PACFA Ethical Codes and Guidelines

Review of Ethical Codes

Discussion Paper: The Development and Purpose of Ethical Codes, and the Review of PACFA Ethical Codes and Guidelines. Ethics Report Feb 2010 by Elizabeth Shaw in PACFA eNews January/February 2010 ISSN 1833-1661

Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia 290 Park Street, Fitzroy North 3068

Alison and her colleagues are proud members of our professional association – The Australian Association of Somatic Psychotherapists. We have about 70 members in all mostly working in New South Wales, the ACT and Victoria. This may seem rather small for a professional association but we are big thinkers and, as such, our association is also a very proud foundation member of the Psychotherapy and Counsellors Federation of Australia (PACFA).

Here I have copied excerpts from PACFA’s most recent national newsletter. If you read this discussion paper on Codes of Ethics by Elizabeth Shaw, the Chair of PACFA’s Ethics Committee you can get an example of the quality of the thinking that abounds within PACFA Member Associations.

This quote especially appealed to me:Quoted by Elizabeth Shaw, chair of PACFA Ethics Committee, in PACFA enews Febryary 2010

It may be useful to consider the following:

“How do we take the moral pulse of an organization? An
organization which has thought through its ethical stance and
developed a fuller, better managed approach to ethical issues
is more likely to be producing ethical behaviour on a regular
basis than one which has only a reactive approach.
Congruence between espoused values and values in practice is
crucial. How an organization responds to unethical conduct by
one of its members will also be a good indicator of the
strength of its ethical pulse” (Kitson & Campbell, 1996: 120)

Ethics Report Feb 2010 by Elizabeth Shaw.

Discussion Paper: The Development and Purpose of Ethical Codes, and the Review of PACFA Ethical Codes and Guidelines

1. The function, purpose and timely review of professional codes.

In 2009 the PACFA Ethics Committee undertook a review of the Ethical Principles document (2001) and Code of Ethics for Member Associations (2004). This undertaking had a number of purposes:

  • to attend to an overdue review of the documents and update them according to learning and theory in the 10 years since their initial development
  • to revisit the role and purpose of a Code of Ethics and to develop a companion Code of Conduct
  • to review the fundamental values and principles of PACFA and its member associations, in order to ensure that the document reflect the membership, the professions of counselling and psychotherapy, and community standards
  • to move beyond a document that provided minimum standards to a document that provided more leadership and guidance through aspirational standards
  • through the process of revision, to use the opportunity to engage the membership in the endeavour as far as possible, such that associations might also review their own values and codes.

2. Some observations about the professions of counselling and psychotherapy.

“Codes have long been used to establish standards in the
professions. Codes (have come) to be accepted not only as
important in the ethical sense, but as necessary to professional
status” (Grace and Cohen 2009:235-6).

“The professions” are so described as a result of specialist expertise. The community expects professionals to be able to regulate themselves, given this specialist knowledge. We would probably accept that we, as a community of counsellors and psychotherapists, can ably rise to this expectation. However, this responsibility requires highly developed guidelines and protocols, and people who have the capacity to be objective about their own profession and colleagues. The common purpose of codes is self regulation through peer enforcement. This is a very important point: codes are not about external regulation, but self regulation through peer reinforcement (Cohen and Grace 2009:234). Self regulation can only be justified if the general public can be satisfied that the profession is adequately policing itself, that its code fits the specialist activities of the members, that members are Tel. (03) 9486 3077 E. living up to higher standards than non-professional occupations, and that the profession is promoting the greater good (De George, 1990).

Those within counselling and psychotherapy who identify with other specialist professional groups, such as psychology or social work, have found continuing employment in public and private sector organisations. There are then issues as to which codes prevail: those of the organisation or those of the profession? Many argue that organisational codes will have much more relevance and detail appropriate to the day to day work of the professional, and so to some degree the ability of professional codes to influence decision making of professionals could be seen to have been eroded over time (eg Sinclair, 1996). However, we also know that in the current climate, counsellors and psychotherapists without these other professional qualifications/identities will be working more in private settings and institutions, hence the PACFA and member association codes have enhanced importance and application.

