Tag Archives: ethics

Gain: Ethical boundaries relating to client gifts

[note: I found this document in my Ethics course files. I think I wrote this some time ago…but I don’t remember. It is possible that I received a WORD document with this in it from someone else. If so, I apologize for posting without acknowledging the source. Ah, the joys of aging.]

Professional counseling is founded on the assumption of the patient/practitioner relationship. The practitioner/expert provides a needed and appropriate service and the patient pays a reasonable fee—or their insurance company does for them. However, the extremely personal nature of counseling work often creates strong feelings between client and therapist and consequently the client may wish to bring a token gift signifying their thankfulness for a job well done.

Gifts beyond the token category provide therapists with “gain” and likely disrupt the fee/service relationship mentioned in the previous paragraph. While gain may not cause actual harm and may be unavoidable, the wise counselor remains aware of possible sources of gain and their consequences.

Consider the following examples and check whether you think they may be problematic:

  • A Board member of the counseling center offers one of the counselors tickets to a ball game
  • A Client offers his private counselor tickets to a ball game.
  • A student offers her teacher tickets to a ball game

Should the counselor in any of these scenarios accept the tickets? Does the cost of the gift or the wealth of the person giving a gift matter? Would it change your answer if the gift were a week’s stay at a beach house? Does it matter if the student is currently in a class with the teacher or not?

Gifts are a form of gain. Others may come in other forms of benefit for the counselor. If the counselee owns a publishing company, should the counselor accept an offer to have him or her publish his next book? If the counselor has a non-profit ministry, should he or she accept client gifts to that ministry? If a client offers to sit for a testimonial ad for the counselor’s new technique, should the counselor accept?

Gifts, though, represent expressions of thankfulness and thus a policy of rejecting all gifts may bring harm to the counseling relationship.

Wise Counselors explore with their clients any possibilities of gain and their potential consequences. Counselors consider how gains may harm the client or create an indebtedness that in the future clouds clinical judgment. For example, counselors do not accept gifts or fee sharing from treatment facilities in return for referrals. On the other hand, a cup of coffee brought to the session likely is just a cup of coffee, a friendly gesture. Christmas cookies are a small but personal thank you for a job well done. But, don’t assume that small gifts can not produce a quid pro quo (this for that) interaction. So, back to our first line in this paragraph. Take the time to explore the meaning of an offered gift and be willing to talk about it with clients.


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling skills, ethics

Ethics training without tears?

I once saw a title of a text, “Statistics without tears.” Few people are in tears in my Ethics class but most have looks of fear. Thus, my question. Is it possible to teach ethics to counselors without incurring fear?

Counselors, by nature, want to do what is right for their clients. They want to solve problems. They also want to avoid harming clients AND facing lawsuits or licensing board complaints. So, you can understand that my students take great interest in a course where we discuss standards of care and the bases for ethical practice.

I try to focus on the underlying values that guide counselor behavior. I try to remind students that suicide and lawsuits are extremely rare (as long as you aren’t trying to do things that are controversial or fail to consider the wise counsel of supervisors). But, bottom line, you have to discuss practical cases where errors matter–breaches of confidentiality, failure to warn or protect in the face of imminent harm, dual relationships, practicing outside of competency, etc. It is these vignettes that raise our fears.

I’ve tried to reduce student fears but in the end some fear is good. Fear that leads us to be careful, to ask for supervision, to double-check our motives may not be a bad thing. When fear paralyzes or leads to self-protection alone, then it is not helpful.

In the end, we must trust that God will not abandon us, even if we make mistakes. We must remember that humility will take us a long way and that every path we take has risk associated with it. Our job is to remain learners as we walk with others in their difficulty. As soon as we stop asking good questions about our clients or about our actions, we now enter risky practice.

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Filed under christian counseling, counseling, counseling science, counseling skills

Professional communications by counselors: What do they reveal?

What we say and how we say it can tell someone quite a bit about our character. We counselors earn our keep with words. And yet, it is our words that may do the most harm to others. As a result, I encourage us to take stock of our words. What do they reveal about us? Oh, and don’t just consider the words you use in a session. How you talk to a colleague, about a colleague, to another professional may reveal your character more than you think. Consider the following communication issues:

1. Client put-downs. In agencies where counselors share clients with other professionals (e.g., psychiatrists, social workers, community workers, etc.), it is common for conversation to descend into put-downs. No doubt these professionals care about their clients. But if they are frustrated with the client, does it result in blaming the client? Making fun of their idiosyncracies? “He’s such a narcissist; She’s so Borderline”. These kind of comments reveal more about the speaker than the one spoken about.

2. Professional Lingo. Every guild has its lingo. Read a psychiatric or psychological evaluation and you will likely come across a number of words that only make sense if you are on the inside. The client probably wouldn’t really know what is being said about them with translation help. What do your progress notes communicate? Who are you writing for? How might our lingo hinder our work. I highly suggest that use the client as a standard to evaluate all our written communications. If the client couldn’t understand or could possibly be harmed by what we write, the think better of it.

