Should you Google your clients?

Dr. Zur has a new blog post on this topic that raises question (no answers at this point). Should you Google your clients? Dr. Zur wants to consider the ethics of this. There are two ways to try to explore this topic from an ethical point of view.

  1. What do the ethics codes say? Codes say nothing directly about this. Indirectly, we are to work to protect their dignity and human freedom. We are to act beneficently. We are to seek consent before we provide treatment or access private and protected information. We are not to give out their information without consent. Questions to ask: oes googling a client risk revealing their identity to others? It might if you use a shared computer. Would Googling access private and protected information? It shouldn’t. However, many people blog and post private information that might shock them if others in their various circles found out. Many do not consider this when posting comments or personal information.
  2. Beyond the codes, is it good practice to search for information about your clients? Or put another way, how might searching for information about your clients cause harm? Might it change the relationship? Change your opinion of them? Make you less interested in helping them? What if the information you find isn’t accurate? Might it cause you to use that information in a coercive manner? Might it be used to practice a form of voyeurism (which is a form of using clients for our own pleasure)? These kinds of questions raise moral and theoretical issues as much as ethical ones.

Dr. Zur lists a number of vignettes that might well cause you to answer yes to our initial question. Googling might reveal safety issues, legal issues, even life issues that would be helpful to know. So, our answer will never be that it is unethical.

I would leave you with this question. How will you feel if your clients know you have googled them? Will you be embarrassed? If so, you ought not to do it. Similarly, if a client comes in knowing lots of things about you that they gleaned from the Internet (work history, family, etc.), do you feel stalked? Maybe we should consider the “Do unto others…” command here.

One last pragmatic point. It is sometimes possible today to find out who is Googling you. Keep that in mind as you think about this issue.


Filed under counseling, counseling and the law, counseling skills, ethics, Psychology, Uncategorized

11 responses to “Should you Google your clients?

  1. Phil, Here’s a related question: should counselees and parishioners Google their professional counselors/pastoral counselors? My answer would be yes because the person receiving help has the right to know about the care-giver. Whether the care-giver answers yes or no, we all should be aware that our blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, etc., are all “fair game.” Are we representing well who we are and Who we serve? Bob

    • D. Stevenson

      I agree. What anyone has online is “fair game.” Legally, it is public information. I’m not sure about information that is locked behind security measures. I’m pretty sure hacking is illegal.

      Additionally, the same is true if a counselee googles us. It is helpful for the counselee to find out certain things about a potential counselor. Learning about the therapists approach and viewpoint can save a lot of time in the search for a ‘good fit’. Additionally, checking the therapists background for ethics, and substantiation of their claims can save a lot of heartache. Although the percentage is low, there are far too many predators in our field.

    • Right, I think it is fair game. Of course, info on the Internet may or may not be reliable. Things we say and do on the Internet will reveal who we are but I’ve been posted on a “healthgrades” website that rates doctors. Raters are anonymous and can say just about anything or rate you extremely low without any way to challenge that information. I had someone do that to me and I have no recourse to challenge it.


      • Phil, I’m not so much focused on what people say about us/me–you can’t help that, especially in the Web 2.0 world. But I am thinking about our own web presence–blogging, free resources, websites, book reviews, Tweets, Facebook. I’m an open book and I’m glad to have people who might want to see me as a counselor, invite me to speak, or to consult, to check out what I’ve said. In fact, I much prefer that. Bob

      • True, we can’t help what others say about us and should only be concerned what we are saying. I still say we have to be aware of what is being said about us and also a bit careful what we believe others say about our clients or even other leaders in our movement.

        But, to you question…maybe we should have those who vehemently disagree with us look at what we post on the web and tell us how we come across. Too frequently we may be inclined only to listen to those who already agree with us.

  2. Scott Knapp

    Bear with me for a bit of ridiculous illustration here…

    There was a “Star Trek” movie in which Spock elected to perform a forced “Vulcan Mind Meld” on a younger female Vulcan who was a traitorous officer in Star Fleet. The gist of the scene was that, in order to gather necessary information, he had to “rape” her mind and take it, for the good of all.

    I work with children and youth in residential treatment primarily, and as a service to the agency, I review background material that travels with the kids, and compose a report summarizing what’s been written/published up to the point of intake. Kids come in to residential treatment already nervous about the impression they will make and the “place” they will eventually niche-out…if/when they find out all their past “dirt” has been disseminated to the staff, it unnerves them tremendously…they feel “raped” of their secrets! Of course we staff look at this information as valuable for tailoring our treatment approach, but nonetheless, the impact upon the child/adolescent “is what it is.”

    Regardless of whether one chooses “to Google, or not to Google,” one can’t make that decision lightly.

    • D. Stevenson

      Scott’s comment, “if/when they find out” relates to the question, Do we tell them we have googled them? My view is, yes. It seems to me that telling them respects their dignity and human freedom and done well, evidences our attitude of beneficence towards them.

      What about finding information that might change our view about the client and raise difficult questions for us? The same issues that Phil raises in #two can occur even if our only information comes within the session. Additional information from the internet only increases the likelihood of incidences where we need to look within ourselves and ask ourselves these questions.

      • Good question on whether we tell or not. I had one young adult that I knew used Fb and Myspace. I asked him to show me his pages (especially Myspace) because he was using them to meet strangers for risky behavior. He gladly showed them to me and understood that I would, from time to time, check up on him. This allowed me to raise concerns and questions in session that were quite helpful. Funny thing, he thought I was checking up on him all the time so it formed a bit of accountability even though I hardly ever did check out his site.


  3. Amy

    Personally, I wouldn’t mind if my therapist Googled me because I would want him or her to get a full picture of who I am for the best treatment possible.

    And, uh, I Google everything. Plus, now I check for criminal records on men I may be interested in dating (it’s free public information!)

    Maybe it’s a generational thing?

    • Scott Knapp

      I’m 45, and I don’t know anyone in my age group that DOESN’T go to their favorite search engine for information before anywhere else. Everyone in my circle of friends has 3G connectivity on their smartphones. Maybe for the first time in history, the “middle-aged” generation can go toe-to-toe technologically with their kids, and finally program the VCR better than they can! 🙂

  4. I googled my therapist before I went. Heck, I FOUND my therapist through google.

    I wouldn’t mind if he googled me. Much of my writing is published online, and if he brought it up, that would be fine.

    I think as a basic “getting to know you” gesture, it’s okay.

    Of course, if someone is repeatedly googling, hunting for information or whatever, that’s creepy. Stalkerish.

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