Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Who to Serve? the Ethical Dilemma of Employment Consultants in Nonprofit Disability Employment Network Organisations

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Who to Serve? the Ethical Dilemma of Employment Consultants in Nonprofit Disability Employment Network Organisations

Article excerpt

Introduction

In July 2006 the then Federal Government in Australia, led by John Howard, implemented welfare-to-work policies for several social security cohorts, including people with disability. The opportunity to extend the principle of 'mutual obligation' from the unemployed to people with disability arose with the federal election victory in October 2004 when the Howard Government gained control of the Senate (Saunders 2005). After a brief consultation period in November 2005 in which a number of public hearings were conducted by a Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, the Welfare-to-work policy was enacted as the Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Welfare to work and Other Measures) Act 2005. Along with the inter-departmental transfer of disability employment responsibility from the Department of Family and Community Services to the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (1), this represented a new direction for people with disability and the Disability Employment Network (Macali 2006).

The welfare-to-work reforms present a fundamental challenge to the way in which the Disability Employment Network has previously operated because the nature of the professional relationship changes from being based on voluntary assistance to a mode of engagement with clients based on compulsion and coercion. One of the contractual duties associated with welfare-to-work case management is monitoring the conduct of clients to ensure they comply with their Activity Agreements, which may involve various job search activities and maintaining regular contact with employment service providers. Abello and MacDonald (2002) identify that employment consultants are required to not only assist people to find suitable employment but also to take on a policing and compliance role, alongside the traditional focus on employment brokerage and support.

These dual roles present ethical challenges at the front-line of the Disability Employment Network in the sense that the worker must make complex determinations that in different situations cast them as either an agent of the state, or an agent for the client (Maynard-Moody and Musheno 2000). In this paper we seek to explore how workers at the front-line of one nonprofit organisation in the Disability Employment Network attempt to reconcile departmental contractual requirements with the social mission of the organisation that they are employed by, alongside the best interests of the client. The focus on the local level of policy practice is particularly appropriate in the context of welfare-to-work policies, given that the implementation of these set of policies are being devolved to agencies outside the Australian government sector, each of which has their own set of professional norms and organisational practices.

Informed by the resurgent interest in 'street-level' research and theory and drawing on aspects of moral philosophy and ethics, we explore the conflict between the requirement for people with disability to seek employment and the ethical value systems of front-line employment consultants. We examine how this conflict manifests itself in regimes of reporting clients to Centrelink for compliance failure and the ethical dilemmas these employment consultants experience in their day-to-day decision making. We begin by providing a description of the Disability Employment Network model and the challenges of nonprofit organisations within the network, to contextualise the work environment in which employment consultants are employed. Using an ethnographic methodology of observation and semi-structured interviews with employment consultants in one nonprofit Disability Employment Network organisation, we identify three sub-groups that emerge from the data analysis. We then show that one of these sub-groups is confronted with an ethical dilemma between their contractual duty to the organisation and their commitment to the welfare of their clients. …

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