3. Professional Territorialness. We communicate with other professionals about our clients. Does our communication reveal any condescending attitudes? Any unnecessary hierarchy? How do you talk about another professional to clients? To other colleagues? Do we withhold data for power reasons? For fear of mis-use by the other. If so, we have serious issues to address. Leaving them unaddressed will only injure the client.

4. Unprepared staffings. Staff communications regarding shared clients often include off-the-cuff comments about clients. These kind of statements can sound as if they are well supported by data. Sadly, we can offer up anecdotes about a client and they are weighted as heavily as objective test data. Can we support our comments and insights with data? Are there other data that might challenge our offered hypotheses?

5. General coarseness. I once had a supervisor who used the “F” word in every sentence (and in every form of speech possible). He relished the power he got from using that word. I’m not opposed to ever using curse words but they usually reveal more about the user than the situation. More recently, I’ve noticed how frequently we use genital imagery to talk about important character traits. “Do you have the stones to do that?” I heard this question asked in prime-time television. Why couldn’t they just talk about the trait of courage? I do think that language has a way of devolving in the heat of battle. Counselors work in the trenches and so it stands to reason that they might slip here some.

6. General grumbling. It is easy to slip into the habit of grumbling. I am tempted to revel (yes revel since I think I enjoy it some) in pointing out the failures of other people. I feel better when I can see their mistakes that I would never commit. We grumble against people, against institutions, against policies; against pretty much anything that irritates us.

Let us be diligent to explore what our communication reveals about our hearts and character and let us resolve, with God’s help, to love others even when they are not watching–and to model that love in our speech.


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling skills, deception, ethics, Psychology, Uncategorized

Counseling Ethics and Electronic media

Once before I wrote a bit on this topic. Just how much should we use electronic media to work with clients? While most counseling takes place face to face, counselors speak with their clients using the phone, e-mail, texts, live chat, video conferencing, even through “second life” formats using avatars.

In the latest edition of the Pennsylvania Psychologist, I saw another little article reminding us counselors how to manage these electronic methods. Rachael Baturin suggests the following tips:

  1. Always clarify what kind electronic connectivity you will have and the nature of those interactions. For example, use of email to receive documents and make scheduling changes but wary of too long or too informal style emails. If you look like a friend (sharing personal stuff back to the client), it blurs boundaries
  2. Anticipate and respond to abuses of your policy (e.g., frequent texting, demanding emails)
  3. Avoiding the use of e-mails and texts for emergency contacts from clients. Use the phone or answering service for that
  4. Establish a general turnaround policy (how long you will likely take to respond to emails)
  5. Inform clients about privacy issues. Such as, use of work email to contact them, possibility of a shared email.
  6. Maintain a copy of every email or electronic contact. Or summarize them in the next case note.
  7. Use the standard text at end of email msgs to remind them of confidentiality and the possibility of errors in sending.
  8. Remember, tone of voice is missing in emails. Be sure to be extra careful about this

A couple of additional matters not mentioned:

Be clear on whether you bill for time on emails BEFORE you start emailing back and forth. Recognize that SKYPE or other kinds of video conferencing to other countries may not be as private as you might think. Other countries may do more to monitor NGOs and others serving abroad. If you get emailed journals, ask the person to use an agreed upon password for their Word documents. That way, if the email goes awry, no-one else can view the contents but you and your client.

Bottom line? Don’t be lulled into unprofessional activities on-line. Assume everything you send (chat, texts, email) may be printed out or shared with someone else. How would what you are saying or doing look to a court of law determining whether you acted in the best interests of your client and whether or not you held yourself to a high standard of care?

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Do no harm?

[This is the second guest post I am making over on the www.christianpsych.org. You’ll have to click the link to read the whole post…]

Every counseling ethics code in existence includes this principle: Do no harm. This maxim is drilled into the heads of counseling students (and any other medical professional as well). Our work should help, not hurt. Who could disagree?

But pause for a minute and consider how you might evaluate whether an intervention helps or harms. What criteria will you use? From what vantage point will you evaluate the criteria you choose? If a medical treatment extends life for an ill patient that would seem good—unless it keeps them alive and in a vegetative state with no possibility of recovery. Some would then wonder if the treatment was indeed best. Or, is it harmful if marriage counseling encourages truthfulness between spouses leading to the revelation of a terrible betrayal leading on to divorce and financial ruin? If honesty is your criteria for helpfulness, then the intervention is sad but helpful. If stability is your criteria, then such counseling is harmful. We could go on and on. Do we use client interpretation of whether treatment is helpful or counselor observation? Do we consider the difference between short and long term evaluation? And importantly for Christians, do we consider only statistical analyses or do we also consider biblical categories (e.g., intervention “A” leads to increased positive affect but encourages clients to pray to another deity).

