Ethics for psychologists: Supervising in the age of #MeToo, trigger warning and safe spaces

By Janet T. Thomas, Psy.D.
July 24, 2018



supervisor and subordinateThe popular press in the United States has recently been replete with allegations of misconduct by people, primarily men, in positions of power.

Those contending harassment, exploitation or sexual assault have called out giants in journalism, theater, cinema, music, sports and politics. The allegations have resulted in public scorn, resignations, firings and civil or criminal charges.

What do those accused have in common? Stature, expertise and esteem have imbued them with the power to reward, penalize and influence those aspiring to success in their fields.

Likewise, psychologists providing supervision are in positions of authority and must assume the responsibilities inherent in being entrusted with the welfare of supervisees and their clients (Gottlieb, Robinson, and Younggren, 2007; Thomas & Hung, 2018).

Their specialized knowledge and skills contribute to that power, which they use most often to further the interests of supervisees. But there is potential for the misuse and inappropriate amplification of power through sexism, racism, heterosexism and the like.

With so much of national conversation focused on the abuse of power, the consciousness of supervisees about their rights and vulnerabilities is unprecedented. Certainly, egregious violations are more likely to be promptly addressed. However, it also is plausible that ill-advised attempts at humor or imprudent remarks now may prompt supervisees to register dissatisfaction with a human resources department, licensing board, professional ethics committee or the courts.

Precarious practices

Supervisors, like all psychologists, must consider the clinical, ethical, legal and risk-management dimensions of their behavior (Behnke, 2014). The latter has become an increasingly important lens through which supervisors must reflect on their work.

Recommended strategies typically include obtaining informed consent (Thomas, 2007), documenting supervision (Falvey, 2003), assigning cases consistent with supervisees’ competence (Falender and Shafranske, 2004) and monitoring supervisees’ clinical work (Bernard & Goodyear, 2014; Recupero and Rainey, 2007).

Each measure is critical. Yet, in light of the current climate, the nuances of interactions with supervisees also merit consideration.

Supervisors can minimize the risk of supervisee dissatisfaction and complaints by becoming more intentional in their professional interactions. The following are examples of useful practices that carry risk as well.

Role playing

Role-play exercises can be a useful teaching technique. However, hypothetical cases involving sexual issues or demonstrations by the supervisor of aggression against the supervisee/hypothetical client, for example, may engender misunderstanding, misinterpretation and feelings of vulnerability in the supervisee.

Humor

Shared humor may be helpful in building rapport with supervisees, but when a joke invokes stereotypes or may be perceived as sexist, racist or ageist, for example, the supervisor risks offending the supervisee, providing a poor role model and violating professional ethics codes or laws. Sarcasm or comments intended to be ironic may be offensive. Forwarding jokes or political messages via text or email, even when the supervisor believes a supervisee will appreciate them, is risky.

Informality

Using nicknames or terms of endearment in referring to supervisees pushes the edges of what is professionally appropriate. Even when a supervisee’s peers do so, supervisors must be mindful of their roles and the possibility of risking intrusion.

Similarly, touch is a powerful way to communicate, but its place in supervision is rare. Putting an arm around supervisees’ shoulders or waists, patting their backs or hugging them can create discomfort or trauma. Even in a seemingly justifiable context, these behaviors may suggest to the individual or to observers a lack of professional boundaries, a hostile work environment or supervisory exploitation.

Self-disclosure

Sharing stories of personal or professional challenges may be useful in supervision. But such disclosures must be made for the purpose of facilitating the supervision. The advisability of a disclosure must be considered in light of cultural context (Pack-Brown and Williams, 2003), identity factors, relevance, the supervisee’s sensibilities and so forth.

Disclosures of the supervisor’s sexual experiences, family problems or disagreements with agency administration are likely to make the supervisee feel burdened, exploited or obligated to help.

Changing roles and relationships

Relationships between supervisors and supervisees sometimes evolve, with supervisees becoming colleagues or friends after completing their training. Engaging in another kind of relationship with a current or former supervisee, however, requires careful consideration. Supervisors must evaluate the impact not only on the individual, but also on others observing or learning about the relationship.

General risk management

Consultation with colleagues is recommended, but it does not guarantee immunity from a complaint. Outside consultation with an attorney, ethics expert or malpractice insurance consultant may balance input from colleagues who are friends. Nevertheless, ultimate responsibility rests solely with the individual supervisor (Falvey and Cohen, 2003).

The current national climate encourages people to speak out publicly and to file formal complaints when they feel they have been mistreated. Egregious violations warrant such responses, whereas minor errors or misunderstandings may best be addressed informally (APA, 2017).

Supervisees may benefit from learning to articulate such concerns to supervisors, particularly when heard and responded to effectively. To encourage this, supervisors must provide a clear process for voicing dissatisfaction. They might predict that there will be times when supervisees respond negatively to something the supervisor does or says and invite them to talk directly when this occurs. Supervisors may buttress this message by periodically initiating discussions about supervisees’ subjective experiences of the supervision.

Supervisors’ awareness of and responsible use of power, along with clear communication, will go a long way toward minimizing supervisees’ complaints and enhancing their experiences in supervision.

References available from author

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Janet T. Thomas, Psy.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Saint Paul, Minn. She provides ethics consultation and supervision and has served on the Minnesota and American Psychological Associations’ ethics committees. Her email address is janettthomas@comcast.net.

 

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