Student Counselors' Moral, Intellectual and Professional Ethical Identity Development

By Lloyd-Hazlett, Jessica; Foster, Victoria A. | Counseling and Values, April 2017 | Go to article overview

Student Counselors' Moral, Intellectual and Professional Ethical Identity Development


Lloyd-Hazlett, Jessica, Foster, Victoria A., Counseling and Values


Professional identity represents an integration of personal attributes and training in the context of a professional community (Nugent & Jones, 2009). The identity of professions, such as counseling, that serve the public varies from other fields based on inherent commitments to prioritize the interests of clients over personal gain (Bebeau & Monson, 2012). The ACA Code of Ethics (American Counseling Association [ACA], 2014) charges professional counselors to be respectful of differences; avoid imposing personal values on clients; and, above all, do no harm (Standard A.4.).

The professional responsibility to prioritize client interests has served as an epicenter for contemporary, groundbreaking litigation in counselor education, such as Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley (2010) and Ward v. Wilbanks (2009). In each of the cited lawsuits, faculty within an accredited counselor training program dismissed a student for refusing to work with sexual minority clients. The programs offered remediation opportunities, but the students declined, citing discrimination from the university. Tennessee recently passed legislation permitting counselors to refuse to treat clients based on the counselor's "sincerely held religious beliefs" (Tenn. SB 1556/HB1840, 2016), highlighting the contentious climates that continue to surround counselors' professional ethical identity and responsibilities.

Revisions to the ACA Code of Ethics (ACA, 2014) reflect a significant effort to clarify ethical client referral processes and to differentiate competence-based versus values-based referrals. However, principles and codes alone are an insufficient means to ensure ethical behavior among professionals (Linstrum, 2009; Rest, Narvaez, Bebeau, & Thoma, 1999b). Counselors disagree on the ethicality of a wide range of behaviors and dilemmas, with divergences most profound around value-laden issues (Neukrug & Milliken, 2011). Furthermore, counselors at different levels of development understand and apply codes of ethics inconsistently (Lambie, Hagedorn, & Ieva, 2010; Linstrum, 2009). Thus, beyond the simple transmission of knowledge of ethical codes, counselor educators hold a chief responsibility to promote the development of an internalized professional counselor identity that will enable students to uphold professional ethical commitments to society.

An integration of professional and personal worldviews is a mark of counselor professional identity development (Gibson, Dollarhide, & Moss, 2010). Using a grounded theory design, Auxier, Hughes, and Kline (2003) highlighted the emergence of a therapeutic self during counselor identity development, which combines the professional (roles, decisions, ethics) and personal (values, morals, perception). This therapeutic self provides a frame of reference for ethical practice, decision making, and problem solving (Auxier et al., 2003). Although researchers have given significant attention to defining the professional identity of counselors (Woo, Henfield, & Choi, 2014), less research has focused on professional and ethical formation (Owens & Neal-McFall, 2014; Riechel, 2013).

As described in the preamble to the ACA Code of Ethics (ACA, 2014), "professional values are an important way of living out an ethical commitment" (p. 3). Ethical behavior extends beyond knowledge to also include ethical sensitivity, motivation, and action (Rest et al., 1999b). Counselors must be sensitive to the salient ethical aspects of situations and the potential impacts of decisions on concerned parties. They must also be motivated to prioritize ethical responsibilities and be willing to take necessary action. In short, ethical behavior entails more than compliance with externally imposed responsibilities. Instead, one must integrate ethical behavior into his or her identity. The purpose of the current study was to explore student counselors' professional ethical identity development (Bebeau & Lewis, 2003; Monson & Hamilton, 2010), which refers to the level of integration across student counselors' personal and professional ethical commitments. …

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