Many of our associations are small and are managed by a core committed group. It is regularly said that these organisations may be providing high levels of leadership and support to members, but have few resources (time, expertise) to give to documentation, matters of ethics, even book-keeping. The onus on small organisations in this era of regulation and compliance is tricky. As a field of professionals we tend to be more drawn to matters of clinical interest than managerial development. In this context, organisations have often developed a code of ethics from “off the shelf” ie, copying aspects from other organisations, ensuring basic coverage but perhaps little else. As Simon Longstaff (1994:3) notes “even well intentioned people are committed to the folly of developing codes as an alternative to the active and creative management of an organisation’s culture.“ Often it is when a complaint is received that an otherwise well functioning committee can find they have no way to actually deliver on their own code, or alternatively find their code of little help in decision making. Developing policy on the run is, on the face of it, poor practice, but many of us have been part of these confronting moments, only to find that we get processes over the line in the end, most of the time. However, the suffering and the potentially dicey decision making is hardly ideal, let alone the stress and the fractures that occur in management committees as people battle out big issues in the face of a tsunami at the door.

Another common problem is that many organisations set out to develop a code of ethics and instead develop a code of conduct. A code of ethics sets out fundamental principles that will provide guidance, often in situations where things are very unclear. A code of conduct is consistent with the code of ethics, but provides more specificity and guidance. This is a very useful resource in many situations. However, as we know, many of the curly practice issues we encounter are not easily resolved or neatly pigeon‐holed in text. Thus the code of ethics is the most important document, providing over‐arching values and principles that shape decision making where no rule may exist. Of course the only way that even the best written documents will work for members and associations is if there is a level of trust within the association culture, where it can be assumed that the rules are genuinely designed to prevent mischief, and that the association has a real and demonstrated interest in mischief not occurring (Longstaff, 1994).

3. Different Codes and Tricky Bits

“At their heart, codes call for the profession to protect and promote the welfare of clients and avoid letting the profession’s self interest place the client at risk of harm.” Four major mechanisms hold psychotherapists and counsellors formally accountable to an explicit set of professional standards: professional ethics committees, registration boards and bodies, civil and criminal courts. Each of these may formulate standards differently, and may have substantial overlap (Pope and Vasquez, 2007:78). It is possible for behaviour to be unethical and yet not form the basis for criminal or civil charges; hence we can have parallel processes addressing different aspects of the same event/s. Generally all Codes within the professions of counselling and psychotherapy will hold as core principles:

  • Do no harm (nonmaleficence)
  • Respect autonomy
  • Be just
  • Be faithful
  • Accord dignity
  • Treat others with caring and compassion
  • Pursue excellence
  • Be accountable
  • Be courageous. (Koocher et al, 2008:7)

However, there has been debate in the literature about whether the same requirements can be made of organizations as about individuals. Can organisations be required to act “ethically” when they are a structure, not capable of ethical behaviour? Some would argue that in relation to ethics, there is no such thing as organizations, only individuals. Others would believe that organizations have enough structural complexity to be considered agents who can be called to account for their actions. An organization is, by definition, organized, which means it can make collective decisions and act on those decisions. It may mean that they can’t be responsible in quite the same way as individuals, but they can be held responsible in ways that are appropriate to organizations (Kitson & Campbell, 1996: 97-98). “Because organizations are not natural persons, formal rules are important in establishing their moral status.

Although they have their own cultures, organizations do not possess emotions, a conscience, intellect or will. They are composed of individuals who have these things, but…private judgments can bring calamity on a society or organization” (Grace and Cohen, 2009:236).

It may be useful to consider the following: “How do we take the moral pulse of an organization? An organization which has thought through its ethical stance and developed a fuller, better managed approach to ethical issuesis more likely to be producing ethical behaviour on a regular basis than one which has only a reactive approach.Congruence between espoused values and values in practice is crucial. How an organization responds to unethical conduct by one of its members will also be a good indicator of the strength of its ethical pulse” (Kitson & Campbell, 1996: 120)

Ultimately “the point of a code of ethics is to declare professional or organizational standards for all to see. It is an invitation for those outside the profession to judge it and its practitioners by the standards it declares. It announces to members of a profession that certain standards and values should be respected in practice. It sets a level playing field for all practitioners. It is an instrument for accountability and responsibility. And it is an affirmation of the identity of the organization, profession or industry”(Grace and Cohen 2009: 240). These are important considerations for PACFA as a major industry body, now so well established in the eyes of government and the community. We have to endorse a code that leads and regulates associations as well as individual members, and which can be held up to scrutiny with all our stakeholders.

