We all believe we are ethical. However, in 1985, I graduated with a masters degree in counseling without ever taking a class in the ethics of counseling. I went out in the world to work as a counselor in supervised agency settings. The policies and procedures of the agency governed much of my behavior, but I made ethical mistakes without realizing it. For example, I became friends with a man in one of my groups, talked to him about buying a used car from him and we had dinner together one evening. When I subsequently called him at home and his girlfriend answered, I was confused by her critical comment to me, "You sure don't seem to understand ethical behavior!"
I had always considered myself to be a very moral person--guided by what I believed was normal behavior among "good" people. I drew on the example of my father, who was the owner of a drug store in a small Nebraska village and worked in the store as the professional pharmacist. In that capacity, he was both a source of advice and confidant of many (most?) of the people in town. He certainly felt free to have lunch or dinner with any one of his customers or to buy a car from one of them.
It was only later--when I took my first course in counselor ethics as part of my counselor continuing education--that I discovered that counselors, especially in an urban setting, are guided by standards that the general public might consider strange and unreasonable. Basically, counselors are seen to have an unequal relationship with the clients who have confided in them. Counselors are therefore ethically prohibited from doing business with their clients in most circumstances (because that creates a confusing "dual-relationship".)
It helps that now Washington State counselors are required to take ethics courses on a regular, recurring basis--but there are still counselors making terrible mistakes in judgment.
I invite counselors and the public to send examples of situations that would help counselors and clients to better understand professional counseling boundaries. Perhaps other counselors will have stories to share anonymously. Stories with good ethical content will be presented on these pages.
To the counselor, client or interested member of the public -- Please feel free to email your feedback regarding any of the published counseling situations on this page OR to submit an ethical situation or question of your own. Submissions may be edited for reason of clarity or length.
Floyd Else, MA, LMHC, Webmaster
See Also: Ethical vs. Unethical Counselors