Thoughts On Employment Counselling

I love my job. I find great satisfaction in the work I do primarily because I’m in this wonderful position to make a tangible and real difference for good in the lives of others.

The nature of my job and the population I serve brings me into contact with people who are on social assistance, almost all of whom are unemployed. Most of these people share characteristics beyond a lack of financial resources. They may have low self-esteem because they didn’t plan on ever being where they are, and with that is a loss of dignity and personal pride.

They may be experiencing anxiety, certainly stress, increasing moments of depression and mental exhaustion. All of the above makes them fragile and vulnerable. So it takes real compassion and empathy to work day in and day out with all these various people you come into contact with. At least it does if you want to conduct yourself with the highest possible standards of service excellence.

Here’s a dilemma though. Do you think it best to look at those you help as clients and participants or people first and foremost? It’s easier to see them as clients. Clients come and go and there will be more to replace them when they move on. It’s a conscious decision if you say things like, “Hey one of my clients got a job!” This would reflect to others that you see the individual as a client in a professional client-counsellor relationship.

However, suppose you work with the view that these are people you are helping. Seriously, you then say things like, “John got a job!” It’s a subtle thing but it shows how you see the person rather than the client.

Make no mistake, people on assistance who are out of work have plenty of experiences where they are treated like clients. They are numbered on documents, they hear staff talking about clients, they even sit on the other side of desks in most situations, physically separating them as a client from the staff person. It’s you over there and me over here; we’re different. You are unemployed, I’m here to help you – and that implies that we have some power the client does not, and sharing what we know will move you to independence – like us.

When you see the individual as a person first and foremost however, things change both physically and emotionally. The ‘client’ becomes a person and they’ll value you and your help more because you see them this way. Two days ago at a meeting I asked a woman what if anything, I had done for her over a two-week period. She said without hesitation that the single biggest thing I did for her was treat her as a person, and that only myself and one other person had ever done that. That’s what she was most impacted by.

And when meeting, instead of people sitting on the other side of a desk, my office set up puts us face to face without that barrier between us. The desk is off to one side. “You care about me as a person and want ME to succeed, and I need that right now”. Make no mistake, people are good at reading us just as we are good at reading them. If you are really invested in people and treat them with dignity and respect it shows. If you feel you’re just doing your job and these are all interchangeable clients that come and go without seeing them as individuals that will show too.

The downside for me honestly becomes two things in seeing those I help as people first and client second – and make no mistake I know they are ‘clients’. First, when they are successful at gaining their independence from social assistance, our relationship typically ends. When you connect with people, especially people you’ve come to know (knowing their vulnerabilities, hopes and dreams) it can be sad personally if you’ve really connected. Oh your happy of course in sharing in their success, but it means you’ll soon lose contact with THE PERSON as well as the client.

The second thing which can be the downside of seeing the person first and foremost is that if you have high standards of service, the biggest fear you can have is in not doing enough to help. “What more can I do to help Mary sitting in front of me/” So now it’s me the Employment Counsellor Kelly sitting down with Mary the person I am honoured and humbled to be in a position to help.

Some touch us more than others; human nature. When they succeed, we love the success they’ve achieved, we feel happiness in being a small part in that success. But make no mistake, there is a bittersweet moment where you know this person that’s touched you in a unique way will soon be exiting not just social services, but your life with it. It’s only natural and logical. Your relationship was built after all on that client/professional basis.

Feeling touched in this way though does one very important thing; it serves to remind you that you’re still invested in people first and foremost as you should be in this profession. And at this moment, one such client has me grateful for allowing me to help her on her journey to financial independence. How grateful I am to have shared this brief time with her.





2 thoughts on “Thoughts On Employment Counselling

  1. Wonderful article Kelly! And I couldn’t agree more. Just one thing to add and that is to realize that “there by the grace of God (could) go I” if you are really relating to the person. Employment Counsellors are often hired by agencies relying on contract funding which could be stripped or withdrawn at any time. which is an ironic indicator of the precarity of what much work has come to these days!

    Second, while it is great to assuage and attend to the spirit and practical needs of the person/client, the Counsellor is not the hiring party so while they may yield personal and relationship ‘power’ to help influence potential hiring decisions, they do not hold the actual authority to ‘close the deal’. This is something that I don’t think is fully understood by the most vulnerable who are seeking employment counselling services , so as you alluded to, it is a fine balance between sharing ‘successes’ (and letting them ‘go’ so happily on their way) and helping to continue propping up and managing shattered hopes and dreams destroyed through often no fault of their own.

    I continue to comment on your posts because this is the type of work I am passionate about and feel callled to do as well. I have looked at your profile and see that you are based in Durham region. I don’t expect that there is much problem there (yet) with un and underemployment due to lacking French (or Candian ‘official’ bilingualism) however I would love to see an article of your thoughts on this subject. I currently live in Eastern Ontario where getting even the most banal entry level opportunity is more than challenging because even if a person has other skills and personal qualities, they are not even looked at without being French. I have heard it is the same in Northern Ontario and beyond, and even spreading to Winnipeg and Edmonton, not to mention the East Coast. And yet employers still complain they can’t find ‘people’! Immigrants and new Canadians seem to get some consideration because they usually do have a second language -even if other than French-yet the government offers them FREE language training for whatever they lack. We know employers do not invest in training to the extent that they should, and even if people are motived to ‘take classes’ on their own, as you point out, they are often already operating at a significant deficit and language is just one more ‘kick in the pants’.


  2. Kelly, I wish the people I had to deal with when I was on Welfare thought to treat me as a person instead of a client. Thank you for the article. As for not seeing someone again after they have attained employment, I wonder how long the job will last. In this economy jobs don’t last long. Employment is tenuous at best. Many of these people probably will end up back on welfare. The only reason I didn’t end up back there is I am lucky enough to have a family to help me out. I agree with Anna as well. It’s interesting about the French. Here in BC I haven’t seen any big demand by employers for French and certainly not in jobs like retail, which is the biggest employer here. I have found, though, there is no such thing as an entry level job anymore. Every job I have come across that said entry level wanted two or three years experience.


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