Tag Archives: ethics

New Pennsylvania Mandated Reporting Bills Signed Into Law

My local newspaper informs me that Governor Corbett signed into law HB 431 436 and SB 21 and 33 into law today. The paper reports what this means:

“Senate Bill 21 ensures that virtually anyone who works with children in a professional or volunteer capacity, including school personnel, personnel at colleges and universities, youth sports coaches, child care providers, religious leaders, physicians and other health care workers, social services workers, law enforcement officers, librarians, emergency medical service providers and employees and independent contractors for each of those entities are required to report suspected child abuse.

“House Bill 436,” Stephens continued, “adds attorneys for organizations caring for children to this list of reporters, while preserving the attorney client privilege, bringing Pennsylvania in line with a majority of states across the U.S.”

So, anyone who works with or volunteers with children is now considered a mandatory reporter. Attorneys who work for those organizations who serve children cannot keep quiet when child abuse is reported to them. Mental health and other health professionals continue to be mandated reporters when potentially abused children present to them or their colleagues.

Besides expanding who is mandated to report suspected child abuse, HB431 also now requires evidence of 3 hours of training on child abuse recognition and reporting for all seeking PA licenses AND evidence of 2 hours of continuing education on the same subject for all who seek to renew their PA licenses. 30 CE hours are still the minimum required per licensing period, but now 2 of those 30 must be about child abuse recognition and reporting. Not sure if that means the existing mandate to take at least 3 hours in ethics will be on top of the 2 for child abuse reporting or if the 2 for child abuse reporting will count towards the 3 in ethics.

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Comparing ACA and AACC ethics codes: Multiple Relationships

Continuing our review of the ACA and the AACC codes for counselors, let’s take a look at how both codes address the matter of multiple or dual relationships. (See first and second posts about comparing the ACA and AACC code of ethics for counselors and mental health professionals.)

Multiple or dual relationships between counselor and client (or client’s family) are those that combine the professional relationship with one of another sort. If a counselor of a client is also that client’s pastor, that would be a multiple relationship. Other types could combine counselor and friend, counselor and business partner, counselor and employer, and increasingly possible, counselor and social media “friend.” Both codes are concerned about the formation of dual relationships because they become fertile ground for counselor judgment bias and harm to the client. Both see that once a counseling relationship has been formed, that relationship ought to be clear take priority over all others.

The ACA code of ethics prohibits outright the following dual relationships:

  1. Counselor and sexual partner: Counselors may not have sex with clients or their family members
  2. Counselors may not start counseling work with former sexual partners
  3. Counselors must wait at least 5 years before engaging in sexual activity with former clients (and even then may be prohibited)
  4. Counselors may not provide services to friends and family
  5. Counselors are prohibited from engaging in personal virtual relationships (social media) with current clients

Beyond the sexual arena, the ACA code warns counselors to avoid dual relationships or “extending the boundary” of the counselor or supervisor relationship

Counselors avoid entering into nonprofessional relationships with former clients, their romantic partners, or their family members when the interaction is potentially harmful to the client. This applies to both in-person and electronic interactions or relationships. (A.6.e)

When a counselor agrees to provide counseling services to two or more persons who have a relationship, the counselor clarifies at the outset which person or persons are clients and the nature of the relationships the counselor will have with each involved person. If it becomes apparent that the counselor may be called upon to perform potentially conflicting roles, the counselor will clarify, adjust, or withdraw from roles appropriately. (A.8)

So, notice the focus: avoid “extending the boundary” or what we used to call forming multiple relationships with current or former counselees or their family members. Document when you do so to illustrate informed consent, limiting of potential harm, and efforts made to rectify harm when it unintentionally happens

What about the AACC code?  It begins (ES1-140) with these paragraphs,

Dual relationships involve the breakdown of proper professional or ministerial boundaries. A dual relationship exists when two or more roles are mixed in a manner that can harm the counseling relationship and/or the therapeutic process. This includes counseling, as well as personal, fraternal, business, financial, or sexual and romantic relationships. Not all dual relationships are necessarily unethical—it is client exploitation that is wrong, not the dual relationship in and of itself. However, it remains the responsibility of the counselor to monitor and evaluate any potential harm to clients. (emphasis mine)

While in a counseling relationship, or when counseling relationships become imminent, or for an appropriate time after the termination of counseling, Christian counselors do not engage in dual relationships with clients. Some dual relationships are always avoided—sexual or romantic relations, and counseling close friends, family members, employees, business partners/associates or supervisees. Other dual relationships should be presumed as potentially troublesome and avoided wherever possible. (emphasis mine)

