media/ journalism/mediation areas that would accommodate their disabilities.”
- Is the level of detail in this post appropriate?
- Has a breach of confidentiality occurred between the counselor and the client?
- What rules or guidelines would you propose for disclosure of client information on a professional listserv?
- What are the ethical/legal issues that this scenario raises?
- Does ‘counselor confidentiality’ have any significance in this scenario?
- How would you handle this situation?”
Analysis: A career center professional shared detailed client information seeking advice on career options—the professional shared confidential information, including that the client is a member of a protected class, their gender, their age, and that they have a disability. Additionally, the professional shared information about their race/ethnicity, graduation year and major, as well as their location of professional interest. The demographic data of the client is so narrowed that confidentiality and privacy may be compromised. We assume that the professional did not get permission from the client to present their case to the listserv. However, even with the authorization from a client, it is the ethical duty of the professional to remove any identifiable demographic information.
Career advisers and coaches should be reminded that information shared on listservs and other digital media should be considered public information. This includes but is not limited to social networking sites, video conferencing platforms, and any online messaging applications. Advisers/coaches should also be mindful that the improper disclosure of certain student identifying information may be considered a violation of FERPA. Clients should always be consulted before a career services professional seeks advice on their case and should be informed of the rights to confidentiality. Career counselor client confidentiality and privacy is an ethical standard of practice that restricts the exposure of clients to others as potential ramifications can follow-suit, thus exposing the professional to a variety of potential legal issues.
Principles That Apply: Four of the five principles were highlighted as points of concern:
- Principle 1: Practice reasonable, responsible, and transparent behavior.
- Principle 3: Ensure equitable access.
- Principle 4: Comply with laws.
- Principle 5: Protect confidentiality of client.
Principle 5 first states, “Protect confidentiality of all personal information related to candidates and their interviews, and their engagement with services, programs, and resources,” and secondly, “protect confidentiality of student information related to professional plans.”
Options for Resolution: Principle 5 is clear when it states that personal information of students is to be protected.
First, the career center professional posting this case should be informed that their action is addressed in the NACE Principles for Ethical Professional Practice, specifically Principle 5. Assuming that the student did not give written permission for the disclosure of personal information, the professional should be aware of different alternatives that could have been followed to avoid a breach of client confidentiality. These include:
- Only discuss and disclose unidentifiable facts of the client, such as “career-changing professional looking for opportunity in the field of journalism.”
- Fully disclose the content of the post to the client and its potential to identify the client.
- Offer to discuss the issue with a select group of colleagues, preferably in person, over the phone, or in an online meeting, as opposed to a group where the membership is unknown. Again, avoid providing identifiable information of the client without the client’s express, written permission.
- If the client agrees to have the information shared, whether in a group or to a specific group of colleagues, be sure to indicate to the group that the client’s written authorization has been obtained.
The client should be informed about the breach of confidentiality. Before communicating with the client, the career center leader should consult with campus counsel to ensure any such communications mitigate risk for the career center. In addition, the leader needs to learn if this is an isolated incident or if the adviser/coach had engaged in the behavior before, and, if so, what action was taken. These consultations will inform next steps.
Using campus counsel advice, the client should be informed about the breach of confidentiality and given a copy of the “Rights and Responsibilities” article. The client needs to be assured that this breach of confidentiality will be addressed and steps have been taken to prevent this from happening in the future. Other actions, as deemed appropriate by the career center leader, could include a formal written letter of apology, immediate removal of the public post, and/or a formal internal reprimand or other discipline of the adviser/coach.
To prevent future confidentiality breaches, career center leaders should ensure staff have training on FERPA and NACE confidentiality standards or other applicable standards. Leaders may also consider asking employers via conversations, surveys, or as part of employer advisory board meetings for their perspectives on what type of candidate information is appropriate for the career center to share with them. The leader should also consider posting the “Rights and Responsibilities” article in the career center and on the center’s website so that students are made aware of their rights.
Reviewed and revised by the 2022-23 Principles for Ethical Professional Practice Committee.