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Interpreting Professional Codes of Ethics

Updated: Jan 23

A rule is a rule, right? What if the answer is actually “maybe”.

Professionals often seek guidance from their respective codes of ethics when they’re faced with a situation they’re not quite sure how to proceed with. It would be really easy if the code of ethics always has a clear answer, but it usually doesn’t. That’s because professional codes of ethics are designed to provide professionals with constructive guidance that they can individually apply to their particular situation. To learn more about the basic principles of ethics, click here.

There are so many different variables at play in an ethical conundrum, that professional codes of ethics can’t cover them all. So, instead they provide language to help guide the professional’s decision, by highlighting factors to be considered so that they can make an ethical decision without compromising either themselves or their clients.

In general, there are three types of ethical standards: “Permissive”, “Suggestive” and “Restrictive”. Let’s take time to break down each of these ethical standards.

Permissive Standards

“Permissive” standards often use language like “may” or “are allowed to”. These standards make clear that there are permissible actions that can be taken by a professional, but are not required, or necessarily even recommended.

For instance, Standard A10.3 of the Code of Ethics of the American Counseling Association says:

“Counselors may barter only if the bartering does not result in exploitation or harm, if the client requests it, and if such arrangements are an accepted practice among professionals in the community.” (Emphasis added)

This standard can be interpreted to mean that counselors are allowed to barter, when the conditions meet the expectations outlined in the standard. However, the code does not require counselors to participate in bartering, nor even suggest that bartering is a good idea.

This type of ethical standard isn’t concrete in giving a required action, but rather allows for interpretation by the professional.

Suggestive Standards

“Suggestive” standards are worded a little more strongly than permissive standards. Suggestive standards often use the language “should” or “should not” to describe the expectations of the professional. These standards set up an expectation for a practice, or against a practice. The expectation of suggestive standards usually has many options, or exceptions.

For instance, Standard 1.07(c) of the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers says:

“Social workers should protect the confidentiality of all information obtained in the course of professional service, except for compelling professional reasons.” (Emphasis added)

This standard places an expectation on social workers to protect client confidentiality. To distinguish from a permissive standard, this standard goes farther than to say that social workers CAN protect client confidentiality; the use of the suggestive language here puts responsibility on the social worker to protect client confidentiality, but provides exceptions.

This type of standard puts a little more emphasis on what should or not be done in a specific situation better outlining the professional conduct that should be carried out.

Restrictive Standards

“Restrictive” standards are strongly worded, and usually relate to significant expectations of a professional. These standards sometimes use the words “must” or “are required to”. They might also be worded in the negative, like “must not” or “do not”. Restrictive standards sometimes provide exceptions, and they should be carefully heeded.

“Psychologists do not engage in sexual intimacies with current therapy clients/patients.” (Emphasis added)

This standard is clear. It is NEVER okay for a psychologist to engage in sexual intimacies with a current therapeutic client/patient. There are no exceptions, or considerations. If you have sex with a current therapy client you are liable for an ethical violation, without concern for other factors. These standards leave no room for interpretation and are concrete in their recommended ethical conduct.

There are other standards related to sexual intimacy of psychologists and former therapy clients/patients. Section 10.8(a) says: “[p]sychologists do not engage in sexual intimacies with former clients/patients for at least two years after cessation or termination of therapy.”

Paragraph b of that standard further clarifies the concerns to consider in such situations where such a sexual relationship after two years post-therapy is being considered. Even though the standard allows for sexual relationships in some situations, Section 10.8 is still restrictive, in that it is NEVER okay for a psychologist to engage in a sexual relationship with a former client until after it has been at least two years since the therapeutic relationship was ended.

Interpreting Standards

Professionals have a lot of autonomy to make decisions about what is appropriate professional practice, and what is not. Professional codes of ethics are there to guide these decisions. When using the standards provided in our professional codes of ethics to evaluate our choices, we need to pay attention to the language of the standards to determine what level of latitude we have to make decisions for ourselves.

For more information and resources, check out the blog on our website.



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