Ethical Issues in Professional Supervision and Consultation

Dr. Donna L. Roberts
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Supervision and consultation represent critical aspects of developing and maintaining professional competence and currency. From the perspective of the supervising and consulting counselor, these roles require unique skills and represent additional ethical challenges. Correspondingly, the trainee and/or consultee have certain rights and responsibilities within the context of this working relationship.

One of the fundamental ethical issues relevant to these professional relationships is the development of clearly defined roles and responsibilities for each party. This constitutes a significant challenge since the therapeutic setting is complex and multifaceted and each situation can be approached from a variety of perspectives, methods and therapeutic orientations. Furthermore, supervisees require different levels of directive guidance based on their individual levels of experience and clinical skill.

Underlying the basic supervisory responsibilities is the fundamental premise that, “supervisors are ultimately responsible, both ethically and legally, for the actions of their trainees” (Corey, Corey and Callanan, 2002, p. 321). This blanket responsibility necessitates a close monitoring of the clinical caseloads and therapeutic progress of each trainee. Furthermore, supervisors often find themselves juggling multiple roles which may overlap or even conflict.

Corey, Corey and Callanan (2002) summarize the potential conflicts stating, “Supervisors are faced with the responsibility of protecting the welfare of the clients, the supervisees, the public and the profession” (p. 322). Thus, the obligations of a supervisory relationship require a mature professionalism and a degree of experience in order to maintain appropriate objectivity and proper judgment. Supervisors must strike a balance between over-involvement and micro-management based on the reality of their legal liabilities and the goal of encouraging trainees toward independent functioning and autonomy in their practice.

According to Keith-Spiegel & Koocher (1998), “A substantial percentage of ethics complaints against psychologists comes from their own colleagues, students and employees” (p. 312). Specifically, they continue, “Within the profession, the goals and views of some psychologists can clash with those of other psychologists. Deeply held differences in theoretical, practical and methodological approaches abound. Such disputes can create conditions that sometimes erupt beyond the bounds of stimulating debates” (p. 313).

Likewise, Corey, Corey and Callanan (2002) report results of a study by Ladany, Lehrman-Waterman, Molinaro and Wolgast (1999) which indicated that as many as 51% of the sampled supervisees reported witnessing at least one ethical violation on the part of their supervisors, most frequently involving performance evaluations, confidentiality or issues of integrating alternative therapeutic perspectives. These indications of such frequent instances of conflict highlight the intricate complexities and intensity of this professional relationship. As such, supervisors often need special training beyond their basic clinical preparation in order to provide proper guidance and mentoring.

Beyond the general ethical issues related to the supervisor-supervisee relationship, legal issues related to the client, including informed consent, confidentiality and liability, are of paramount concern in these circumstances. In the context of a supervisor-trainee-patient triad the fundamental legal and ethical obligations of any therapeutic relationship apply, but are further complicated by the distribution of professional responsibility and liability between the supervisor and trainee. As Corey, Corey and Callanan (2002) indicate, “By virtue of supervision, supervisors have a relationship with the trainee’s clients” (p. 327). This relationship, and its inherent responsibilities, exists even when the level of supervision has advanced to the point where there is no direct contact between the supervisor and the client.

Corey, Corey and Callanan (2002), point out that, “Supervisory relationships are a complex blend of professional, educational and therapeutic relationships” (p. 340). These many issues can be further convoluted when supervisors and their trainees are also involved in multiple relationships, such as supervision and personal counseling, which can have opposing and even conflicting purposes and responsibilities. However, these dilemmas are not unique to supervisory circumstances. The many ethical and legal considerations related to the supervisory context are similar in nature to those experienced in a professional consultation and collaboration. Professionals in each of these roles must be continually vigilant regarding the many ethical nuances of their obligations and responsibilities.


Corey, G., Corey, M. and Callahan, P. (2002). Issues and ethics in the helping professions (6th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Keith-Spiegel, P. & Koocher, G. (1998). Ethics in psychology: Professional standards and cases. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Ladany, N., Lehrman-Waterman, D., Molinaro, M. & Wolgast, B. (1999). Psychotherapy supervisor ethical practices: Adherence to guidelines, the supervisory working alliance, and supervisee satisfaction. The Counseling Psychologist, 27(3), 443-475.

Comments / 2

Published by

Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

More from Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Comments / 0