Ethics for Psychologists: How to Fine Tune Consultations

By Mary Harb Sheets, Ph.D.
January 27, 2018 - Last updated: January 26, 2018

Ethics in Psychology: How to fine tune consultationsWhen confronted with an ethical dilemma, most of us have been encouraged to consult a colleague. In some states, peer consultation is considered part of a standard of care.

Graduate school is likely when most of us first encountered this recommendation. Beyond the direction to “consult,” however, many of us were probably not provided information necessary to fine tune our decision regarding whom to consult. To meet our ethical and standard-of-care responsibilities, selecting the optimal consultant in any given situation is essential.

A survey conducted in December 2013 by the California Psychological Association Ethics Committee found that most respondents noted they would turn to trusted colleagues for help with ethical questions.

Does that mean a personally trusted colleague or a professionally trusted colleague? When we feel the need to confide in someone who will not judge us harshly, we may choose to turn to someone who is personally trusted. These colleagues can offer emotional support and validation that can be tremendously helpful in stressful professional situations. Professionally trusted colleagues, on the other hand, can offer relevant expertise, which can make the difference between a useful consultation and one that might come up short on relevant and potentially critical professional information.

Most dilemmas we encounter in professional psychological activities involve one or more of these components: ethical, legal, clinical and/or risk management. Consider these questions to ask yourself:

Legal: Is there a law (or laws) I am mandated to comply with or is this a situation in which I have some legal leeway e.g., on what I may do?

Ethical: Are there relevant General Principles and/or Ethical Standards from the APA Ethics Code that apply?

Clinical:  Are there therapist, client, relationship and/or other factors necessary to consider in this dilemma?

Risk Management: What is the likelihood of a bad clinical outcome or negative professional consequences?

The answers to these questions can guide us in selecting who might be the best person(s) or organizations to seek consultation from.

For example, for questions that are mainly ethical in nature, we can call an ethics committee from our local and/or state psychological associations and/or we can consult with one of our colleagues that we know has relevant expertise in psychology ethics.

For legal questions, a mental health attorney might be our first step in the consultation process.

When a question is mainly clinical in nature, we will want to talk with someone whose clinical expertise matches the specific clinical question(s) we have.

Discussing the situation with our professional liability carrier’s risk management service is a wise step, particularly when we are especially concerned about the potential outcome of our decisions and actions. If your state professional association has a professional affairs director available for consultation, take advantage of the opportunity to speak with that person, who likely has expertise in each of the areas above.

Very few of the quandaries we encounter in practice are so simple that only one component (legal, ethical, clinical or risk management) is present. In most situations, a combination of factors will require several consultations in order to identify the most appropriate course of action.

Taking the time to have these various dialogues will help to ensure you provide ethically sound treatment and meet the standard of care expected of psychologists. Documenting these consultations is also an important part of the process.

The next time you encounter a difficult professional situation where you are not sure how to proceed, please consider the steps outlined above, then:

*Determine if you would be best served by a consultation from a professionally or personally trusted individual or both.

*Identify what factor(s) are of concern in your dilemma: ethical, legal, clinical and/or risk management.

*Obtain one or more consultations as necessary to provide you with the information you need to move forward ethically in your work.

*Document your consultations.

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Mary Harb Sheets, Ph.D., is chair of the California Psychological Association Ethics Committee, works in independent practice and teaches Advanced Law and Ethics at Alliant University. She writes and speaks regularly on ethics in psychology. She may be reached at:

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