4. How do organisations support ethical behaviour?

Good governance involves inclusive practices that bring all relevant parties into the process. Striving for above average performance is important, but is only achievable if the culture is one in which people’s basic goodness can be fostered; usually this involves a supportive social environment in which people are consciously reflective on their actions and operations. Such a culture privileges education over regulation, and allows opportunities to take responsibility for individual action (Longstaff, 1996B). The two enemies of such a culture are a lack of integrity within people or the organisation generally, where people say one thing but do another, and through a lack of thought in which people do things purely because “that’s the way we do things around here” (Longstaff, 1996A). Organisations can also develop checks and balances on their own thinking by regular dialogue through the PACFA (and other) networks, and by including people from other professions on management committees and lay people in any review process. There is said to be a non‐linear relationship between individuals own sense of moral propriety and the tacit expectations of their colleagues. “This means that both affect, and are affected, by the other…colleagues may reciprocally influence one another’s moral sensibilities in unexpected ways” (Painter‐Morland 2006:92). We need to be around each other in a range of forums and discussions in order to even allow important information to arise. Sometimes what needs to be known, or can engender change, comes about through an unconscious shift in sensibilities. At other times, such as in a written code, we can be highly explicit and clear with what we mean to say.

5. What does aspirational mean in this context?

Codes of ethics are usually written to enshrine minimum standards below which a professional will not operate. Thus many practitioners operate well above the standard and can then find the code of little use when confronted with an ethical dilemma. To call our code aspirational does not mean that we hope to be ethical one day. Rather it means that we admit that there will always be room for improvement in judgment and behaviour with respect to the values in the code, but that we aspire to get it exactly right every time. “We realise that these things involve judgment calls and we aspire to always exhibit excellent judgement” (Grace and Cohen 2009:245). Codes are not an exhaustive list of rules; rather they provide guidance about some behaviours and protocols for how to approach problem solving. A professional will use their code, other research, peers and supervisors in decision making. Ultimately both the accepted standard for professional practice and rigor in decision making will be important evidence in confident, justified, ethical outcomes.

6. The process

Moral knowledge is acquired through an ongoing process of trial and error. Beliefs, perceptions and regulations together constitute the moral culture of an organisation, informing the moral sensibilities of individual members. “Moral agency does not reside in an isolated individual agent. Instead, it is a thoroughly relational affair” (Painter‐Morland 2006:90). We can expect that wherever our associations are at developmentally, and wherever our documentation is up to, we have to think, rethink, discover, reflect and learn together, over and over again. This should not be a burden; instead it is what makes dialogue about ethics so interesting.

“A code of ethics demands something more than mere compliance. Instead a Code calls forth an exercise inunderstanding that is linked to a requirement that people exercise judgment and accept personal responsibility for the decisions that they make. A Code of Ethics should be a document that expresses an organisation’s underlying values. And this means that Codes of Ethics need to be devised in consultation with the people most directly affected by its application”(Longstaff, 1994:5).

The PACFA ethics committee is drafting a document that will be read and edited in its developmental stages by Board members, staff and by willing Council members. We aim to have a formal draft to circulate to the full Council in time for the March Council meeting. All those interested in participating in formulating ideas and/or are willing to read earlier drafts should contact Elisabeth Shaw, Chair of Ethics at

7. References

Grace, D. & Cohen, S. (2009) Business Ethics 4th edition Oxford
Uni Press, Aust.
De George, R. (1990) Business Ethics 3rd ed. MacMillan, USA.
Kitson, A. & Campbell, R. (1996) The ethical organization;
ethical theory and corporate behaviour, MacMillan, UK.
Koocher, G.P. and Keith‐Spiegel, P. (2008) Ethics in Psychology
and the Mental Health Professions, 3rd ed. Oxford Uni. Press,
Longstaff, S. (1994) Why codes fail…and some thoughts about
how to make them work! Ethics for the public sector, Sydney,
The Federation Press.
Longstaff, S. (1996A) Foundations for corporate governance –
three rival versions of human nature, Business Ethics, 5(2).
Longstaff, S. (1996B) What if people are basically good? City
Ethics, Autumn, St James Ethics Centre, Sydney.
Painter‐Morland, M. (2006) Redefining accountability as
relational responsiveness; Journal of Business Ethics, 66: 89‐
Pope, K.S. $ Vasquez, M.J.T. (2007) Ethics in Psychotherapy
and Counselling, A Practical Guide 3rd ed. John Wiley & Sons,
Sinclair, A. (1996) Ch 5 Codes in the workplace: organisational
versus professional codes, in Coady, M. & Bloch, S. Codes of
Ethics and the Professions, Melb. Uni. Press, Vic.
Elisabeth Shaw
Chair, Ethics