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Counselor Ethics Systems: The Need, Benefits, and Costs
Author: Richard A. Goldberg
Under any appropriate measurement scheme, it is clear that: the professional counseling field is growing at a significant rate; the number of professional counselors is increasing, competition within the field, and related professions, is intensifying; and voluntary and governmental regulation of the profession will increase. As a natural by-product of these circumstances, the number and importance of professional ethics matters reaching national certification organizations and state regulatory bodies, is expanding substantially. The tangible and less definable costs associated with the creation and maintenance of professional ethics systems, therefore, are multiplying significantly.
While any professional counselor may be subject to ethics and/or disciplinary charges by a certification or licensing body, the majority of such matters are generated by certificants and licensees engaged in private practice, rather than those employed in academic or governmental settings. Stated otherwise, most disciplinary cases come from the practice group with the most public contact and, in significant part, concern client and therapy-related complaints. Similarly, and of particular note, substantial numbers of practitioners are becoming the subjects of ethics problems because of criminal accusations and convictions involving conduct unrelated to their counseling activities.
Despite the fact that ethics cases and investigations are limited to a relatively small percentage of the professional counseling community, clearly all professional organizations regulating the field, voluntary or governmental, are encountering noteworthy costs and harms generated by the expanding quantity, and sometimes grievous nature, of many ethics matters. Moreover, the professional lives of certified and/or licensed counselors are increasingly affected, whether the practitioner is aware of this situation or not. Regardless of a counselors particular work environment and credentials, and notwithstanding whether a specific professional has become the subject of an ethics or disciplinary matter, every certified and licensed counselor has been affected by the processes and standards developed for addressing conduct issues. Accordingly, and in addition to every practitioners obligation to understand and to behave in a manner consistent with applicable standards of conduct, counselors need to be aware of the increasing costs and effects associated with unethical practice and its regulation, including public policy and confidence issues, reputational injury to the profession, financial costs to professional bodies, certificants and licensees, and wrongs to clients.
Costs of Developing, Maintaining and Enforcing Ethical Codes and Procedures
In response to the increasing numbers of credentialed counselors and the rising total of ethical complaints, organizations and agencies have promulgated conduct rules and standards codes in order to define appropriate professional behavior. In addition, credentialing bodies have created or duplicated existing procedural schemes in order to process ethics charges and to conduct fair investigations of the factual allegations lodged against a counselor.
The obvious goal of these ethics and disciplinary schemes include a variety of inter-related and important purposes. These purposes include the establishment of acceptable, minimum standards of conduct concerning research, use of therapeutic techniques, client interactions, billing, public representations and advertising, and public behavior unrelated to professional practice. Such rules are specifically designed to generate public confidence in the profession, to assure the integrity of practitioners, and to provide aggrieved parties with a fair forum for the resolution of real and imagined wrongs.
The result of these organizational and agency activities has been the establishment of a quilt of voluntary national and mandatory state schemes that differ in scope and content. Each credentialed counselor practicing in one or more states has the task of identifying all applicable ethics codes, and then understanding his or her responsibilities under the relevant schemes.
At the outset, each credentialing body is required to devote substantial management, staff, budgetary, and legal resources to the process of developing appropriate conduct and case handling rules. With respect to substantive conduct standards, each organization must engage in a lengthy and detailed analysis of the regulated occupation. Thereafter, the governing boards must determine which ethics principles should apply, as well as the appropriate form of each rule. As information and understanding of the process grows, continuing efforts must be given to improving and refining the proper structure.
This process may be helped by the use and comparison of similar codes and procedures created by other organizations. However, in the end, each organization must engage in a careful examination of the choices and decide upon the correct route for its certificants and licensees. Obviously, the monetary costs of such work are substantial and, at the least, require a budget commitment of many thousands of dollars for in-house and outside professionals to complete each task.
Following the initial development and implementation of an ethics code and case procedure process, the credentialing body must assign the operation of the system to qualified staff professionals familiar with the requirements of the counseling field. In addition -- and particularly relevant to smaller organizations -- consultants may be required to assist in these activities. Consultants can monitor the effectiveness of the scheme and recommend appropriate changes.
The work involved in ethics system administration is both ministerial and, of more significance, labor intensive. Among other activities related to the processing of ethics cases, the credentialing body must be prepared to engage in the following: receipt and preliminary analysis of each ethics related charge to determine whether the matter should be processed further; investigation of all factual allegations related to a pertinent provision of the professional code, including witness interviews and document reviews; the development of a complete case record; and resolution through a fair and comprehensive hearing and decision making process. Each step in this program requires the assignment of staff, or the hiring of outside help. Again, significant financial costs are involved and a regular source of ethics program funding is required. In general, the decision to engage in professional ethics policing must include a determination that the voluntary or government organization is prepared to shoulder the start up and long term monetary obligations.
Costs and Benefits to the Public of Being Ethical: Conclusion
In addition to the ethics process costs incurred by credentialing organizations, consumers of counseling services may also experience increased costs relating to the certification and licensure of ethical practitioners. For example, private clients serviced by a certified counselor can be charged increased service fees by a professional to offset the cost of his or her credential, including charges that fund an ethics system. Similarly, state licensure processes concerning professional counselors can and do include public budget items that reflect the expenses related to the creation and maintenance of an ethics or disciplinary system. Naturally, these costs will be included in tax moneys sought by government.
However, in analyzing the correctness of any professional disciplinary process it is very important to remember that a variety of substantial public and organizational benefits counterbalance the substantial expenses and other operational costs. As indicated above, developing and maintaining a quality, ethics enforcement scheme will result in a uniform system of ensuring minimum standards of practitioner conduct, and a clear strengthening of the publics trust of the counseling profession. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that professional policing is an extremely important part of the functioning of any credentialing body. Accordingly, expenses and costs should be factored in and included within an organizations yearly budget as a fixed and permanent activity.
The vast majority of professional counselors will never be subject to disciplinary scrutiny. Even though these practitioners behave consistently with ethical canons, and do not run up against pertinent standards and codes, they may be required to support ethics systems through certification and licensure charges. Therefore, counselors must be educated to accept the expenses of properly policing the occupation, and to appreciate the need to eliminate or control bad actors. In other words, the costs are an important and necessary part of the credentialing process. A comprehensive, fair and valued ethics process can justify itself and the increased costs.
Editors Note: In 1991 the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) ethics budget was $3,000. By 1994-95 that amount had increased to nearly $75,000. And during the 1994 calendar year, the NBCC received 100 inquiries concerning possible ethical violations. From January 1, 1995 to September 12, 1995, the number of ethics inquiries had already grown to 126. (T. W. Clawson, personal communication, September, 1995).
Richard A. Goldberg is General and Ethics Counsel to the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) as well as other national professional certification boards. Mr. Goldbergs law office is located in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
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