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UED 620: Legal and Ethical Issues in Counseling: Home

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Identifying Ethical Dilemmas

For most counselors, an ethical dilemma is apparent when they encounter a confounding situation in which they feel hindered in their decision making because (a) there appears to be conflict between or inconsistency among the ethical standards, (b) the situation is so complex that the ethical codes offer little guidance, (c) there appears to be a conflict between ethical and legal standards, and (d) there appears to be a conflict between the moral principles that underlie most ethical codes. Counselors can be involved in ethical dilemmas directly, as in the case of client care or supervisory responsibilities, or they can be involved as a colleague, as in the case of witnessing a peer, supervisor, or supervisee struggle with a predicament. Ethical dilemmas differ from ethical violations in that the counselors have not yet engaged in any action that would violate the rights of the client or the ethical or legal standards.

Ethics have their conceptual roots in philosophy and as such are open to interpretation and influence from many sources (e.g., theoretical stance, cultural and personal factors, morals). Because of these influences, ethical dilemmas vary in their degrees of clarity and distinction. Some issues or questions may be readily apparent to some individuals but not to others, and some dilemmas emerge only upon reflection or after consultation or supervision. Identifying, addressing, and resolving ethical dilemmas is a dynamic process that requires counseling professionals to do more than simplistically apply the codes with respect for the uniqueness of each situation or circumstance.

Ethics and ethical codes are bounded by the cultural contexts in which they were produced. An act that might appear to be an ethical violation to a White male counselor may not be considered unethical when viewed by first generation Hispanic American female. For example, consider this scenario: Both counselors are providing counseling to male teenagers from Korea. In the course of the counseling sessions, each counselor asks his or her client to have his family attend the next session in order to begin family counseling. At the next week’s session, both clients bring their family members to the session. Each family is composed of some combination at least one biological parent, one biological grandparent, a couple of siblings, two cousins, and another person who is generally described as a neighbor or friend. One counselor allows all the family members into the session while the other counselor does not, because the cousins and neighbor or friend are not really family members. Clearly, these two counselors have very different ideas as to what constitutes “family” and who should have access to client information. Both could be practicing ethically according to their interpretation of the ethical codes, and depending on one’s point of view, both may be engendering an ethical dilemma as the result of their actions. The questions are these: Which actions by the counselors promote clients’ welfare, and what actions may the counselors need to take to ensure all parties are fully informed of the consequences of their decisions? Dilemmas are difficult and complex events to resolve, because there are no easy, clear, and definitive answers.

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Subject Headings

Subject terms to use when searching databases:

School counseling

Professional ethics

Educational counseling

Student counselors

Counseling students

Educational guidance

School guidance

Student assistance programs