In a previous post I wrote about several “forbidden phrases” that psychologists should not say to students or clients. I started with “Let’s have sex!” (mostly to attract more clicks). The others included:

  • “Let’s do lunch.”
  • “Just this once.”
  • “Everybody does it.”

Let’s say a professional didn’t happen to read my post (or anything else about the basics of ethics), and went on to (a) engage in unethical conduct, and (b) have a complaint filed against them to an ethics committee, supervisor, or state licensing board.  The complaint could be about sexual exploitation, other forms of multiple relationships, plagiarism, violations of confidentially or anything else prohibited by codes of ethics, agency policy or licensing laws and regulations.

The committee or board will ask the professional to explain, excuse, or justify their behavior. Here are six possible excuses (assuming the behavior did happen) that may not work so well:

1. Everybody does it.

This line didn’t work (or shouldn’t have) when they tried it on a client, and it won’t work with disciplinary bodies as well. People have tried this with everything from traffic tickets to tax evasion, without success.  Even my mother didn’t buy this when I tried to implicate my brother as an accomplice.

2. Didn’t mean to.

You know what’s paved with good intentions…

This is another one I used to try on my mother all the time. It might have made the punishment a little less severe, but it didn’t change her opinion that my behavior was wrong.  The excuse doesn’t work so well with regulatory bodies, either.

3. Nobody was harmed.

Lots of unethical behavior violates the principle of nonmaleficence, or do no harm (See the American Psychological Association Ethics Code, Standard 3.04). But identifiable harm is not the only criterion. Behavior can be unethical because it increases the risk of harm, or because, regardless of risk, it was disrespectful or did not fulfill an obligation.

4. I was careless [overworked, overwhelmed, etc.].

These are reasons, but not excuses, for unprofessional conduct.  Over the years I’ve heard variations on this theme by students who have plagiarized class assignments.

5. She was crazy.

Pathologizing or attacking the complaining person is a strategy fraught with problems. 

6. I was drunk.

The professional’s own impairment is not an excuse.  APA Ethical Standard 2.06(a) says, “Psychologists refrain from initiating an activity when they know or should know that there is a substantial likelihood that their personal problems will prevent them from performing their work-related activities in a competent manner.”

We’ve only scratched the surface, of course.  We didn’t even get to the one that might be the worst response to a charge of unprofessional behavior:  “What’s the problem?”


Mitch Handelsman is professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver.  With Samuel Knapp and Michael Gottlieb, he is the co-author of Ethical Dilemmas in Psychotherapy: Positive Approaches to Decision Making (American Psychological Association, 2015). Mitch is also the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), and an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).  But here’s what he’s most proud of:  He collaborated with pioneering musician Charlie Burrell on Burrell’s autobiography

© 2017 by Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

You are reading

The Ethical Professor

Real Data in Real News About Fake Science

Step right up and be an editor.

Two Quick Principles for Dealing With Students

How to infuse some virtue into the dark days.

Real News About Fake Science

No good deed goes unpunished: An example.