The AACC code then prohibits counseling relationships with family and close friends and warns against those “best avoided” (e.g., business associates, club members, etc.). Finally the code addresses counseling relationships within the church,

Christian counselors do not provide counseling to fellow church members with whom they have close personal, business, or shared ministry relations. Dual relationships with any other church members who are clients are potentially troublesome and best avoided, otherwise requiring justification. Pastors and church staff helpers should take all reasonable precautions to limit the adverse impact of any dual relationships. (ES-140-f)

This wording marks a change from the previous AACC code where dual relationships were more positively addressed. The old rule stated this, “Based on an absolute application that harms membership bonds in the Body of Christ, we oppose the ethical-legal view that all dual relationships are per se harmful and therefore invalid on their face.  Many dual relations are wrong and indefensible, but some dual relationships are worthwhile and defensible.”

Agreements? Disagreements? Both codes ban the ending of counseling relationships for the purpose of changing the professional relationship to different relationship, or to engage in sexual activity with a client or a member of the client’s family. The AACC codes requires 3 years before marrying a former client (assuming all other concerns raised are not an issue) whereas the ACA code requires 5 years before engaging in an intimate relationship. The ACA code as extensive concerns about the teacher/student relationship as well as the supervisor/supervisee relationship. The AACC code says little about these (though some can be inferred). The biggest difference, however, is found in the stronger language banning dual relationships in the ACA code where the AACC code warns against possible harm but leaves the door open as long as the counselor knows they have to prove no harm happened and informed consent.




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Comparing ACA and AACC ethics codes: Addressing counselor values impact

Over the next few post I plan to review similarities and differences between the ACA and AACC codes (see this post for the first in this mini-series). Today I want to look at how the two codes talk about counselors as they manage their own value systems with their clientele.

The ACA code raises the issue of values like this:

  • Section A Introduction

Counselors actively attempt to understand the diverse cultural backgrounds of the clients they serve. Counselors also explore their own cultural identities and how these affect their values and beliefs about the counseling process.

  • A.4.b. Personal Values

Counselors are aware of—and avoid imposing—their own values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients, trainees, and research participants and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.

In addition, the ACA clearly states that when there are significant values differences, a counselor is NOT to make referral on the basis of values differences alone. Values clashes cannot be treated as lack of competency in a particular area of counseling.

  • A.11.b. Values Within Termination and Referral

Counselors refrain from referring prospective and current clients based solely on the counselor’s personally held values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.

The AACC code addresses the value systems of the counselor in these sections

  • ES1-010 Affirming Human Worth and Dignity

…Christian counselors express appropriate care towards any client, service-inquiring person, or anyone encountered in the course of practice or ministry, without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual behavior or orientation, socioeconomic status, age, disability, marital status, education, occupation, denomination, belief system, values, or political affiliation. God’s love is unconditional and, at this level of concern, so must that be of the Christian counselor.

  • ES1-120 Refusal to Participate in Harmful Actions of Clients

Within this section are paragraphs discussing the application and limits of the “do no harm” virtue to certain client behaviors deemed not to fit within the biblical framework articulated at the beginning of the ethics code. The AACC code expressed an ethic to avoid supporting or condoning (while respecting and continuing to help) in the following areas: abortion-seeking, substance abuse, violence towards others, pre or extramarital sex, homosexual/bisexual or transgender behavior, and euthanasia. On this last issue, the ACA notes that the duty to breach confidentiality may be optional (thus indicating a values insertion since in all other cases we have a duty to breach confidentiality so as to warn others or protect the life of our client).

  • 1-530: Working with Persons of Different Faiths, Religions, and Values

Counselors work to understand the client’s belief system, always maintain respect for the client and strive to understand when faith and values issues are important to the client and foster values-informed client decision-making in counseling. Counselors share their own faith orientation only as a function of legitimate self-disclosure and when appropriate to client need, always maintaining a posture of humility. Christian counselors do not withhold services to anyone of a different race, ethnic group, faith, religion, denomination, or value system.

  • 1-530-a: Not Imposing Values

While Christian counselors may expose clients and/or the community at large to their faith orientation, they do not impose their religious beliefs or practices on clients.

  • 1-550: Action if Value Differences Interfere with Counseling

Christian counselors work to resolve problems—always in the client’s best interest—when differences between counselor and client values become too great and adversely affect the counseling process. This may include: (1) discussion of the issue as a therapeutic matter; (2) renegotiation of the counseling agreement; (3) consultation with a supervisor or trusted colleague or; as a last resort (4) referral to another counselor if the differences cannot be reduced or bridged (and then only in compliance with applicable state and federal law and/or regulatory requirements).

