Ethical Dilemmas in Counseling

14 conundrums to contemplate.

Posted Feb 15, 2019

Zeevveez, Flickr CC 2.0
Source: Zeevveez, Flickr CC 2.0

Ethical dilemmas are important puzzles with no easy answers but are fun to contemplate. 

Of course, they exist in all forms of counseling, from short-term advising to long-term therapy, from eating disorders counseling to career counseling. Because most of my counseling experience has been as a career counselor, the ethical dilemmas I present here are career-related but most have broader applicability.

In the service of presenting as many dilemmas as possible within this space's confines, I’ll present each dilemma as pertaining to the same client. That way, I needn’t provide a separate client background for each dilemma. I’ll make our ethically challenged client a man but, of course, it could have been a woman.

1. A client was terminated as a fundraiser for an environmental nonprofit. At first, he said it was because “I didn’t make my number” but on probing, he admitted that he lied to prospects, overstating what the nonprofit had previously accomplished. Now, he says he’d like to take a shot at making a living at a long-shot career: hosting a TV, radio, or podcast show on “social change.” “I want to be a liberal Jordan Peterson.” Given his track record, reasoning, and communication skills, it’s clear to you that he’s facing lottery odds. What do you say or ask?

2. You ask the client questions about his career history, in part to facilitate his making a clear-eyed decision on whether it’s worth the risk of trying to make a sustainable living as “a liberal Jordan Peterson.” The client ascribes his poor job history to a “racist society.” What would you say or ask?

3. The client claims to be 1/4 Hispanic and asks if it’s ethical to claim minority status on his job or graduate school applications. He argues in favor of it because he has applied for many jobs without having stated that and hasn’t landed anything, has three children, a wife who is a stay-at-home-mom, and savings have run out and they face eviction for non-payment of rent. You sense he doesn’t really want your opinion. He wants your blessing. What would you say or ask?

4. The client says “I’ve been begging my wife to get a job but she says her skills aren’t great so she’d only get a low-paying job and, when you subtract the child-care and commuting expenses, it’s not financially worth getting a job. Besides, she feels the kids benefit from her staying home. In addition, she argues that before we got married, I agreed to be the sole breadwinner. But I didn’t realize how hard it would be to make it on one income let alone when I keep getting let go from jobs.” What would you say or ask?

5. The client asks you to write his resume and cover letter. You’re aware that employers use resumes and cover letters not just as a recitation of work history but as an index of the person’s ability to reason, communicate, and produce an error-free document. You consider your writing a client’s resume and cover letter to be no more ethical than a parent writing their child’s college application essay. What would you say or ask?

6. That client finally lands a job, at another nonprofit, but after the first week complains that the organization is unethical because he learned that it retains 40% of donations as "administrative expenses," so only 60% is spent on the cause. Plus, the website’s donor page makes no mention of this. What would you say or ask?

7. The client quits that job and decides to start a marijuana delivery service. You’ve read the two most authoritative reviews of the literature, one by the National Institutes of Health and one by the National Academies of Sciences and conclude that marijuana is at least as deleterious as a second alcohol and that millions of people would be greatly harmed by that. So you feel you can’t support the client’s effort to start that business. What would you say or ask?

8. When you ask how the client’s wife feels about his going into that business, he says, “She’s fine with weed but is mad that I’d want to be self-employed. She says we need financial security, that we can't afford the risk of going into business." What would you say or ask?

9. The client reveals that he vapes weed most nights, in front of his kids, who are 15, 17, and 18. It’s clear he’s not open to stopping or moderating his vaping, so you focus on the kids: “Do you think it’s wise to vape in front of your kids?” He responds, “It’s no worse than drinking in front of your kids. Millions of people do that and their kids don’t become addicted. And that way, the kids don’t feel they need to hide weed from you or to vape as a way to rebel. And, in France, wine with dinner is normal; they give it to their kids.” What would you say or ask?

10. The client says “Paula (his 18-year old) isn’t a school person and when finishing high school, I’m trying get her to be in the business with me. All her friends—and she has a lot of older friends in their 20s so they’re legal. A lot of them are in her spiritual community. She’d be a great salesman.” What would you say or ask?

11. The client returns a few months later saying he wasn’t able to compete with other marijuana delivery services and wants you to help him find a job as a fundraiser for an environmental nonprofit. What would you say or ask?

12. The client decides to discontinue working with you and a month later, phones you: “I saw another career counselor, who recognizes there’s nothing wrong with writing your resume and cover letter, and saying you’re Hispanic even it’s just 1/4 because there’s racism even against 1/4-Hispanic people. He helped me get a fundraising job.” What would you say or ask?

13. Ten years later, the client calls and says he became very successful as a fundraiser and has risen to vice-president of fundraising but is sick of it: the people management, the ever-increasing fundraising quotas, and he’s thinking about returning to a simpler job. “Sometimes, I even think I’d be happier working as a $15 budtender. My wife is furious. We bought a house and have a big mortgage and we’re still paying off our kids’ college loans. Again she’s calling me irresponsible even though I’ve worked my butt off to become a VP and afford the house, a nice car, furniture, vacations, everything.” What would you say or ask?

14. As you're reflecting on clients like this person, you're wondering if it's ethical try to help them get jobs. After all, it's a zero-sum game and if you're successful, you've taught the person tips and tricks that get him the job over more qualified candidates. That' unfair to them, the coworkers, boss, the consumer, and ultimately the larger society. On the other hand, compassion says we should treat everyone equally, especially those with deficits. Your thoughts?

The takeaway

As you review your responses to these dilemmas, is there anything you want to keep in mind?