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06 Nov

Following the Counseling Code of Ethics

Thoughtful and impactful counselors understand that it is critically important to develop a bond of trust and respect with their clients. It is this bond that frees clients to feel as though they can be open and vulnerable without fearing judgment or a betrayal of confidence.

To help professional counselors understand how to safeguard themselves and best serve their clients, the American Counseling Association (ACA) publishes a set of ethical guidelines that promote respect, dignity and just treatment within the context of the counselor and client relationship. This Code of Ethics can assist professionals who are faced with ethical dilemmas in counseling by offering a detailed set of protocols to help guide their course of action.

Keeping a Code of Ethics

The ACA Code of Ethics outlines various ethical scenarios for counselors and offers guidelines for navigating ethical dilemmas in counseling.1 If you find yourself faced with a delicate situation in your work as a counselor, these guidelines can help you assess how to appropriately and effectively serve your clients and your profession.

The Counseling Relationship: Counselors must keep the welfare of the client in mind and establish boundaries that make the client-counselor relationship clear. This means that clients need to understand the counseling process and have clearly established counseling goals. Records should be safeguarded and recorded in an accurate and timely manner. Professional boundaries should always be maintained, and a romantic or sexual relationship should never occur between counselors and clients. Session fees should be affordable for the client, and they should be made clear from the start.

Confidentiality and Privacy: Counselors need to safeguard the individual rights and privacy of their clients. Trust is the cornerstone of the counseling relationship, and counselors are responsible for maintaining a trustworthy partnership. Clients should be made aware if information about them has to be shared with others outside the counseling relationship, and only essential information should ever be revealed to outside parties. Counselors are required to disclose client behaviors that indicate the potential for self-harm or harm to others. Lastly, if sessions are to be recorded or observed, counselors must first get the permission of their client.

Professional Responsibility: All counseling practices and treatments should be grounded in research and accepted practice. The ACA also encourages counselors to offer pro bono work as a part of their professional activity. In order to stay abreast of the practice, counselors must understand the need for continued education and maintain awareness of changing practices and procedures in the field.

Relationships With Other Professionals: How professional counselors interact with their peers will influence what services their clients have access to. Counselors must strive to provide clients with the most comprehensive clinical and support service available, which means that they should have a basic knowledge of which additional services are available locally. All positive working relationships with colleagues should be grounded in respect, even if professional approaches differ.

Evaluation, Assessment and Interpretation: Without an accurate assessment of a client’s presenting situation, the individual may not receive appropriate treatment. Professional counselors must understand the context of the client’s beliefs, behaviors and cultural background. In giving a diagnosis, counselors must carefully consider whether the associated treatment and potential outcomes will do more harm than good to the client.

Supervision, Training and Teaching: Whether you are a counseling student or instructor, boundaries within your professional relationships are also important to ethical counseling behavior. Supervisors must maintain a professional relationship with their students, whether sessions are electronic or face-to-face. Teachers and supervisors must aim to be fair, honest and accurate when assessing students or supervisees. Counselor educators and supervisors must apply pedagogically sound instructional models. In addition, counseling educators should actively work to recruit and retain a diverse body of students in support of a commitment to improve diversity in the counseling field.

Research and Publication: Benefits to clients will only be realized if important research advancements in the field of counseling are shared with practitioners. Professionals have an ethical obligation to contribute to that knowledge base whenever possible and to keep aware of its current advancements.

Distance Counseling, Technology and Social Media: Current trends in technology have changed the field, and today, face-to-face interaction isn’t always necessary. While distance counseling has removed roadblocks to counseling services for some, it also comes with new and evolving ethical considerations. Counselors have to understand new platforms and resources in order to determine whether they will better serve their clients. These new service delivery formats also bring increased concerns for confidentiality and privacy that professionals should be mindful of. And it may seem obvious, but confidential information should never be shared on social media.

Resolving Ethical Issues: Ethical dilemmas must never be ignored, for the good of the client, the counselor and, ultimately, the profession itself. Not only should professional counselors follow a strict personal code of ethics in their work, they should also hold peers accountable to high ethical standards. The best practice is always to be proactive and take action, and, if necessary, cooperate with any investigations into wrongdoing.

Facing an Ethical Dilemma

When challenges arise, the way forward may not immediately be clear. Start by separating facts from assumptions, bias, hypotheses or suspicions. Determine if the problem is an ethical, professional, clinical or legal problem (or a combination). Review the professional literature, especially the ACA Code of Ethics, to see if guidelines for addressing the problem are provided there. Consult with other professional counselors to get input on resolving the situation. Online resources are also available for contacting state and national professional associations.

Remember, your action or inaction in any situation involving ethics will impact all parties involved, so let the foundational principles of counseling guide your decisions:

  • Autonomy: Counselors should encourage and enable clients to take control of the direction of their own lives wherever possible
  • Nonmaleficence: Counselors’ chosen action or inaction should never intentionally cause harm
  • Beneficence: Mental health and well-being should be a priority for the good of the individual and for society more broadly
  • Justice: Counselors should treat all people fairly and equitably
  • Fidelity: Counselors should honor all personal and professional commitments, promises and responsibilities

To help determine if your chosen course of action is the correct one, test it according to the principles of justice, publicity and universality, as outlined in the “Practitioner’s Guide to Ethical Decision Making” from the ACA.2 First, would you treat another person in the same situation the same way? Secondly, would you want your behavior in resolving this situation reported to the press? And finally, would you recommend this solution to another counselor facing a similar ethical dilemma? When you’ve decided on a strategy, be sure and set an appointed time to follow up and evaluate whether your actions achieved their desired effects.


Take a deep dive into the professional, ethical and legal matters you may encounter in counseling, and explore unique concentrations in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and School Counseling, with the Online Master of Education in Counseling from William & Mary.


1 Retrieved on October 24, 2018, from counseling.org/resources/aca-code-of-ethics.pdf
2 Retrieved on October 24, 2018, from counseling.org/docs/default-source/ethics/practioner-39-s-guide-to-ethical-decision-making.pdf?sfvrsn=f9e5482c_10