Differences between codes?

There are many but let me identify two. Notice that the most significant difference between the two is on the basis of the AACC code biblical/christian ethic regarding what is good and what is harmful behaviors. Both codes express the need to respect persons without regard to their beliefs, values, identities, and actions. The AACC code differentiates between imposing of values and exposing of values. What is the difference between exposing and imposing? I suspect it will be in the eye of the beholder. However, I suspect that one of the results of the ACA code is that faith and spiritual values will be less likely to be brought up by counselors since “not imposing” is more emphasized than “exploring.” There is much literature out there suggesting that the failure to explore and utilize spiritual resources actually harms clients in that it slows recovery.

Both codes address the issue of values differences between client and counselor. Both point to a path (though different) about what to do when this happens. The ACA code places pressure on the counselor to work it out while the AACC code suggests a path to resolution either with re-negotiation or referral. Which one sounds better to you?

When the difference is with a colleague? 

Both ACA and AACC codes addresses differences with colleagues. In section D (Relationships with other professionals), the ACA code states,

D.1.a. Different Approaches. Counselors are respectful of approaches that are grounded in theory and/or have an empirical or scientific foundation but may differ from their own. Counselors acknowledge the expertise of other professional groups and are respectful of their practices.

The AACC codes says something similar,

1-710-a: Honorable Relations between Professional and Ministerial Colleagues. Christian counselors respect professional and ministerial colleagues, both within and outside the church. Counselors strive to understand and, wherever able, respect differing approaches to counseling, and maintain collaborative and constructive relations with other professionals serving their clients—in the client’s best interest.

Fun facts

The ACA code never uses the word “faith”, does suggest counselors need to address self-care (includes spirituality), and does suggest counselors seek to utilize client’s spiritual resources…”when appropriate.”


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New Ethics Codes for Counselors

Both the American Counseling Association (ACA) and the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) have published 2014 editions of their codes of ethics (links above to pdf of codes). Given these new documents, I highly encourage all Christian counselors (both professional and pastoral/lay) to review these two codes. Even if you do not belong to either the ACA or the AACC, you should spend some time with these documents. Here’s why:

  • The codes represent the current thinking of the ACA and the AACC about best practices for counselors. Even if you disagree, you need to know where you diverge (both for integrity sake with clients and for protection from unnecessary risk)
  • It is easy to become sloppy about ethical matters. We tend to believe what we do is good. Reviewing our practice habits against a standard can reveal slippage
  • It can be helpful to clients to know what code of ethics you subscribe to. Reading codes can help you determine which code you subscribe to and your reasons for doing so

Comparing Values and Principles

The following chart shows similarities and differences regarding the bases for ethics codes. It is worth reviewing these to see how they compare and contrast. In the next post, I will compare a few specific standards.

Content AACC ACA
Mission 1. help advance the central mission of the AACC—to bring honor to Jesus Christ and promote excellence and unity in Christian counseling;

2. promote the welfare and protect the dignity and fundamental rights of all individuals, families, groups, churches, schools, agencies, ministries, and other organizations with whom Christian counselors work;

3. provide standards of ethical conduct in Christian counseling that are to be advocated and applied by the AACC and the IBCC, and are respected by other professionals and institutions; and

4. provide an ethical framework from which to work in order to assure the dignity and care of every individual who seeks and receives services.

1. enhancing human development throughout the life span;

2. honoring diversity and embracing a multicultural approach in support of the worth, dignity, potential, and uniqueness of people within their social and cultural contexts;

3. promoting social justice;

4. safeguarding the integrity of the counselor–client relationship; and

5. practicing in a competent and ethical manner.

Principles Compassion in Christian Counseling – A Call to Servanthood Competence in Christian Counseling – A Call to ExcellenceConsent in Christian Counseling – A Call to Integrity

Confidentiality in Christian Counseling – A Call to Trustworthiness

Cultural Regard in Christian Counseling – A Call to Dignity

Case Management in Christian Counseling – A Call to Soundness

Collegiality in Christian Counseling – A Call to Relationship

Community Presence in Christian Counseling – A Call to Humility

autonomy, or fostering the right to control the direction of one’s life;nonmaleficence, or avoiding actions that cause harm;beneficence, or working for the good of the individual and society by promoting mental health and well-being;justice, or treating individuals equitably and fostering fairness and equality;

fidelity, or honoring commitments and keeping promises, including fulfilling one’s responsibilities of trust in professional relationships; and

veracity, or dealing truthfully with individuals with whom counselors come into professional contact.

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Disagreeing in public? Are there some best practices?

