The Ethical Counselor, Therapist, and Coach

Common ethical lapses and ways to avoid them.

Posted Oct 12, 2018

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Today, a fellow career coach asked me to troubleshoot her nascent private practice. Our session revealed ethical concerns. While some of these are particular to career coaching and counseling, others are applicable to any helping professional in private practice.

She became a career coach because she had worked for a few Fortune-500 companies—although, she admitted, without great success. She said she her practice focuses on helping people “find their passion.”

This is unethical on two grounds:

Underqualification. Being an effective career coach or counselor requires inordinate expertise and brainpower. You must know something about a wide range of careers; how to help people find the right fit to their strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and the job market, the art of ethically getting hired, at least moderate understanding of the psychological mechanisms that keep people stuck; and perhaps how to help people become more successful on the job. You must also be a good problem solver. You can’t get away with the standard beginning coach’s trick of being Rogerian: giving no advice and trying to elicit it all from the client. Many if not most people who pay good money to career counselors have struggled on their own to come up with solutions to no avail. That’s much of what they’re coming to you for. Sure, where possible, the good counselor and coach tries to get ideas to come from the client. But often, you need to be a wellspring of good solutions, albeit tactfully dispensed, for example, “I’m wondering if either of these two ideas might work for you?”

The “Follow Your Passion” hype. Most people’s passions fall into just a few categories: helping, sports, nonprofits, media, entertainment, fashion, animals, and the arts. So there’s tough competition for decent-paying jobs in those fields. Most people willing to pay for a private career counselor or coach aren’t top-of-the-stack in talent, drive, and emotional togetherness. If they were, they probably wouldn’t need to pay a career counselor. Coaches that advertise as helping people “find their passion” too often help people find their way to unemployment.

Selling packages. This coach said she offers clients three options: a bronze package at $2,500, silver at $3,500 and gold at $5,000. When I asked her why she does that, her answer was, “It makes them more likely to stay with the coaching process.” I responded, “Yes, it forces them to stay for a slew of sessions whether they end up needing them all or not and whether they conclude that you’re the right person for them through all those sessions. Ethical counselors charge by the hour. That way, the client gets only the number of sessions with you that they feel they need.” Also, if a counselor has a tendency to lose focus or work less hard in preparing for sessions, it can be motivating to know s/he has to earn each hour.

Insufficient caring about the client’s time and money. Even when counselors charge by the hour, there’s an ethical risk: indifference to efficiency. After all, the more sessions “required,” the more money the counselor gets. So this coach, like many others, devotes the first session or even two to leisurely introducing her process, describing the financial arrangements, listening uninterrupted to an extended (often 20-30 minutes long) “Tell me about yourself” and administering the widely used but notoriously invalid Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The client leaves having paid a good chunk of change but with little that’s actionable. It’s more ethical to email all new clients the financial information, an outline of the likely process, and a thorough new-client questionnaire for the client to complete at home and email to the counselor in advance of the session so s/he can review it and create a tentative plan for how to make the most progress possible in session 1.

Writing resumes, LinkedIn profiles, and cover letters. Employers use resumes not just as a recitation of candidates’ work history but as a way to assess how well they think, write, organize, and create error-free work. If a counselor writes a candidate’s resume, LinkedIn profile, or cover letter, s/he is being unfair to the employer and coworkers, who, if the counselor's ruse works, get saddled with a worse employee because of the dishonesty. It’s no more honest to write someone’s resume than for a parent to write their child’s college application essay. If it were ethical, why don’t career counselors sign their clients’ resume, “Written by John Jones, career counselor"?

Job-landing coaching. If a counselor helps a client come up with papered-over answers to tough questions, conducts video coaching to buff up how the client is perceived, etc., they are giving their clients an unfair advantage over the many applicants who can’t afford a hired gun or who feel that to hire one is hiding their not-so-good product under a seductive veneer. It is ethically okay to help a client unearth strengths and success stories to bring up in the interview, and to encourage the client to also bring up weaknesses. That way, the client is more likely to be hired for a job s/he'll do well in and be rejected for others. That's in everyone's interest.

The ethical counselor, therapist, and coach

In sum, as mentioned, the ethical counselor charges by the hour. In advance of the first session, s/he emails new clients information about the likely process and financial arrangements, plus a thorough new-client questionnaire to email back for review before the session. The counselor efficiently helps the client with the relevant issues. In the case of a career counselor or coach, it might include choosing a career, identifying strengths and weaknesses to mention in applying for jobs, negotiating compensation, or helping them succeed on the job, whether in communication skills, time management, stress management, people management, public speaking, avoiding getting unfairly treated because of office politics, etc. 

While in the short term, such counselors, therapists, and coaches may make less money, in the long run, they’ll likely make more because their clients don’t leave for other counselors, plus are likely to refer other people. And, of course, the counselor can feel good about every session, knowing s/he is fulfilling a calling, not just being a businessperson.