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Tips & Training

Building trust, transparency and empowerment with trauma-informed career services

In Part One of this series, we discussed why approaching employment and training work with a trauma-informed lens is increasingly vital. We also shared some practices employment service practitioners (ESPs) can integrate into their client work in order to strengthen their clients’ experiences of safety and thereby bolster outcomes.

In Part Two, we will cover two more of the SAMHSA principles: Trustworthiness and Transparency, and Empowerment, Voice and Choice. The SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) Principles are six evidence-based principles for trauma-informed care. Practitioners across the human services can use the SAMHSA Principles to understand and implement a trauma-informed approach in their work.

Trustworthiness and transparency

If you reflect on your own experience as a client within human services (for example, if you’ve been a patient in a hospital or a student in a formal educational institution), you can probably think of a time when you felt confused, frustrated or annoyed by your experience. Maybe you needed to reschedule an exam or get accommodations for a disability, and found it was next-to-impossible; or perhaps you needed to be transferred from one medical practitioner to another, and ended up waiting months for anything to happen.

Most human service organizations work at a large scale, on limited resources and without a coherent framework for user experience. For virtually all users, this is an annoying reality; for users who have experienced trauma (and especially those who have experienced institutional betrayal), this reality can become a serious barrier.


Meg Saxby will be co-presenting a session at CERIC’s virtual Cannexus22 conference on “Engaging Employers in Workforce Solutions that Enhance Equity and Access in the Workplace.” 


For people who have experienced trauma, non-transparent organizational decisions and processes can feel secretive and confusing. When we add in layers of power differential (for example, the power of a doctor to sign off on a disability diagnosis, or the power of a teacher to pass or fail a student), the confusion can start to feel downright threatening. This is especially true for clients who have experienced abuse at the hands of an authority figure, or an institution of authority, because they have typically developed very sensitive ‘antennae’ for highly unequal power relationships and potentially abusive dynamics.

Given all of this, as employment service practitioners, it is extremely important that we learn to model trustworthiness and transparency in all we do. This means taking intentional steps to build transparency into our work with our clients.

Some ways ESPs can integrate trustworthiness and transparency into your practice are:

  • Elicit feedback, regularly and anonymously. Clients might be intimidated by giving you feedback directly, so offering anonymous online surveys or suggestion boxes is a great workaround. When you get feedback, share it with program participants and describe what you are doing in response. This builds trustworthiness and transparency.
  • As much as possible, let clients know where their information is going and who it is being shared with (if anyone). This includes discussing their case with managers, program evaluators and/or colleagues. Ensure you ask for consent and permission to share, and respect their consent.
  • If possible, offer clients the opportunity to speak for themselves during program evaluations and other opportunities. This removes the feeling of secrecy.
  • Share your documentation with clients (or, ideally, collaborate on notetaking), so they know what is in their case file.
  • Concerns about trust and betrayal can be especially powerful in group settings, so, when delivering workshops or group sessions, share the agenda or flow of the session in advance with participants. Your goal should be to remove any potential surprises.
  • Acknowledge the power difference in the relationship, and share stories with your clients that show you understand the importance of trustworthiness and transparency. (For example, you can share a personal story of not understanding why an important piece of paperwork was delayed, and use that to explain your efforts at transparency.)
  • If there is an unanticipated breach of privacy or otherwise a client feels exposed or betrayed, ensure that you acknowledge their hurt and rupture of trust, and let the client know how you will prevent such harms in the future.
Empowerment, voice and choice

For most people who have experienced trauma, the lack of choice was a central feature of what made the events or experiences traumatizing. Lack of choice can easily equate to lack of power and vulnerability to future harm, so our clients who have experienced trauma will be highly attuned to the presence (or absence) of choice.

Unfortunately, because of the same organizing logics that produce non-transparency, many of our organizations and institutions routinely remove opportunities for choice and empowerment. If you reflect on your own life, you can almost certainly find a moment within a health care or educational setting where you felt pushed into an activity that did not feel right for you. These moments can range in gravity (everything from embarrassment in gym class, to being forced into public speaking, to uncomfortable medical procedures where you weren’t given adequate background), and, for people who have experienced trauma, they can be extremely harmful and retraumatizing.

“Lack of choice can easily equate to lack of power and vulnerability to future harm, so our clients who have experienced trauma will be highly attuned to the presence (or absence) of choice.”

In employment and training, our services can also easily and thoughtlessly routinely remove choice, voice and empowerment, at different levels of gravity and impact. For example, when we stream clients into a particular program, rather than asking them which program interests them, we remove both choice and a potential opportunity to be highly motivated. And when we call on participants to contribute during a workshop, we might be trying to encourage participation, but we are actually removing choice and authentic voice.

Some ways ESPs can build choice, voice and empowerment into their practice are:

  • Offer your activities with a Challenge by Choice orientation. This means offering clients a variety of ways to engage, and encouraging them to choose their preferred form of engagement. For example: “Today, we want to talk about how job searching can get hard. We have two options: we can share about our own struggles in our job search, or we can watch a video of someone describing theirs. Which option would we prefer?” (In this case, offering an anonymous poll is a great method, and defaulting to the less-vulnerable option if the results are mixed is a good practice.)
  • To maximize choice, ensure you give your clients as comprehensive a “road map” of your service as possible. Explain the possible routes their choice will lead to, give them time to consider, and offer to brainstorm pros and cons.
  • When preparing for evaluation or other moments where your program will be seen by outsiders, offer clients the opportunity (with no pressure – strictly optional) to represent their experience. This is an opportunity for client voice, and can be especially powerful if organized into an arts-based activity or other expressive modality.
Conclusion 

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged and changed all of us, and as employment and career practitioners, we have seen first hand the negative effects our clients have experienced. Especially for clients with histories of trauma, or those from already marginalized groups, the need for a trauma-informed approach to employment services has become urgently apparent.

As our society continues to grapple with the pandemic, and look toward a post-pandemic recovery, trauma-informed employment and career services will become increasingly important. We hope these suggested practical tips can help providers navigate these uncharted waters and improve outcomes for clients.

Meg Saxby Author
Meg Saxby leads Purpose Co’s learning and development work, focused on building capacity in workforce systems and co-designing solutions with employers and workforce leaders to find creative and actionable solutions to complex problems. To connect with Meg and find more information on trauma-informed practice in workforce development, please visit www.purposelearning.us.
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Meg Saxby Author
Meg Saxby leads Purpose Co’s learning and development work, focused on building capacity in workforce systems and co-designing solutions with employers and workforce leaders to find creative and actionable solutions to complex problems. To connect with Meg and find more information on trauma-informed practice in workforce development, please visit www.purposelearning.us.