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Understanding Ethical Issues in Counseling

June 17, 2021
counselor listening to two patients

Counseling professionals have ethical guidelines they must follow. While this is true of many fields, ethics in counseling is essential to understand, whether you are already a practitioner or you are on the path to becoming one.

The Code of Ethics from the American Counseling Association (ACA) reflects the values of the profession as a whole.1 This document acts as a resource and a guide for those in the field, students and instructors, and those filing an ethical complaint.

The ACA Code of Ethics covers the relationship between a counselor and their clients, record keeping, the evaluation and assessment process, social media and technology usage, research, and how to address ethical concerns or violations. It’s critical for a counselor to understand their responsibilities to their clients and to the profession. Many of these issues can develop slowly over time, while others are very clear and avoidable from the start.

Ethical concerns can happen on an individual and organizational level. Counselors are responsible for holding one another accountable when their professional conduct doesn’t meet the standards set by the ACA Code of Ethics. This can be an informal note or a more formal report and it is important to note that the ACA recommends that a lawyer should be contacted when ethical complaints also violate laws.

Below, we dive into a few of the key issues covered in the ACA’s guidelines that are important to know when pursuing the counseling profession:


The goal of the ACA Code of Ethics is to gain and maintain a client’s trust, so the code defines the counselor/client relationship inside and outside of treatment. When beginning their working relationship, it’s important that a counselor be clear and upfront about what a session will look like and what types of support or guidance clients can expect. For example, a client should not be expecting their counselor to provide answers to important life decisions they’re facing.

In the last two decades, the ACA guidelines have changed to allow counselors the flexibility to carry what’s called dual or “multiple relationships” outside of treatment.2 Counselors need to educate their client about the importance of setting boundaries and understanding what is and is not appropriate, including phone calls outside of regular sessions, invitations to certain life events or celebrations, and sending gifts. In many small or rural communities, it may be impossible for a client and a counselor to completely avoid interacting with one another. For example, a counselor’s children could attend the same school as their clients, or it may be unavoidable for a counselor to patronize their client’s business. So, having boundaries established can help both the counselor and client navigate social situations.

Confidentiality and privacy

Certain parts of protecting a client’s confidentiality are extremely strict, including protecting the counselor’s treatment documents and navigating requests for release of information. However, there are certain instances when confidentiality can be broken, specifically when it relates to the client’s or another individual's safety. The guidelines outlined by the ACA also apply to all staff who have access to a client’s personal information or documents.

Privacy matters can be tricky when a counselor is working with a child or adolescent. It’s recommended that counselors are upfront and transparent about when confidentiality no longer applies.

When maintaining privacy, it’s critical for a counselor to respect different cultural views regarding treatment as well. While some clients may be fine with others knowing about them meeting with a counselor, others might find it harmful for their reputation and have concerns about being judged.

Supervision and training

It’s important for counselors to build meaningful relationships with their colleagues, supervisees and students. Those in a supervisory role must help students meet requirements for licensure as well as prepare to support a range of clients. Part of this training includes working with them to understand the ethical issues counselors face and negotiate on a regular basis.

This supervisory relationship is important, so it must remain professional. Students cannot be trained by family members, and they need to follow guidelines on how their working relationship will progress. Additionally, students need to receive feedback on their work so they can understand cultural limitations they may have and better work with clients from different backgrounds.


The goal of research in counseling is twofold, to help the profession and help clients gain the tools and insights to lead better lives. Counseling researchers need to be sure they are following state and federal law as well as the guidelines laid out by the institution they’re working with. For example, universities and colleges have specific rules on research best practices and approval processes in place.

In research studies, the ACA Code of Ethics outlines the rights participants have, including fully understanding the research process, confidentiality, the relationship with the researcher, and protection over their identity during and after the project.

Counseling Ethics at Marquette Online

The ACA Code of Ethics evolves as social norms and expectations change, so it’s critical to have a strong foundation. Ethical issues in counseling may seem like an issue to simply be addressed in the field, but it is critical for students to learn about it throughout their graduate program.

At Marquette University, we’re preparing counselors who have the expertise and knowledge for an impactful career. Our graduates understand the larger societal issues that impact clients and communities, while learning about the professional, ethical and legal standards of the profession. Learn more about pursuing an impactful career with our online master’s in clinical mental health counseling.

1. Retrieved on May 26, 2021 from counseling.org/docs/default-source/default-document-library/2014-code-of-ethics-finaladdressc97d33f16116603abcacff0000bee5e7.pdf?sfvrsn=5d6b532c_0
2. Retrieved on May 26, 2021 from ct.counseling.org/2011/04/do-the-right-thing