Despite the muddy water I just churned up, I want to argue that Christian psychology is well poised to help Christian counselors provide treatment that does not harm. This society includes some of the best philosophers, theologians, sociologists, clinicians, and researchers of our day. These members are interested in looking at how people grow and change, how the bible connects with everyday life, common human struggles and effective interventions, etc.

How then do we go about refining our practices and avoiding harm? Let me suggest some steps we might take:

[rest of post on www.christianpsych.org.]


Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Psychology


At September’s AACC conference I attended a presentation entitled, “Technoethics” by Jana Vanderslice, a psychologist from Texas. She got me thinking about the use of e-mail and other Internet-based technologies with counselees. Here are some of the issues:

1. E-mail. Do you have a policy about your use of e-mail with counselees? Do you inform them about the limits or possible problems that might be encountered? Problems such as security and confidentiality, whether or not you will read them “in time”, what becomes of them (printed out and kept in a file?), whether or not you provide brief counseling through e-mail and possible charges, etc. Dr. Vanderslice suggests having a start to the email that says, “Confidential! This is not meant to take the place of in person consultation…”

2. If you do e-mail counseling, do you (a) know who you are emailing? What data do you collect from the person you provide email counseling to? And (b), do you think about how your email may sound if it is printed off and/or forwarded to others. You should assume that your electronic communications may be passed on. Further, if you have regular e-mail contact, how will you deal with the nature of always being at the beck and call of clientele?

3. Your Social networking accts. Do you use twitter? Do you have a Facebook or MySpace account or the like? Do you “friend” your clients? Do you have anything personal on the web you’d rather your clients didn’t see? This becomes a form of self-disclosure. There may be things revealed about yourself on-line that you would never reveal to a client. Remember, if the client is in the same Facebook network, they can likely see more of you than you might realize.

4. Google searches. Similarly, it might be worth your while to search yourself and see what is out there. Did you know that there are “rate my counselor” type sites out there? Many of these exist to help you find healthcare providers in your area, but include ratings by current or former clients. Do you know what others are saying about you?

5. IT and other providers. Who has access to your accounts and computer? Does your IT dept (if you are in a larger organization) know to honor HIPAA regulations? If you use a vendor (e.g., Geek Squad), they need to sign an agreement to maintain the privacy of the clientele data on your email or database. Can you encrypt email and/or WORD documents?

Can you think of other technoethics issues?

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Filed under Communication, confidentiality, counseling, counseling skills, ethics, Psychology, teaching counseling

Practicum/Ethics Monday: Multiple Relationships

All counseling ethics codes address the potential problem of multiple or dual relationships (when counselors have other relationships with their clients or former clients (e.g., counseling a friend or a child of a friend, having a former client as a business partner, etc.). Some codes make it appear that dual relationships are either always or likely wrong and so should be avoided. The AACC code is a bit more liberal in that it (rightly) defines the problem as increasing the problem of exploiting or harming the client. However, this code explicitly defends the biblical nature of dual relationships since we are all brothers and sisters of the same body. Other codes have recognized that it is not possible to always avoid dual relationships. But all codes remind the counselor that it is their duty to defend the healthiness of any dual relationship. In essence, it will be “guilty until proven innocent.”

There are 3 forms of dual relationships (sexual and client; nonsexual social and client; financial and client). Not every dual relationship is with the client (e.g., a counselor has a relationship with the mother of a teen client, a client is under discipline at your large church where you provide consultation to the elders). Dual relationships may happen AFTER counseling is over (begin a friendship with a former client). Finally, it is not merely harm or exploitation that may be the negative outcome of a dual relationship. A counselor may find that a dual relationship hinders or decreases her effectiveness to provide adequate care. [See Lamb et als article in the 2004 Professional Psychology: Research & Practice (35:3), pp 248-254 for a study on these issues].

This last one is the one I want to hang out with for a bit. I had a former client who I had known and highly respected before we started counseling. At the beginning we explored the potential harm that might come from this dual relationship. Both of us deemed that we could manage the slight dual relationship. And I think we did well and the client found the counseling helpful. However, there was a period in the counseling where the client became severely depressed and suicidal. I found myself less willing to hospitalize because I had an image of this client in my head that was much more stable than was actually true. Now, I never like or want to hospitalize. Most psych hospital stays provide protection but little more in the way of healing. But, I know I would have been much quicker to pull the trigger (bad pun I guess) if I hadn’t previously formed an opinion of health before starting the counseling relationship. We should not forget the possibility of reduced effectiveness in dual relationships.

Let me take this one step further. You may have a client who shares your same faith or doctrinal positions, graduated from the same school (but a different time). Any of these connections MIGHT cause you to be less effective in your work because of bias, groupthink, etc. These are not reasons to NOT counsel them but things to keep in mind. Reduced effectiveness because of dual relationships should not be neglected just because we are too busy talking about the rare counselor who decides to have sex with his clients.


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, counseling science, ethics, Psychology