I’ve written a post over at our Biblical Seminary faculty blog about the art of disagreeing with others in public. By public I mean the kinds of conversations that take place in face-to-face with an opponent, discussions of a thinker’s position in a classroom, or the kind that take place on Internet sites (e.g., blogs like this, news sites, etc.).

Check out  my 5 tips to more loving disagreements.  Try it out with your next conflict with a friend or family member.

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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?


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Book Note: “Why the Church Needs Bioethics”

Just received a copy of Why the Church Needs Bioethics: A Guide to Wise Engagement with Life’s Challenges (Edited by John F. Kilner; published 2011, Zondervan). Using 3 case studies, a wide variety of authors discuss “better birth” (fertility), “better life”, and “better death.”

Authors include Richard Averbeck (OT and Counseling), Kevin Vanhoozer (theology), DA Carson (NT), and Stephen Greggo and Miriam Stark Parent (Counseling). In addition, there are business, law, medical, education, pastoral care, bioethics, and intercultural ministry authors.

I got a little chance to play a part in this book as a “critiquer” (p. 9) Stephen Greggo authors chapter 3, “Wisdom from Counseling” as a counseling response to the case study of Betty and Tom, a couple who are considering using Betty’s sister’s eggs and Tom’s sperm and to implant embryos into Betty. I got a chance to read and react to this chapter some time ago all because of a little article my wife and I wrote in 2002 and published in 2005.

On page 71, Greggo and Parent say,

A recent search of the leading peer-reviewed journals that inform Christian MHPs [mental health providers] and pastoral counselors yielded only a single article to guide a Christian counselor who might be dialoging with  Betty and Tom.

Their footnotes reveal that they searched The Journal of Biblical Counseling, The Journal of Psychology and Christianity and the Journal of Psychology and Theology between the years 2000 and 2009.

I find it surprising that there are no other articles than ours (full text here) and gratifying to see our essay summarized in this volume. While there are a number of good full length books, there is a serious need for good Christian counseling articles dealing with infertility and assisted reproductive technology (ART) because this is where many counselors start their study on a given topic.


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Receiving mercy leads to…bold sin?

You’ve just been caught doing something unlawful and harmful to others. You are stopped by the authorities. Time passes and you realize you will not be held accountable for your crimes. There will be no court case. There will be no punishment.

Would this make you more likely or less likely to continue your criminal activities?

My wife is reading a biography of US President Andrew Johnson. Johnson was VP under Lincoln and thus became president after Lincoln’s assassination. Johnson was roundly hated by both abolitionists and southerners. Fellow southerners saw him as a sell-out and abolitionists hated his obvious racist beliefs.

The biography noted that southerners were quite worried that they would face many northern reprisals for their actions during the Civil War. Not only were these reprisals not forthcoming, Johnson provided clemency to many of Confederate leadership. The biographer points out that when it was clear that individuals weren’t going to be held accountable, there seemed to be an increase in racial hatred and violence against freed slaves.

I know post Civil War politics was more complex than my simplistic statement above. And yet, consider this: can mercy embolden more sin? In fact, it may provide that temptation to sin more. Consider St. Paul’s comments in Romans 6. Do we sin more since we receive grace? Apparently, he felt the need to comment on this because we might be inclined to think that a free pass allows us to keep on going down the wrong road.

Just in case you think I’m suggesting we shouldn’t be merciful to sinners, I am NOT saying that. I’m grateful for unmerited favor in my life. I need more of it. However, let us be careful to recognize that mercy may produce in us something other than humble repentance.


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Christian interventions in counseling

Regular readers of this blog will know that I believe that Christian counseling is not merely counseling done by Christians or merely the use of specific christian interventions. Rather, Christian counseling is founded on Christian/biblical ways of perceiving the world, the problems in it, and the goal of imaging Christ from start to finish.

However, it is good to think about the specific use of certain christian practices in counseling: meditation, prayer, bible reading and application, casting out demons, absolution, etc. How are we to think about these practices? Do they have a place in professional counseling? What are limits we ought to place on them? When should we refrain? How do we secure informed consent?

Elsewhere I have published on the guidelines we ought to consider when using Scripture in counseling. I will not repeat them here but for those who have not read that article, I do think Scripture is something that CAN be used in counseling–even OUGHT to at times. What is of more importance to me is HOW and WHEN and WHY.

Let me here consider the most commonly used practice: prayer. Here are some shaping values before we consider any practical application.

1. Prayer is talking and listening to God. It is not a technique and should not be treated as such. It is not magic. It is, from a Christian perspective, sharing one’s heart, praising, questioning, interacting with the Creator of the universe who remarkably wants to relate to me. At its heart prayer is submissive acknowledgment of God–even when praying like Job.

