I never get through a single supervision session without addressing ethical issues. Ethical behavior must be at the center of every thought we have and every action we take with our clients, from first contact to closure. As counselors, we are schooled on the importance of ethics from the opening hours of our graduate programs, and in my home state at least, ethics appear prominently in the licensure requirements as one of nine areas of focus.
But there is a frightening truth in our profession. After we leave our graduate programs and finish supervision, nobody is there to tell us what to do. It is up to us to focus on ethics and, sadly, this is where things start slipping.
Over my many decades in the profession, I have heard story after story about lapses in ethical conduct. I have also witnessed firsthand the questionable behavior of some professionals in the counseling field. These behaviors range from individual blind spots related to confidentiality, diversity or boundaries to systemic issues within agencies.
Here are a few examples (details have been changed slightly to, well, remain ethical). After a workshop that I presented on ethics, a counselor with many years in the field asked me if it would be acceptable for him to sell his beach condo to a current client. Um … no. He was stunned at my answer. Really?
A counselor stopped me in the hallway at a break during a conference to thank me for the referral of a client — whose name she said out loud. She then proceeded to tell me about the client’s backstory. I couldn’t believe my ears, and it took me a minute to compose myself and stop her from going further.
A former student expressed concern about the agency where she was working. The agency was encouraging its counselors to “push continued therapy” with full-pay clients, even when similar sliding-scale clients were quickly made ready for termination. It appeared that the focus on the bottom line in this agency was taking priority over clients’ best interests. Even more troubling, none of the many fully licensed clinicians in the agency had protested.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg of the things I have seen or heard. How many more scenarios are out there that we don’t even know about? That, dear colleagues, should make us all shudder.
Dishonest people exist in every profession, including ours. But let’s set those dishonest few aside for a moment. The majority (by far) of questionable ethical behaviors that I’ve encountered in our profession have not been committed by dishonest people. Instead, most have been committed by reasonable counselors doing good work who have strayed over time from the course they set out on in the early part of their training.
I propose three reasons (beyond blatant dishonesty) that get at the root of these ethical lapses. First, is blind trust. In graduate school, counseling students can discuss ethics in the sanitized setting of the classroom, without the complications of real clients or supervisors sitting across from them.
When they start practice, they have the same blind trust in their supervisors or agencies that they had in their graduate school. Yet this is where they most need to put their ethics training into practice. But how realistic is it to expect a clinician-in-training to question a fully licensed and experienced supervisor? Even more intimidating, how likely is it that a clinician-in-training would challenge an entire agency?
“This is how it is done, I guess,” is an easy, and understandable, result in such a context. Those mistakes are then repeated and perpetuated.
Second is the termite analogy. Termites, despite their horrible reputation, are not that damaging if caught early. They work slowly, and all it takes to protect a home is to have regular inspections and to intervene if termites appear. No major damage will be done. But the nibbling away at the foundations of a home can eventually lead to its collapse, or at the very least some expensive repairs.
The same thing happens with ethical breaches. Most clinicians who sit before a state ethics panel have not committed egregious breaches all of a sudden. Their behaviors have slipped a little at a time until the metaphorical structure of their ethical life is badly damaged.
And, finally, these breaches happen because of a simple loss of focus. I don’t get angry easily, but I lose it if I hear clinicians talk about “having to do” their ethics hours. If clinicians see these hours as “obligations,” they are already traveling the wrong road.
These clinical trainings are imperative to ensure that ethical standards are, as with my supervisees, always at the center of everything we do. We should welcome ongoing training in ethics, even if it wasn’t required.
Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.