The Ethics of e-Counselling
By Roberta Neault and Miranda Vande Kuyt
Counselling and coaching, even in the traditional face-to-face format, are relatively new “professions.” e-Anything is even newer—it’s not that many years ago that text messaging, emails, Skype and online banking did not exist. As counselling has expanded, and technologies have continued to develop, a moment in history, when what was previously inconceivable is already being done, has arrived. However, just because something is do-able or because someone else is doing it, doesn’t make it right. It’s important to consider the ethics of e-counselling and e-coaching.
Many counsellors, coaches and career development professionals are registered or certified members of professional organizations that provide codes of ethics and/or standards and guidelines as frameworks for practice. Although, with the fast pace of emerging technologies, it can be challenging to keep codes up-to-date, so be sure to check with your professional association(s) and insurer(s) to ensure you clearly understand their requirements for working online with a client.
Assuming you are permitted to work online with clients, the next consideration is how to do it well. Most often, the ethical concerns raised relate to confidentiality and how to handle emergencies. To these, we’d also add concerns about competency; in our experience, many career practitioners have not been trained to work online and, as a result, may fall into the “unconscious incompetence” domain, leaving them sincerely believing that they require no special skills to convert their practice from in-person to e-services.
Addressing the “how to handle emergencies” concern first, we acknowledge this as an extremely important concern for some counsellors and career development practitioners, but it may be less relevant for most. Consider the types of client issues you deal with – are you likely to need to dial 911 to bring in an emergency response team? If yes, it will be extremely important to know exactly where your client is connecting from and what local supports are in place. However, most of the e-clients we’ve successfully worked with are not in the midst of a life-threatening crisis. They are busy, successfully-employed professionals who appreciate being able to access a counsellor remotely – either to save commute time or to find a specialist who has a solid understanding of their unique situation. For example, one of Roberta’s areas of specialty is international/global careers, which involves a relatively small, dispersed community of workers. Referrals typically come from others involved in the global community – people who are very comfortable connecting online and have unique counselling/coaching needs.
The confidentiality concern is also significant. To address this, consider secure counselling sites (e.g., Therapy Online’s PrivacEmail). If your client prefers to connect by Skype or other familiar technology, we’ve found the best approach is through informed consent (i.e., clearly addressing the limitations to confidentiality and ensuring the client understands potential risks before proceeding). For example, if a client chooses to communicate in a text-based format such as email or texting, you never know who is reading the message on the other end. Maybe just as you are texting your client, they have lent their phone to their friend who unavoidably reads your sensitive message. Or perhaps your email or text gets sent to the wrong person. Tools such as PrivacEmail are set up to be a secure, password-protected space with encrypted messaging. The right technology can help secure your written communication with clients.
Effective counselling and coaching can happen online when appropriate steps are taken to address ethical concerns. Consult the ethical codes you adhere to, consider secure ways to communicate with clients and ensure truly informed consent before connecting online.
For more information on this topic you can visit our blog at http://career-engagement.blogspot.ca/search/label/e-coaching or join Miranda in an upcoming e-coaching course:https://lifestrategies.ca/services/programs-and-courses-main.cfm. You will also find a vast number of resources through our Tips Sheets: http://lifestrategies.ca/resources/tip-sheets.cfm.
Roberta Neault, president of Life Strategies Ltd., is an award-winning career counsellor, published author and international speaker, serving as consulting editor of the Journal of Employment Counseling and past president of CCPA’s Career Counsellors Chapter.
Miranda Vande Kuyt is an associate with Life Strategies and an experienced e-coach and consultant.