The Importance of Ethics in Counseling

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  • 1:16 Confidentiality
  • 2:34 Exceeding Competence
  • 3:12 Sexual & Dual Relationships
  • 4:30 Countertransference
  • 5:20 Financial Issues
  • 6:25 Policing Ethical Issues
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michele Chism

Michele is presently a part time adjunct instructor at Faulkner University in the Counselor Education Department where she teaches Measurement and Assessment and Diagnosis and Treatment. I formerly taught at the University of West Alabama where I taught School Counseling and College Student Development Counseling. I was also the Student Success Coordinator for the College of Education.

In this lesson, we will be looking at the ethical issues a new counselor should be familiar with and prepared to handle. These issues include things breaching confidentiality and financial issues.


In this lesson, we will be looking at some of the ethical issues a new counselor may be confronted with and should know about. We'll cover the most prevalent violations of ethics, including violations of confidentiality, exceeding competence, dual relationships and sexual relationships with clients, counter transference, and questionable financial arrangements.

Ethics, which are the suggested standards of conduct based on a set of professional values and moral decision making regarding professional behavior, are usually established by a discipline's professional organization. Counseling professional associations, like the American Counseling Association and the American Psychological Association, have their own code of ethics. These codes do not provide all the answers but do provide information on the most common issues and provide some uniformity between practitioners.

Having a code of ethics is not a guarantee that the individual practitioner will follow them. However, it is expected that members of an organization do adhere to the code of ethics. Let's take a look at several important points that will usually be covered in a code of ethics.


Confidentiality is an ethical understanding between the counselor and the client that what the client tells the counselor will be protected from disclosure without the client's permission. Before counseling sessions begin, the counselor has the responsibility to inform the client of when they can and when they cannot maintain confidentiality. The client should sign an informed consent form that states that he or she is aware that there are specific times the counselor cannot maintain confidentiality, such as when the client is a danger to himself or others or when the counselor is subpoenaed to court.

Licensed private practice counselors are protected with privileged communication from having to reveal information in court in many cases. The limits of privileged communication will vary by state. Non-licensed counselors, like school counselors, do not have this protection in most states. In cases where the counselor has to reveal information the client has shared with them, the counselor should reveal as little as possible. The counselor should err on the side of keeping the confidentiality. If the counselor reveals information that is not necessary, they leave themselves open to ethical and legal sanctions, including loss of certification and licensure or a malpractice suit.

Exceeding Competence

Counselors have an ethical responsibility to present their qualifications and experience truthfully. Many malpractice lawsuits are due to incompetence on the part of the counselor due to the counselor presenting herself as more qualified than she is or using techniques in counseling in which she has not had sufficient training. To prevent issues, counselors who have an area of specialization, such as substance-abuse counseling, or who wish to use specialized techniques usually either take additional coursework in that area or attend conferences and workshops to acquire additional experience.

Sexual and Dual Relationships

Counselors should never engage in a sexual relationship with a client - EVER. The greatest number of malpractice suits and complaints to professional organizations involve client-counselor sexual relationships. The counselor is in a position of power over the client by virtue of the position. This means it is always the counselor's responsibility to prevent these relationships. A counselor who has sexual feelings for a client may need to refer the client. Ethical standards even suggest that the counselor should not engage in a sexual relationship with a former client because of that earlier relationship.

What about friendships or other relationships with clients? There is no clear-cut ethical guideline about counseling people that you already have some relationship with. However, the counselor should use caution in counseling individuals with whom he or she has other relationships, such as family members, friends, and coworkers. The other relationship with the client might impair the counselor's judgment and objectivity and may affect the ability to provide services. The counselor will need to decide if the relationship can cause harm to the client. The counselor may decide to refer the client to another counselor or see the client but establish guidelines to prevent ethical issues.


Another ethical issue that is rarely discussed is countertransference. Countertransference is where the counselor projects feelings and attitudes that distort the way he or she perceives a client. Perceptions of a client are influenced by the counselor's own past experiences. Countertransference may result in the counselor being overprotective, treating the client too cautiously, seeing herself in the client, developing romantic or sexual feelings for the client, giving advice instead of therapy, or developing a social relationship with the client.

Countertransference is not all bad and may make the counselor feel more empathetic of the client and more aware of their own feelings. When it becomes problematic, though, the counselor should deal with feelings through consultation, supervision, or personal therapy.

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