Ethics and the Counselling Experience

Being ethical in the counselling session means showing a level of respect, consideration and understanding to those involved in the therapeutic session, i.e. the client. These ethical behaviours are guided by standards set forth by the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (2002, 2010). While the standards cover areas like competence, confidentiality, education, training and research, there are two standards that govern the relationship between therapist and client. They are Human Relations (Standard 3) and Therapy (Standard 10). Below are a few sub-standards from these two standards that can be taken in for consideration during the counselling session.


3.01 Unfair Discrimination

In their work-related activities, psychologists do not engage in unfair discrimination based on age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, or any basis proscribed by law.

In layman terms, this means that psychologists do not treat people unfairly or provide them with lesser quality of care. Also, your treatment should not be influenced by bias, bigotry, or prejudicial feelings just because they are outside your personal experience in some basic way (Nagy, 2010).


3.04 Avoiding Harm

Psychologists take reasonable steps to avoid harming their clients and others with whom they work, and to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable.

Avoiding harm or non-malfeasance, is a very important if not the most important aspect in counselling. There should never be an intention to harm clients, however, if there are cases where someone will be harmed by your actions, attempts should be made to minimize harm if possible (Nagy, 2010).


3.06 Conflict of Interest

Psychologists refrain from taking on a professional role when personal, scientific, professional, legal, financial, or other interests or relationships could reasonably be expected to (1) impair their objectivity, competence, or effectiveness in performing their functions as psychologists or (2) expose the person or organization with whom the professional relationship exists to harm or exploitation.

According to Nagy (2010), psychologists never accept someone as a client when there is a good chance that other interests or relationships could detract from impartiality, proficiency in doing your job or expose the person or organization to harm, mistreatment, or exploitation. Conflicts of interest may include but are not limited to personal (e.g. family, friends, co-workers), financial, legal or scientific relationships.


Ethics in the Counselling session

10.01 Informed Consent to Therapy

(a) When obtaining informed consent to therapy as required in Standard 3.10, Informed Consent, psychologists inform clients as early as is feasible in the therapeutic relationship about the nature and anticipated course of therapy, fees, involvement of third parties, and limits of confidentiality and provide sufficient opportunity for the client to ask questions and receive answers. (See also Standards 4.02, Discussing the Limits of Confidentiality, and 6.04, Fees and Financial Arrangements.) (b) When obtaining informed consent for treatment for which generally recognized techniques and procedures have not been established, psychologists inform their clients of the developing nature of the treatment, the potential risks involved, alternative treatments that may be available, and the voluntary nature of their participation. (See also Standards 2.01e, Boundaries of Competence, and 3.10, Informed Consent.)

(c) When the therapist is a trainee and the legal responsibility for the treatment provided resides with the supervisor, the client, as part of the informed consent procedure, is informed that the therapist is in training and is being supervised and is given the name of the supervisor.

Always obtain informed consent before beginning therapy. Discuss fees, treatment, confidentiality and limits to confidentiality.


10.05 Sexual Intimacies with Current Therapy Clients

Psychologists do not engage in sexual activities/intimacies with their clients. This includes but is not limited to sexual intercourse, touching,, hugging, suggestive speech and verbal and non-verbal behaviour that may be interpreted as being sexual by the client.

Further information on these standards and others can be found at


  • American Psychological Association. (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct with 2010 Amendments. Washington, DC: Author
  • Nagy, T. (2010). Ethics in plain English: An Illustrative Casebook for Psychologists, Second Edtion.


Researched by Abena Noel, M.Sc.

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