Ethics are a set of moral principles or rules of conduct for an individual or group. The term ethics comes from the Greek ethos meaning custom, habit or character. Ethics determine choices made. In counselling, ethics underpin the nature and course of actions taken by the counsellor. Counsellors and others in helping professions are expected to behave in an ethical manner.

By nature of the profession, counsellors are to act in the best interest of their client, promoting client goals, protecting client rights, maximising good and minimizing harm (Stein, 1990). This expectation broadens due to the inherent power of the relationship between client and counsellor. Ethics including ethical codes and principles aim to balance the power and ensure that the counsellor operates for the good of the client and not for self.

Primarily, counsellors’ duty of care is to their clients. When making ethical choices, counsellors must consider not only themselves, but also the agency or organisation (if not self-employed), their profession and the greater community (Axten, 2002). Counselling does not occur in a vacuum therefore it is important that counsellors acknowledge all facets of their practice both internally and externally.

Ross (2002) draws on this further by asking counselors to look at ethics from a holistic perspective – body (the environment, structures, systems, policies, laws, regulations, moral codes, and societal norms), mind (ethical thinking, philosophy), heart (relationships, emotions, values) and spirit (unknowing, unconscious). A complete awareness of the ethics of a situation can occur when all are taken into consideration.

Code of Ethics

The concept of ethics relates to moral consideration. The challenge lies in what is considered moral or ethical. Each counsellor comes to the profession with their own set of values and standards. Individual principles and how they were used to interpret dilemmas would be universally different. Therefore, a Code of Ethics – a general standard that counsellors and therapists adhere to and use co jointly with legal standards to provide ethical practice and work through ethical dilemmas – is required.

Ethical codes offer counsellors an outline of what are considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviours. In a region (such as Australia) where counselling is not regulated through licensing, ethical codes provide a valuable tool for developing and maintaining ethical conduct.

Numerous professional associations have developed their own Code of Conduct and Ethics. Codes may adopt similar principles whilst also covering behaviours specific to an area of counselling. Professional counselling organisations provide Codes of Conduct and Ethics to members and the inability to stick to these Codes may result in removal of membership.

A professional may belong to more than one organisation and thus have access to additional ethical codes. When faced with an ethical dilemma, a counsellor is to consider all available and applicable codes. It is counsellors’ responsibility to familiarise themselves with relevant codes and regulations governing their area of practice.

Clarkson (2001) contends that all members of a professional association subscribe (at least in principle) to their profession’s Code of Ethics for the sake of protecting the public. The degree to which this ‘protection’ occurs is based on four factors:

  1. Client awareness and knowledge of the Code of Ethics and the complaints procedure
  2. The degree to which the client feels they can discuss his or her feelings about a violation with the counselor
  3. The fairness of the Codes
  4. The client’s ability to manage the Code or gain assistance in negotiation

In summary:

  1. Ethics determine choices and underpin actions,
  2. Counsellors by nature and duty of profession are to act in an ethical manner,
  3. Good ethical conduct is grounded in an understanding and awareness of ethical codes, a desire to do the right thing and a basis of sound moral principles (Bradley, n.d)
  4. Individualism is to be tempered against legal and ethical codes, as well as expectations based in culture and society