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Career counseling and the information highway: heeding the road signs. (Personal Perspectives).

Traveling the "information highway" in the process of career counseling or providing career counseling services via the Internet pose additional challenges for counselors. In this article, the authors use current ethical guidelines to guide discussion of, and possible resolutions to, challenges posed by incorporating the Internet into career counseling.


Although most counselors continue to practice face-to-face counseling with their clients, the Internet is quickly becoming a standard counseling tool for career counselors (Gysbers, Heppner, & Johnston, 1998; Harris-Bowlsbey, 2000). Career counseling professionals now must hold at least minimal competencies in the use of computers and retrieval of information on the Internet (Stevens & Lundberg, 1998). Some counselors may choose to develop and provide interactive online service. The number and variety of Web sites and the issues involved in infusing the Internet into counseling are major challenges. A recent search for career-related Web sites resulted in a range of sites, from 256 to 23,137, depending on the search engine and search term used.

One frequently used option for simplifying the search process is to use published lists of useful career Web sites. For example, Bolles (1998) and Harris-Bowlsbey, Dikel, and Sampson (1998) have offered recommendations of key Web sites for career counselors. The rapid change of Web site addresses and the need for frequent updating of information limit the usefulness of these lists of Web sites. The information on the Internet is not static, does not have a regular update schedule, and may be part of e-commerce, which affects the intent of the published information. Locating career-related Web sites is a quick and easy process, whereas narrowing them down and practicing counseling using the Internet as a tool can feel overwhelming.

In our practice, we recognized potential benefits and drawbacks in the use of the Internet in our career counseling. We were concerned that caution may have been thrown to the wind in the service of this evolving and flashy tool, the Internet, and therefore reviewed the National Career Development Association's (NCDA) NCDA Ethical Standards (NCDA, 1991) and the NCDA Guidelines for the Use of the Internet for Provision of Career Information and Planning Services (NGDA, 1997) to guide our practice in this new terrain. With no road signs to guide travelers, one can easily become lost, make a wrong turn, or have an accident on the new "information highway" and lose sight of some important practice issues along the way. We offer these information highway road signs for new counselors in the field and recommend that seasoned counselors pause along the road to examine their practices.

Pedestrian Crossing

Using the Internet in career counseling requires careful attention to the clients that counselors serve. Introducing the Internet into counseling and using appropriate measures of informed consent and confidentiality gain new importance. As the NCDA Ethical Standards (NCDA, 1991) state, a counselor's primary obligation is to respect the integrity and promote the welfare of the client (see Section B.1). As in all counseling relationships, a portion of the initial assessment should focus on identifying the most appropriate service to, and treatment for, an individual, based on the client's stated needs. When using the Internet, the NCDA Ethical Standards state that "career counselors must also ensure that clients are intellectually, emotionally, and physically compatible with the use of computer application and understand its purpose and operation" (NCDA, 1991, Section B.16). This also emphasizes the importance of selective use and introduction of the Internet in its proper perspective (see NCDA, 1991, Section C.1). The Internet can be a useful tool for finding career information, job openings, and assessment tools; it is best used as an adjunct to counseling, and with caution. The cautions that need to be communicated to clients about the information found on the Internet include the importance of verifying source credibility; the currency of dated information, such as job postings; the level of transmission security; and the multiple issues related to online assessments (discussed in more detail later).

Informed consent regarding the use of the Internet in counseling is required by both sets of NCDA (1991. 1997) guidelines for practice. For most counselors, this requires minor changes in the disclosure form and procedures to include the use of the Internet as an adjunct information tool. A more challenging requirement is the assurance of confidentiality with the use of some of the Internet tools, as required in Section B.2. (NCDA, 1991). Although many Web sites are encrypted and ensure privacy of information, counselors cannot assure clients of that privacy. In addition, if clients complete online assessments, the information provided to the test companies is not private. In this case, we recommend using client numbers rather than names to identify results and never storing results online.

Curve Ahead

The introduction of the Internet as an adjunct to the traditional counseling tools adds another curve to the career counseling process. Web sites used in career counseling need to be selected in a planful fashion. Although career counselors have long used various informational and assessment tools, using the Internet effectively in counseling does require some training and practice (see NCDA, 1991, Section A.7).

One of the most important steps in developing a method for using the Internet in career counseling is identification of credible, useful, quality Web sites to use with clients. The NCDA Ethnical Standards (NCDA, 1991) state that when using computer-based information systems, "career counselors must ensure that the systems provide current, accurate, and locally relevant information" (Section, B.16). To select the most useful Web sites for a counseling practice, we recommend three methods.

1. As you use the Internet in your own exploration, develop a log of Web sites deemed useful in your counseling practice.

