At the heart of the counseling profession is the all-important relationship between the professional counselor and the individual, couple, group, or family seeking help. Because the relationship itself is so central to the helping process, ethical concerns and obligations are especially salient and compelling. This relationship entails an important power differential between the professional and those seeking counseling assistance, thus making ethical behavior an essential responsibility of the professional. Many professional counseling organizations have ethics codes and standards of practice. These codes indicate the aspirations and values of the profession and provide professional and educational guidelines applicable to a wide range of counseling endeavors. Codes also have both legal and moral consequences that are not necessarily limited to any particular professional organization. In addition to the overarching codes for counseling in general, more specific codes exist for many situations, including school counseling, mental health counseling, marriage and family counseling, pastoral counseling, rehabilitation counseling, and group counseling. These codes have much common ground, as well as specific guidance for the particular population in question.
Why Ethics Codes?
Society accords professionals a distinct form of respect and power that necessitates a high level of moral responsibility to avoid exploiting those who are served. Just as basic morality is necessary for the healthy functioning of the human community, ethical conduct is necessary for safe, effective professional counseling. Certain moral principles have been identified by those working in the area of bioethics that have been adopted as principles relevant to most helping professions, including counseling. The most common of these are:
- Beneficence: the principle that one must do good when it is in one’s power to do so
- Nonmaleficence: the principle that one must avoid doing all unnecessary harm
- Justice: the principle that one must avoid partiality and seek to enact equal benefits and treatment for all those seeking assistance
- Autonomy: the principle that one should honor the right of human beings to have authority over decisions affecting their health and well-being
In addition to these principles, specific ethics codes have been in place for many decades in most of the counseling-related professional organizations. While they vary in length, purpose, and specificity, these ethics codes, behavioral guidelines, and standards of practice have many related functions. Often, the preface of a code will include a description of the highest, most morally admirable traits of the profession, and may detail principles similar to those mentioned above. This section alerts both the professional and the public to the parameters of the truly moral professional. Codes also serve an educational function for the counselors and clients. Since they evolve and are revised over time, codes provide the community with the contemporary standard of practice that can be expected from counselors.
Ethics codes do not necessarily carry the weight of state or federal law. Nevertheless, a violation of the code can result in professional sanctions or removal of membership in a professional organization. Often times, laws are enacted that reflect the essence of a particular ethical mandate. Thus, ethical codes can be influential in the formation and enforcement of criminal and civil law. Having an ethics code is a hallmark of a profession. It is a defining feature that provides ideals to aspire toward, guidance for sorting out conflicting demands, and rules to obey.
The Essence of Counseling Ethics
The ethics codes of the American Counseling Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Association of Social Workers are relevant to those providing professional counseling. Generally, the codes address three important domains: (1) responsibilities to clients (or the recipients of professional counseling services), (2) responsibilities to other professionals, and (3) responsibilities to society at large.
Responsibilities to Clients
The welfare of the client is the predominant ethical concern of the helping professions. Ethics codes emphasize this reality by delineating the domains considered to be essential to a healthy counseling relationship. Most importantly, clients are entitled to an informed consent process that allows them to understand the helping (or therapeutic) process, make decisions regarding their participation, and have a reasonable understanding of the expected process and outcome of counseling. Clients have a right to know the theories and techniques that guide their counselor, the price of the services they will receive, the limits of confidentiality, the training and professional memberships of their counselor, and the likelihood that the counseling they will receive will be helpful. Even when counseling is involuntary, counseling ethics codes encourage practitioners to find ways to empower clients and assist them in making small informed choices.
Because the professional counseling relationship involves an inherent power imbalance, the responsibility to the client is absolute. Clients are never to be exploited for the betterment of the counselor. Anything that might threaten the counselor’s objectivity and impartiality is ethically questionable. Therefore, counselors must avoid engaging in or carefully manage other roles in their clients’ lives.
Responsibilities to Other Professionals
Counselors interact with other mental health professionals, school or hospital personnel, law enforcement professionals, healthcare professionals, and administrators of public or private organizations. Counselors have an ethical duty to work for the welfare of their clients while maintaining mutually respectful relationships with colleagues and employers. When policies or other professional expectations conflict with client welfare, the counselor is ethically bound to work for a solution that satisfies all parties. This is a complex mandate, and satisfying it may on occasion require consultation or mediation. However, in the end, ethics codes guide counselors to protect their clients’ welfare as their most sacred trust.
Many institutions, agencies, and insurance companies have confidentiality policies that require disclosure of certain information obtained in counseling, or that allow for consultation with other professionals. This is not necessarily unethical, but clients must be informed of these policies at the beginning so they can make an informed decision about the information they are willing to disclose to the counselor.
Responsibility to Human Society
Counseling professionals are accountable to society at a number of levels. At the individual and immediate level, counselors have a duty to protect intended victims from violence threatened by clients, but must do so in a way that minimizes potential harm to the client. Professional counselors also have a duty to represent themselves and their professions accurately, and to use societal resources wisely and efficaciously.
In the aspirational section, recent editions of ethics codes are urging counseling practitioners to attend to concerns of social justice and the root causes of human distress and disability. Many writers have called for increased multicultural sensitivity in ethical counseling practices. Becoming competent to work with clients from varied cultural backgrounds is an important goal for ethical counselors, as professionals are expected to limit their practice to those areas within which they have competence.
Current Controversies and Future Directions
Ethical concerns in counseling must be responsive to community parameters, cultural trends, and societal needs. For instance, rural settings or specialized practices might necessitate a different kind of multiple-role management than larger urban settings. The challenges presented by HIV/AIDS and end-of-life choices have stimulated specific evolutionary changes in ethical guidelines for counselors. Under certain circumstances, counselors can choose to warn unaware sexual partners of clients with HIV/AIDS. They can also choose to maintain confidentiality if a terminally ill client wishes to talk about the possibilities of enacting an assisted suicide.
As healthcare costs continue to spiral out of control, stringent and limiting policies within managed care and state-funded policies present numerous challenges to ethical counseling treatment. Often, the money allocated for treatment is not sufficient to cover the costs of effective counseling. Further, counselors cannot abandon their clients without providing at least some possible alternatives for care.
These current concerns illustrate the necessity for ethics codes to evolve in response to changes in the needs and demands of the culture in which the counselor practices and the clients reside. Ethics committees and task forces within all of the major professional counseling organizations deal on a continuing basis with the daunting task of keeping ethical guidelines coherent, reasonable, current, and relevant.
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