Serving Diverse Populations: Understanding Changing Demographics, Intersecting Identities, and Best Practices

By Courtney Gauthier

Career counseling is social justice work. It is important for career counselors to consider the intersection of diverse client identities, as no single facet exists in a vacuum, and to not make assumptions based on seemingly visible aspects of identity. Understanding both projected demographic changes in American society and proven best practices are critical steps to effectively serve diverse populations.

Framing the Conversation
NCDA charges professional career counselors to “practice in ways that promote the career development and functioning of individuals of all backgrounds” (NCDA, 2009). As the United States becomes more diverse, it is increasingly important that counselors are aware of changing demographics and shifting needs. The March 2015 U.S. Census Bureau population report states that by “2030, one in five Americans is projected to be 65 and over; by 2044, more than half of all Americans are projected to belong to a minority group (any group other than non-Hispanic White alone); and by 2060, nearly one in five of the nation’s total population is projected to be foreign born.” Studies and projections on Gen Z, individuals born since the mid-1990’s, are also increasing. A recent report from J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group shares that just under half of those Gen Z respondents surveyed reported identifying as completely heterosexual and 56% know someone who goes by gender-neutral pronouns (Laughlin, 2016).

In “Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion” (Yoshino & Smith, 2013), researchers at Deloitte University investigated why diversity and inclusion-focused programs in the workplace have stalled. The report emphasized the need for increased authenticity in the workplace, not just the number of diverse employees, by exploring how individuals cover aspects of their personal identities in four areas:

  1. Appearance - self-presentation, including clothing, grooming, and mannerisms
  2. Affiliation - behaviors associated with an identity
  3. Advocacy – willingness to defend their particular group
  4. Association - contact with members of the same group.

61% of respondents had covered at least one aspect of their identity. For instance, one individual resists using a cane to cover a disability or a woman avoids mentioning family commitments to mitigate concerns about dedication to her job. The impact of covering identity elements is a deeply personal one. About half of respondents felt covering affected their sense of the professional opportunities available to them. One stated, “When you look at leaders of our organization, most are the same gender, age, and background. In order to be successful, I feel I need to fit in with the existing norms.” Helping clients understand their personal preferences in how they choose to show up in their workplace can result in a more meaningful and comfortable work environment fit. It is important that we explore these values and needs with our clients, understanding that their backgrounds and identities may shape expectations of themselves and their workplace.

Best Practices
Diverse populations often have layered concerns and needs that are unique to their lived experiences, and theory and best practices can inform our approach in an effort to better connect with all individuals. Career development theories encourage the importance of exploring image norms, social constructs, self-efficacy and outcome expectations to help reframe perceived limitations and create a narrative of possibility. Ideally, career conversations should:

  • Broach questions about perceived image norms for careers of interest and where clients see people with similar backgrounds and identities working
    Investigate family expectations
  • Define external barriers, such as limited resources, locked geographical areas, or limitations in availability
  • Promote the concept of happenstance, from Krumboltz’s Happenstance Learning Theory, as a way to move clients into exploration and networking
  • Expand clients’ awareness of new career fields and professional options
  • Encourage networking to increase social capital and career information
  • Focus on coaching beyond teaching, including co-developing scripts for self-introductions, practicing informational interviews, and/or reviewing interview attire possibilities
  • Discern personal values for authenticity in the workplace and organization climate
    Include frank conversations about potential discrimination in the job search process and work environment, including how to recognize and approach illegal interview questions
  • Use a continuous lens of empowerment.