2. Prayer then needs to be a free act without trace of coercion. The one praying must not be coercive (you talk to God not at another person). The one being prayed for ought not feel obligated to say anything.

3. People have diverse (and not always happy) experiences regarding prayer, faith, relationship with God, etc. So, what is comforting to you may be triggering for another.

4. Prayer is intimate. Prayer often results in our setting aside defenses and becoming vulnerable and needy.

5. Prayer is power. Praying for someone gives the one praying a position of power.

So, how might a counselor consider these values and use prayer in counseling.

1. Assessment of client. What is my client’s faith tradition, experiences with prayer, history of abuse by leaders of the church, understanding of God? Have they ever felt coerced to pray, coerced by the prayers of others? Have they been publicly prayed against? Do they value prayer?

2. Assessment of self. Why am I praying for my clients (out loud)? What messages am I trying to communicate? What do my prayers reveal about my own faith?

3. Consent. Have I explained why I pray for my clients? Do they really have the right to say no?

4. Review. How are my prayers received? What impact, if any, do they have?

What does this look like for me? I don’t pray with every client. I don’t choose to start my sessions with prayer (at least the first one) until I have a better sense of my client’s experience with prayer. I work very hard not to use prayer as an effort to disarm (though I think it can do this) or to preach a message, but only to make supplication to God for healing, for care for the downtrodden. When I use imagery in prayer I make sure that it is grounded in common biblical images (God as shepherd, Christ as lamb, etc.). I never ask clients to pray but many of them choose to do so. And, I do let clients pray for me when they want to. It is part of how believers care for each other.

I do believe that prayer is extremely important but that I do not need to do it to be actively asking God for healing or guidance. I will say that when conflictual couples pray, they often find that it is hard to stay angry and embittered and pray. It can be helpful, either in reducing bitterness or by discussing bitterness and its impact.

It should not be used when clients do not want it, might be confused by it, or if it is not authentic to the counselor. It is considered good professional ethics to utilize resources from a client’s life. However, it would not be good to fake (e.g., my praying in a way that would please a member of a cult, an atheist praying as if he or she believed what she said, my talking to God even though I am no longer practicing as a Christian, etc.).


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Ethical blunders: Root causes?

Finishing up the Ethics course in the next week. There are two kinds of ethical errors in counseling: conscious violations of ethical practice and blunders.

Forrest Gump’s quotable line, “Stupid is as stupid does,” is ringing in my head as I write this post. We do stupid stuff–stupid as in without thinking. Most of our blunders are just that–things we never intended but did absent forethought. Example? Oh, I don’t know, like walking through a dark room while talking on a cell phone and resulting in a face plant over an unseen chair. That kind of thing…and the real reason why I’m hearing Gump in my head.

We all go through parts of our life in unthinking auto-pilot. Consider the equivalent in counseling: Starting a first session but forgetting to cover informed consent because you are focused on helping the person in front of you. Or, handing out personal contact information because the client asked nicely (but never considering ulterior motives). Or, calling back a spouse of one of your clients and discussing issues but failing to remember you do not have a release to speak to them. These are some of the unthinking blunders we may make.

Are there root causes to blunders? Try on some of these:

1. Naiveté. Taking the comments of others without considering context or motives. I am not suggesting that good counselors need to be suspicious. Rather, we need to be realistic, critical thinkers who employ wisdom. We need to consider motives, consequences, impact, etc. We need to think beyond the immediate moment.

2. Reactivity. Some of us are just more reactive or instinctive driven. This may be personality driven. However, it may also indicate that we are being driven by unexamined desires (e.g., “I want this person to like me”; “I want to defend myself from an accusation”).

3. Over-confidence. Sometimes our blunders come from overconfidence. We’ve all heard the evidence that talking on the cell phone while driving raises our risks of having an accident. But most of us do it anyway. Why? We don’t think or perceive ourselves as compromised. We consider ourselves better than the rest. Sometimes, blunders in counseling come from an unsupported confidence in self–I will act right because I am an ethical person.  When we are overconfident we have placed our trust in something that may be good but not right in a particular situation.

4. Fear. Yes, fear. It can lock us up causing us to stop using our training and intellectual capacity. This is the counseling version of driving right into the thing you were trying to avoid. Fear paralyzes.

5. Group think. Group think happens when we stop asking questions and as a whole foreclose on other hypotheses. An agency may create this problem by how it manages staff meetings, supervision. As a group we may become comfortable with an ethical breach in such a way that it becomes normal–unseen.

Can you think of other root causes of unthinking ethical blunders?

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