Ethics violations: Why we all think we won’t screw up…and one thing you need to protect yourself from you


Every counselor, social worker, psychologist, and other mental health workers get professional ethics education. Such training is designed to teach us to “do no harm.” What mental health professional gets into the field to do harm? We all believe we are going to work for the betterment of our clients.

So, why do we sometimes fail to act in accord with good professional ethics?

Rarely is it because we don’t know the rules. Consider the most recent issue of the APA Monitor on Psychology and the short ethics piece by Alan Tjeltveit (a colleague of mine and fellow CAPS member) and Michael Gottlieb. (You can read the electronic version here; turn to page 68.)  In it, the authors nail the reason why with this quote,

Too many professionals complete their training without the emotional education and awareness needed to avoid self-deception and to act in the prudent, considered manner that society expects and that represents professional ethical excellence. (p. 72)

Self deception

We fail to take a skeptical (note…not fearful) stance toward our own thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. Since we know we are going to work for the good of others we often stop considering that some other values that we hold might get in the way. For example, I might value avoiding conflict and so not address a safety concern with my client for fear they will get angry with me. Or, as the authors of the article point out, I might practice when I am too distressed to help others–because I believe I can still manage the situation (see page. 70).

The One Protection You Most Need

As necessary as it is to keep taking ethics updates from continuing education providers, it is even more important to have a close colleague who doesn’t take you too seriously and is willing to ask the hard questions. Yes, we need an operating sense of values. We need to be tuned to our conscience. We need the Holy Spirit’s help in loving our neighbor as ourself. But, more importantly, we need to stop trusting in our own judgment and acknowledge that hidden values sometimes operate more powerfully than we expect. Desires to be liked, to avoid conflict, to maintain power, to satisfy longings have ways of creeping in. One of the reasons God puts us in community is that we need others to speak into our lives.

Do you want to avoid ethical missteps? Who exists in your life who has the access and capacity to speak into your life; to ask questions others might not think to ask?

3 Comments

Filed under Abuse, christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, ethics, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Ethics violations: Why we all think we won’t screw up…and one thing you need to protect yourself from you

  1. Fran

    PLEASE, all desiring and preparing to help other people take heed to Phil’s caution and wise advise. Ethical guidelines are for the protection of the client as well as for you and I.

    It is so easy to become overconfident and think we have all the answers for the one before us. We do not. The client before us is not there because they are well. They are suffering. They sit before us crushed and broken with little hope and a lot of despair. They are most vulnerable and need our utmost integrity.

    The damage done by unethical behavior by a therapist runs on a continuum. The first step crossing ethical guidelines may seem innocent enough, believing we are helping the client. However, it can lead on a far more dangerous path as each step away from ethics becomes much easier
    and less obvious. Little by little we may end up severely crippling and wounding the one we initially desired to help. (Sometimes it happens not so “little by little!”) In addition to Phil’s advice for accountability with a trusted colleague who will speak truth into hard places, we would do well to always remember God’s strong words for shepherds (yes, a therapist is a shepherd) by keeping Ezekiel 34:1-10 close in our hearts and minds. May God bless you and serve Him well.

    Thank you again Phil for your wise, “Musings of a Christian Psychologist.”

  2. Fran, thanks for reminding us of 2 things: we are ethical not merely because it is right…but because our clients are in need of our ethical care. and 2nd, that ethical violations almost always start for “good” and “innocent” reasons.

    • Fran

      Phil, within another state I know so many unethical violations that did begin with a sincere attempt (in most cases – not all) of a therapist wanting to help their client, but over time ended up gravely harming and sinning against the one in need of help. While I KNOW such things can happen anywhere, and they do, in every one of these situations, the therapist was in practice alone by their own choosing and had no level of accountability. Recently, so burdened by how one with all the proper credentials could arrive to such places where they cause such grave harm, I was asking God for insight and started to make a list. The list began with the most grievous offense, then listed what might have happened to lead to that, then what might have led to that and so forth, and as the list continued each time the unethical violations crossed became less noxious. What smacked me in the face was how the list kept growing to “not so bad things,” I started to see my own capacity to cross those lines in desire to help, but how that desire could lead to the same gross offenses at the top of the list, increasing in possibility without the places of protection in place you mentioned. It was a very sobering exercise. Your statement of how we cannot trust our own judgment, how our own values and our own desire to meet our own needs can get in the way of real helping is so true. Your entire post needs continually translated in classrooms, CE’s for those in practice so such deplorable acts, often in the name of religion, might be minimized (would love to eradicate) and increase the likelihood clients stay safe, receive proper, godly help and the honor of Jesus Christ upheld.

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