Ethical Issues in Counselor-Supervisor Relationships

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Counselor-supervisor relationships come with certain ethical issues. How can both supervisors and counselors be aware of these issues and deal with them? We'll answer that in this lesson.

Counselor-Supervisor Relationships

Lucy is very excited. She's just been promoted to train, advise, and oversee newer counselors at the treatment facility where she works. One of her first supervisees is Carlos.

The counselor-supervisor relationship is one in which a counselor is in close contact with a counselor supervisor, who is usually a more experienced counselor tasked with guiding, offering professional advice, and supervising the counselor. This relationship is essentially one of both mentor and boss. As a result, it can be a complicated relationship fraught with difficult issues.

To help Lucy prepare to supervise Carlos, let's take a look at some of the ethical issues in counselor-supervisor relationships.


Carlos is seeing a patient who is very anxious. He wants to help her and has heard about a program where an anxious patient is forced to confront the things that they fear to help them get over their anxieties. But there are risks. For example, what happens if Carlos' patient gets so scared that it traumatizes her further? Or, worse, what if she has a heart attack from the fear? If the worst case scenario happens and a patient is harmed as a result of action or negligence in counseling, both the counselor and the supervisor can be held liable. For example, Lucy can be sued by the client or her family even though Carlos is the counselor.

There are two major types of liability that Lucy has to worry about. Direct liability is harm caused by the actions or direction of the supervisor. For example, if Lucy tells Carlos to follow through with the program, she can be held directly responsible for the client's harm. It's as though she did it herself.

In contrast, vicarious liability is due to harm caused by the counselor with or without the supervisor's knowledge, but not under the direct orders of the supervisor. For example, if Carlos goes ahead with the program without telling Lucy, she can still be held vicariously liable. As a result of these liabilities, it's important for a supervisor to establish an open dialogue with the counselors they supervise.

Dual Relationships

Another ethical issue that can are in counselor-supervisor settings is that of dual relationships. These are any relationships that overlap with the counselor-supervisor relationship. For example, Lucy and Carlos go to the same church and sometimes hang out in the same social circle. Other examples of dual relationships include being related (by marriage or blood) or being in the same softball league.

Sexual dual relationships (that is, a romantic or sexual relationship between supervisor and counselor) are best avoided because the power differential between the two people makes it unethical. Other dual relationships might not be avoidable, though. For example, Lucy is the only counselor supervisor at the facility, so Carlos will have to be supervised by her.

In unavoidable dual relationships, the counselor and supervisor together have to decide how to proceed. The focus should be on the balance of power. Because Lucy, as the supervisor, naturally has more power in their relationship, it is crucial that supervisors like her set clear boundaries around the working relationship. That way, Carlos knows that whatever happens in church or their social circle will not reflect on his working relationship with Lucy.

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