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Overcoming the employment disadvantage

May 1, 2012
by Izaak L. Williams
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Counselors can coach recovering persons in improving their job prospects

Among addiction professionals it is common to hear clients rightfully rail about why, after paying an initial penalty of incarceration, they subsequently are forced again to “pay the piper” at a nonsensical interest rate for the offense for which they served. On too many occasions it has been the case that a client presents for a return treatment episode, ostensibly out of steam to continue advancing in recovery due to an unforgiving job market where past transgressions show up on a background check as ink blots that diminish job prospects.

In our field I have found myself ruminating about this issue, and feeling incensed when a client who has managed to stay clean and sober for months on end succumbs to drug use after an unsuccessful job hunt.

I recall a client who stayed clean for five months while in treatment before searching high and low for employment. He eventually landed a job that nicely matched his prior work experience, skill set, and overall comfort level with the nature of the work. After he successfully completed the interview process as well as one week of training, his background check registered a felony drug charge (12 years removed from this writing), ultimately leading to his resumption of drug use.

I was at a loss to figure out what to do about it, and how to prevent the same thing from happening in the future. Additionally, little if any information was available in the relapse prevention manuals to address employment disadvantage in order to improve clients’ chances of avoiding relapse. Based on my own experiences with clients, I have compiled some preventative approaches that can prove helpful. They are as follows:

1. Evaluate qualifications. Sitting down with your client and assessing his/her previous work experience and skills (creating a viable résumé) to figure out precisely what he/she brings to the table helps put client and professional on the same page in mutually selecting the most suitable type of employment agency. In addition, encouraging a client to contact references can be an empowering experience that increases his/her confidence about the possibility of job attainment. In fact, in rare cases a client expresses doubt about receiving a good word from a previous employer and actually ends up with a job offer. Such hands-on approaches in exploring work-related qualifications help professionals get a better sense of work interest, motivation, strengths and personality traits, which also inform any referral to a case manager or career counseling agency.

2. Forecast job options. Identifying employment agencies with a track record of hiring individuals with felony convictions, and steering clients in that direction, offers one way to enhance a client’s odds of obtaining employment. This helps clarify career goals and further reduces a pessimistic job outlook and demoralizing self-statements that are exaggerated (i.e., “I look everywhere but can’t get a job,” “No employer will hire me”).

3. Coach communication. Based on client self-reports, it unfortunately seems to be the case that clients tend to shoot themselves in the foot during the interview process. This results from thoughts of impending doom that dupe them into thinking that no matter how well they perform throughout the job search, rejection inevitably will occur. Addiction professionals can help clients turn down amplified levels of anxiety related to job denial, to a degree that improves their performance as a candidate. Also, helping clients craft answers to common interview questions while coaching them in mock interviews to mince their words can augment their performance. It is not entirely unheard of for some clients to mark on an employment application their date of graduation from a treatment center as a major life accomplishment, or to disclose in an interview as testament to their character that they were a “model prisoner” while incarcerated.

4. Create a relapse prevention contract. Clients at risk for relapsing after experiencing job rejection should be encouraged to draw up a contract outlining concrete steps they will take after that occurs. A common thread in client narratives is that they fail to disclose the event to anyone who might be in a position to lend an ear or offer advice—understandably so in the light of shame, pride and a host of other emotions. However, by doing this clients inadvertently rob themselves of achieving some degree of catharsis and, according to their own regrettable accounts retrospectively reported, they become significantly more likely to relapse.

5. Maintain the integrity of our code of ethics. Our code of professional ethics as counselors recognizes the principle of “societal obligations” that implores us to engage in legislative processes and to change public policy in order to enhance opportunities for those impeded by substance use. Perhaps, then, we can enhance treatment outcomes and expand opportunities for ex-offenders by calling on Congress to back momentous legislation such as the Second Chance Act.

6. Shore up awareness. Trade publications and journals in our field that receive high rates of readership can draw greater attention to this issue by publishing works that aim to build awareness of this phenomenon involving our clients. In addition, conferences in the substance abuse field that offer a space for dialogue on this topic encourage professionals to collaborate and work for tangible changes in the labor market in order to improve long-term treatment outcomes.