2. Refer to sources that recommend Web sites for career counseling (e.g., Bolles, 1998; Harris-Bowlsbey et al., 1998).

3. Refer to several of the Web sites that serve as clearinghouses (e.g.,,, These Web sites connect the Internet user to multiple related links for exploration.

Selected Web sites should be evaluated on two levels: credibility and usability. When evaluating the credibility of information available on individual Web sites, the first step is to locate the author and sponsor of the site. This information is sometimes hard to find and is hidden at the very end of the home page (initial page of the Web site). The credibility of the author can be assessed using these questions: What qualifications and credentials do the authors have for publishing information related to career counseling in an interactive format (NCDA, 1997)? Do the authors have a motivation other than providing information that might affect the veracity or straightforwardness of the Web site (e.g., financial gain)? Do the authors provide contact information? Do the authors carefully cite sources used in compiling the information provided? When evaluating the credibility of Web sites, it is important to keep in mind Casey's (2000) caution that "We must neither confuse form with substance nor let form subtract from substance" (p. 27).

To assess the usability of Web sites, we examined the design components of readability, the ease of movement between Web pages, and the frequency of updates. Layout of the Web page is a key issue in readability. Most Web pages now use multiple tables within a page, which can either ease use by providing key links on the home page or clutter the home page and result in an overwhelming load of information with flashing banners of advertisements. Movement between Web pages should flow in a logical pattern and be easily accomplished with back and forward buttons on each page. It is also helpful to have links on each page that return the reader to the home page. The final usability issues are the information 's currency and relevance. Most Web sites post a note at the end of the home page identifying a date the pages were last updated. If this date is more than 1 month old and the information is time sensitive (job openings, networking contacts, etc.) or not specific to their region, counselors should look for another site.

Once numerous Web sites have been evaluated for credibility and usability, further classification is helpful. We have organized the collected Web sites into three categories: world-of-work information, assessment, and employment opportunities. When developing a list for distribution to career clients for use between sessions, we included 10 Web sites in each category to provide choice among the best available and yet prevent information overload. If clients use a computer in the counselor's office, the counselor should bookmark favorite sites on the Internet provider's home page. Because information changes so rapidly on the Internet, counselors should access each Web site on their list monthly to verify the addresses and continued credibility and usability. Web sites that offer assessment services require additional review to ensure that they are following ethically sound practices.

Caution: Construction Zone

Flashing lights and warning signs should appear when preparing to use online assessments. After reviewing the ethical guidelines for assessment use, we view many of the online assessments available as "under construction" and potentially hazardous. Section C of the NCDA Ethical Standards (NCDA, 1991) and Section 8 of the 1997 NCDA guidelines identify many potential challenges in the use of online assessment tools. There are both fee-based and free online assessments available. The fee-based assessments include tests that are frequently used by career counselors and that are available from the large testing companies. Some of these tests are the Strong Interest Inventory (Harmon, Hansen, Borgen, & Hammer, 1994), the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Myers & Myers, 1984), and the Self-Directed Search (Holland, 1994). These instruments have validity and reliability information available for counselors to ensure that results acquired through a computer delivery mode can be trusted (see NCDA, 1991, Section C.2) and are nondiscriminatory (see NCDA, 1991, Sections B. 16 and C.7). Other interest and personality style assessments that are available online--such as the Birkman (, Career Keys (, and the Keirsey Temperament Sorter ( not have test development information such as validity, reliability, or norm group information available. In these cases, "career counselors are professionally responsible for using unvalidated information with special care" (NCDA, 1991, Section C.2). Prior to using unvalidated assessments, counselors should caution clients about the limits regarding the confidentiality of the results and the applicability of results to the individual client. After choosing to administer an unvalidated online assessment, counselors should engage clients in careful discussion about the results, stressing the exploratory nature of such unvalidated interactive instruments (NCDA, 1997).

Additional cautions focus on the conditions of the administration of the assessments. Section C.5 (NCDA, 1991) states that "unsupervised or inadequately supervised assessments, such as mail-in tests, are considered unethical. However, the use of standardized instruments that are designed to be self-administered and self-scored, such as interest inventories, is appropriate." Therefore, we question the appropriateness of having clients take online assessments outside the counselor's office, without the appropriate monitoring by and support from the counselor. In addition, the ethical guidelines stress the importance of assessment results being "placed in proper perspective with other relevant factors" (NCDA, 1991, Section C.1). This statement emphasizes the importance of the counselor interpreting the results, considering the client's history, characteristics, abilities, and interests, before discussing the results with the client. When providing career services via the Internet, the interpretation of the asses sment results poses additional challenges because of the absence of the nonverbal clues of understanding that are available in face-to-face counseling. If there is any indication that the client does not understand the results that have been communicated by e-mail or telephone, the counselor must refer the client to a qualified career counselor in the client's region (NCDA, 1997, Section II, 8).

