Ethics and Counselling

“Ethics (from Greek – meaning “custom”) is the branch of axiology, one of the four major branches of philosophy, which attempts to understand the nature of morality; to distinguish that which is right from that which is wrong. The Western tradition of ethics is sometimes called ‘moral philosophy'”. (Extract from Wikipedia).

The origins of ethics are related to the introduction of moral behaviour in early societies. The application of concepts such as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and the definition of these concepts in different environments, induced the need for a formal approach to social behaviour – an attempt to create commonality and organisation in a society. In this context, codes of behavior were created, and different forms of behaviour enforcement adopted.

As societies developed, and increasing importance was placed in structural thinking – such as the advent of sciences – meta-ethics became an eminent topic of discussion. Meta-ethics refers to the investigation of ethical statements, an actual analysis of ethics itself. Names such as Hobbes, Kant and Nietzsche were prominent in this period.

Nowadays, ethics is still a main topic of discussion. As societies evolve, the relationships between individuals become more complex, and so do the etiquettes and codes of conduct. The development of business relationships has raised many ethical dilemmas, and ethical counselling is one of them.

Ethical Counselling

Because counselling is not a regulated profession in many countries (including Australia), the use of ethical standards is a method of guiding the quality of the services provided by counsellors, the quality of training provided to counsellors, and of protecting clients. These standards provide conduct guidelines for professionals and are an effective way support many counsellors lacking experience or knowledge of the industry. It also serves the purpose of structuring the counselling industry, providing common professional descriptions, definitions and service boundaries according to each type of counsellor.

There is a wide range of issues comprising the field of ethical counselling – which are also part of common guidelines for the practice of therapy. According to Daniluk and Haverkamp (1993), “the main ethical framework referred to in many discussions of therapy is one based on the concepts of autonomy, fidelity, justice, beneficence, non-maleficence and self interest”. In this context, we devise several ‘problem areas’ in ethical counselling:

Law and Counselling

The need for professionalisation has created a common link between ethical behaviour and legal conduct in the therapy fields. Legislation was provided to primarily protect clients from misguidance, and ultimately to provide guidelines for the profession. However, as cited previously, in most countries ethical conduct in counselling is not yet part of the legal framework – which outlines the importance of professional and industry peak associations in providing guidelines and codes of conduct for affiliated professionals.

The Australian Counselling Association is one industry association in Australia that provides ethical guidelines and a code of conduct for counsellors. The ACA’s Code of Ethics and Code of Practice are part of the Code of Conduct – which can be accessed from their website at An excerpt from this Code is:

Counsellors will:

  • Offer a non-judgemental professional service, free from discrimination, honouring the individuality of the client.
  • Establish the helping relationship in order to maintain the integrity and empowerment of the client without offering advice.
  • Be committed to ongoing personal and professional development.


This area is closely linked with the legal issues in counselling therapy. Confidentiality plays a major role in defining the communication between a counsellor and a client, bearing in mind that trust is one of the backbones of a therapeutic relationship. Albeit confidentiality is a key component of the relationship, it is also one of the leading causes of ethical dilemmas for counsellors. Situations which may put the client – or other individuals – in danger usually require the counsellor to make difficult decisions in regards to breaching confidentiality. In many instances, the actual breach is a legal requirement as it may incur the prevention of a crime against the state, or another person.

Other predominant issues such as consultancy with supervisors or colleagues; definition of the type of confidentiality to be used (absolute or relative) prior to the counselling relationship; and session record-keeping, must be considered by therapists when practicing professional counselling.

Bad Practice

The issues of privacy and power in a counselling session can be prejudicial in terms of unethical practice. The private nature of a counselling session leaves a ‘gap for unsupervised practice’, and therefore it is quite difficult to be assessed. For instance, fairly recent explorations of unethical practice in therapy have shown the emerging problem of sexual abuse of clients. This issue is augmented by the power relationship between client and counsellor, in which the therapist could take advantage of their position of power to practice unethical behaviour.

Training and Professional Recognition

As cited before, counselling is not regulated in most countries. In order to standardise the industry, and ensure that counsellors have the necessary skills to professionally practice, training and recognition must be accentuated. In Australia, the ACA plays a role in coordinating industry efforts, providing information to the public and maintaining records of counsellors in practice.

That system protects clients from bad practice, and supports training standards for organisations that provide counsellor training. The Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors, as an example, is recognised by the ACA – which means that AIPC and the Diploma of Professional Counselling complies with industry standards defined by this peak organisation in regards to training standards for counsellors.

Safety and Negligence

These concepts are utmost concerns of counsellors in practice. A counsellor-client relationship is a very delicate encounter of an individual seeking help, and a professional providing advice. Primarily, it is the counsellor’s responsibility to provide a safe environment for the counselling session – particularly because physical and psychological safety is a premise for the counselling therapy to succeed. Negligence is closely related to the concepts of breach of confidentiality and safety. Observing principles for duty of care is part of ethical behaviour in counselling.

Complying with ethical guidelines is one of the most important aspects of being a professional counsellor. Creating awareness in both counsellor and clients of the boundaries of the services provided will lead to a better development of the profession, and overall improvement of industry standards. Counsellors are responsible for keeping up-to-date with professional codes of ethics, confidentiality guidelines, and other relevant information.