The best practices listed above have the potential to be impactful for all clients, while individuals with specific identities, experiences, and topical concerns may benefit from additional distinct areas of focus and support:

  • Low-Income: mentoring, networking, building social capital, family expectations, gaining access to resources, discerning ability to take unpaid or underpaid opportunities for professional development
    Individuals of Color: mentoring, networking, gaining social capital, meeting or conflicting with family expectations
  • First-Generation College Students: gaining social capital, receiving clear coaching, meeting or conflicting with family expectations
  • LGBTQ+: assisting with decision to be “out” at work and if so how, discerning the climate of an organization, potential transitioning support including insurance
  • Gender and Gender Expression: handling family and friend expectations, combating image norms, practicing salary and benefit negotiations, approaching appropriate pronoun usage, addressing gendered expectations for professional dress
  • Religion/Spirituality: discerning needs of organization, exploring intersecting or competing values, finding career connection to spiritual beliefs, preparing for negotiation on holidays
  • International Students and Clients: navigating work visas, determining realistic search and hiring timelines, working through cultural differences for application materials and interview, deciding importance of influence of family member desires
  • Individuals with Differing Abilities: combating images norms, reframing limiting beliefs, practicing interview strategies, discerning if and when to disclose disabilities or challenges, gaining awareness of accommodations
  • Veterans: translating military experiences for civilian employers, combating image norms, addressing any mental or physical challenges
  • Aging Populations: assessing and developing relevant skills, reframing limiting beliefs, combating image norms.

Moving Forward
It is important for career counselors to continue learning how to best support the populations they serve. NCDA offers ongoing webinars and publications (such as “Providing Career Resources to Multicultural Populations”) outlining new research and best practices (including the “Multicultural Career Resource List” found on the Members-Only webpage). If career professionals want to delve more deeply into this topic, they should consider researching identity development theories, seeking out resources such as those listed in this toolkit, and recognizing individual areas of growth for learning about specific populations. If career counselors would like to increase outreach to individuals of specific backgrounds, collaboration with organizations serving distinct populations is a key way to gain trust and knowledge while also providing critical services.

Colby, S. L. & Ortman, J. M. (2014). Projections of the size and composition of the U.S. population: 2014 to 2060: Current population reports, P25-1143. U.S. Census Bureau: Washington, DC.

Laughlin, S. (2016, March). Gen Z goes beyond gender binaries in new Innovation Group data. J. Walter Thompson Intelligence. New York, NY. Retrieved from https://www.jwtintelligence.com/2016/03/gen-z-goes-beyond-gender-binaries-in-new-innovation-group-data/

National Career Development Association. (2009). Minimum Competencies for
Multicultural Career Counseling and Development. Broken Arrow, OK. Retrieved from http://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/fli/12508/false

Yoshino, K., & Smith, C. (2013, December). Uncovering Talent: A new model of inclusion. Retrieved from http://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/about-deloitte/us-inclusion-uncovering-talent-paper.pdf


Courtney GauthierCourtney Gauthier serves as Director of Career Advising at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. Her work focuses on serving current students and alumni in discerning their paths and making meaning of their academic and applied learning experiences. She concentrates her work on exploring vocation with students and campus educators and creating programs and services for diverse student populations. Courtney has worked in the career development field for 7 years and serves on the board of the North Carolina Career Development Association, currently working with the Best Practices Grant program. She can be reached at cgauthier@warren-wilson.edu.



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Tina Woods   on Friday 10/28/2016 at 06:39 AM

This is a very interesting article I enjoyed reading. It helped me to understand what approach I need to take to reach a certain demographic population I have to serve in my program.


Dan Schmidt   on Monday 01/23/2017 at 10:19 AM

Career Counseling is social Justice work. Powerful statement that I never heard before.

Bill Baldus   on Monday 10/02/2017 at 02:32 PM

Fantastic article Courtney -- kudos and thank you! FYI: the link to the toolkit seems to be broken.

Charley Garcia   on Friday 10/19/2018 at 12:21 PM

Very thorough article, with some helpful reference papers to follow up with on our own. Might I suggest others who work in this field from different parts of the country(to gain a more expansive point of view): Julie Perez, Ph.D. at Washington State University, Jesse Valdez, Ph.D. at Denver University, Marisela Marquez, Ph.D, Michael Brown, Ph.D, and Richard Duran, Ph.D. all at University of California at Santa Barbara, Ricardo Romo, Ph.D. at University of Texas San Antonio, and Jose Prado, Ph.D. California State University at Dominguez Hills.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.