As a final caution, counselors must have appropriate training in using and interpreting tests (see NCDA, 1991, Section C.4). This, of course, applies to all assessment tools, but the Internet poses an additional challenge as new tools rapidly emerge. In addition, career counselors are required to ensure that the computer assessments and scoring programs function properly (see NCDA, 1991, Section C.9). Counselors do not have control over the scoring programs of Internet assessments, and therefore we believe the safest, most ethically sound route is through the use of standardized assessments with years of history.


Should career counselors travel further along this electronic road by choosing to develop and provide career information and planning services via the Internet, they are setting off into newly charted territory and should yield to specialized guidelines for practice. The 1997 NCDA Guidelines for the Use of the Internet for Provision of Career Information and Planning Services set standards for ethical practice that stress the importance of clear disclosure, protection of clients, job posting protocols, and the ethical use of assessments as already discussed. Disclosure of the credentials and specialties of both the career practitioner and the Web developer must be displayed, along with contact information and statements regarding the limitations of services that are provided via the Internet. "The web site should clearly state the kinds of client concerns that the counselor judges to be inappropriate for counseling over the Internet, or beyond the skills of the counselor" (NCDA, 1997, Section II, 3). In addit ion, counselors are expressly forbidden to use false e-mail identities when interacting with or seeking clients. Counselors are also warned against "sharking" (i.e., offering services to people on the Internet through mass unsolicited e-mails or monitoring chat rooms when no services have been requested).

Protection of clients begins with the screening and assessment of the appropriateness of Internet services for the individual client. The guidelines state that a clear statement of the client's career planning or counseling needs must be obtained to assess whether the Internet is the appropriate service delivery mode and that the counselor must speak to the client by telephone or video teleconference to make a full assessment. Discussing a client's needs by e-mail is not sufficient for assessment. Supporting the client during the counseling process is periodically required through telephone calls or video teleconferencing, and counselors may not work with individuals who will not identify themselves or agree to periodic conferencing. Other kinds of support that must be available for clients include referral sources for counselors in the client's geographical area, awareness of local conditions that may have an impact on the client, and, if progress is not made, referral of the client to face-to-face counselin g services. Finally, when developing a contract for services, the 1997 NCDA guidelines outline specific components that must be included (e.g., agreed-on services and fees, where and how to report unethical behavior, statement of need for privacy during client-counselor communication; see Section 11,6).

For job openings posted on the Internet, the NCDA (1997) guidelines set out three requirements: A job posting must represent a valid job opening, job postings must be removed from the Internet database within 48 hours of the position's being filled, and application data obtained may not be used for any other purpose than providing information about future job openings.


Traveling the information highway in the process of career counseling poses additional challenges for counselors. The twists and turns involved in offering career counseling services using the Internet involve even greater challenges. A renewed awareness of and application of the ethics that guide career counseling can lead to safe Internet journeys with clients and to the enrichment of counseling work.


Bolles, R. (1998). Job-hunting on the Internet., Berkley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

Casey, J. A. (2000). Managing technology wisely: A new counselor competency. In J. W. Bloom & G. R. Walz (Eds.), Cybercounseling and cyberlearning: Strategies and resources for the millennium (pp. 17-28). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Gysbers, N. C., Heppner, M. J., & Johnston, J. A. (1998). Career counseling: Process, issues and techniques. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Harmon, L. W., Hansen, J.-I. C., Borgen, F. H., & Hammer, A. L. (1994). Strong Interest Inventory. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

Harris-Bowlsbey, J. (2000). The Internet: Blessing or bane for the counseling profession. In J. W. Bloom & G. B.. Walz (Eds.), Cybercounseling and cyberlearning: Strategies and resources for the millennium (pp. 39-49). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Harris-Bowlsbey, J., Dikel, M. R., & Sampson, J. P., Jr. (1998). The Internet: A tool for career planning. Columbus, OH: National Career Development Association.

Holland, J. L. (1994). Self-directed search. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources. Myers, P. B., & Myers, K D. (1984). Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Form G. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

National Career Development Association. (1991). NCDA ethical standards (Rev.). Retrieved June 6, 2001, from

National Career Development Association. (1997). NCDA guidelines/or the use of the Internet for provision of career information and planning services. Retrieved June 6, 2001, from

Stevens, D. T., & Lundberg, D. J. (1998). The emergence of the Internet: Enhancing career counseling education and services. Journal of Career Development, 24, 195-208.

Theresa M. O'Halloran, Department of Psychology and counselor Education, Adams State College; Alicia V. Fahr and Jenny R. Keller, Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology, Western Michigan University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Theresa M. O'Halloran, Department of Psychology and counselor Education, Adams State College, 309 Education/Social Studies Building, Adams State College, Alamosa, CO 81102 (e-mail:
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Author:Keller, Jenny R.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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