Psychology Practice: Ethical Codes, Models and Issues

Ethical Codes

In the practice of psychology, ethics of conduct may be considered one of the main components of professional competence. The ethical conduct implies the ability to show respect to diversity and dignity of patients, research participants, and other individuals with whom a psychologist interrelates in the professional context.

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In the field of prenatal psychology, counseling and research are the major activities, and, like all other professional practices, they should be performed in compliance with the applicable ethical standards and principles. The Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct elaborated by the American Psychological Association (APA) is one of the most comprehensive resources that provides support for the psychologists in their work, decision-making, and development of relationships.

The APA’s Code of Ethics covers multiple areas of practice (education, research, supervision, therapy, etc.), and it is possible to find the principles and suggestions that will fit almost every challenging situation there. The Code provides the necessary information about the nuances of psychological practice, the establishment of professional relationships, the usage of patients’ personal data, and the principal constructs of psychologists’ competence (American Psychological Association [APA], 2010).

The APA’s Ethical Code may be used as a guide for the development of ethical behavior and cultivation of important professional and personal qualities, or it can be used as a primary source of knowledge that can be addressed in case an ethical dilemma has arisen.

The secondary resources for the application in professional practice will include the American Counseling Association’s (ACA) Code of Ethics and the National Association of School Psychologists’ (NASP) Principles of Professional Ethics. The purpose of the ACA’s Code of Ethics is the promotion of professional values in the psychologists and increase of their commitment to ethics (American Counseling Association [ACA], 2014).

The Code covers the area of counseling with the focus on the important issues of clients’ welfare, confidentiality, consent to assessment, and other aspects of counselor-client relationships. Moreover, the ACA’s Code of Ethics provides the comprehensive description of psychologists’ professional role at the different levels: social, interpersonal, and organizational (ACA, 2014). By addressing the given resource of ethical knowledge, it is possible to raise awareness of the extent of the professional boundaries in counseling, responsibilities, and limitations.

The issues addressed in the Code may help to develop competence and proficiency. However, the main weakness of the ACA’s Code of Ethics is its limited thematic orientation – it informs about the problems in the area of counseling, but its application in some other domains of practice, such as research, is largely confined.

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Similarly to the ACA’s Code, the NASP’s Principles of Professional Ethics are associated with the specific area of practice. The NASP’s Principles address the issues related to the work of the school psychologists, and the limited thematic scope may be regarded as the main weakness of the resource. Nevertheless, the NASP’s Principles are characterized by the universality, and some of them can be correlated with other professional fields of practice: therapy, assessment, mentoring, etc. NASP describes the qualities that should be cultivated in all psychology specialists: respect, justice, and fairness (National Association of School Psychologists [NASP], 2002).

The principles also address the competence and responsibility issues, the norms for the establishment of professional relationships, and the role of the psychologist in the community and profession (NASP, 2002). Therefore, the NASP’s Principles may become a useful resource of information in the process of ethical decision-making.

Ethical Issues in Special Settings

Organizational and Industrial Psychology

Within the organizational and industrial settings, the psychologists fulfill multiple tasks to support organizational performance, assess employees’ job satisfaction, and promote positive and friendly working environment. The organizational psychologists can advise managers on the development of strategies for the improvement of corporate culture, the increase in subordinates’ morale, and productivity. Within the industrial settings, the professionals may also conduct research, supervise colleagues or consult individuals on their personal problems.

The efficient performance of the mentioned duties depends on the psychologist’s competencies and level of knowledge. Moreover, to provide a high-quality service and fulfill the professional tasks effectively, it is important to be aware of ethical principles of practice and potential dilemmas that may occur in the organizations.

The most common ethical dilemma that may appear in the practice of organizational psychologists is the conflict of professional or personal interests and working duties. The conflict of interests may be referred to the situations in which the psychologist’s professional independence and autonomy are disrupted under the influence of the employer. As a result of such situation, the individual client, i.e. organizational employee, will not trust the psychologist because of the fear that he/she will take the unfavorable position towards his interests (Odre des psychologues du Quebec, 2005). The described case interferes with the specialist’s competent performance and objectivity, and, thus, it is possible to say that this situation conflicts with the professional interests of the psychologist.

First of all, the professional always needs to put clients interests above all else and avoid the possibility of personal information misuse or inability to perform objectively or autonomously (Odre des psychologues du Quebec, 2005). In this way, the psychologists need to inform the employers about the nature of their responsibilities and ethical considerations of practice. The conflicts of interests associated with the disclosure of employees’ personal information, and its misinterpretation or usage in favor of the employer may violate the APA Standard 3.04: Avoiding Harm which states that the specialists need to avoid the situations that may damage psychological, social, or emotional well-being of the individuals (APA, 2010).

Moreover, the misuse of assessment procedures and their outcomes go against the principles of informed consent and confidentiality. When working with the mandated clients, such as the organizational employees, the psychologists need to inform them about the type of the accumulated data that may be disclosed and with whom it can be shared prior the beginning of the assessment or consultation (ACA, 2014).

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The client always should be provided with the opportunity to refuse the assessment or counseling services. Thus, to avoid the situations which imply the violations of ethical codes and occurrence of conflicts of interests, a psychologist needs to reconcile the extent of employer’s involvement in the psychological practice and cooperate with him/her in the professional and ethical manner.

According to the ethical standards, the psychologists should avoid the establishment of personal interrelations with clients, or engagement in the professional relationships with friends, family members, and other persons with whom they previously had the intimate relationships (ACA, 2014). It can be challenging to succeed in distinguishing the personal and professional interrelations in counseling or testing a friend or a family member, and the involvement of emotions may bias the results and decrease the level of professional objectivity.

It is also important to comply with the standards of professional relations within the organizational settings. According to the APA’s Standard 3.05 Multiple Relations, the psychologist should refrain from entering into relationships in case the risk of exploitation occurs (APA, 2010). It means that even if a specialist is in close relationships with the co-workers or managers, he/she cannot discuss the accumulated personal information and use it favor of the organization or managerial decisions. A competent psychologist will refuse to engage in the unethical practice and will always comply with the principle of professional objectivity.

The organizational psychologists are responsible for the organizational diagnosis, intervention, and assessments as well. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the APA’s Standard 2: Boundaries of Competence, according to which the professionals should perform only in the areas of their specialization (APA, 2010).

For the effective implementation of psychological tests for the assessment of employees’ professional skills or cognitive and intellectual aptitude, the practitioners need to maintain the professional growth and be engaged in the development of self-criticism that will help to evaluate their professional competencies and abilities adequately. In this way, the psychologist will stick to the APA’s standard and will avoid the cases of test biasing, misinterpretation, and unfair use of results.

School Psychology

The psychologists perform a great variety of tasks aimed to fulfill the educational mission in schools: psychological assessment and counseling, educational tests, promotion and maintenance of friendly schooling environment in which all students would feel accepted. In the school context, the specialists need to follow many ethical standards to support children’s welfare. The principles and standards applicable to school environment are informed consent, confidentiality, tests’ validity and fairness, respect for human rights and dignity.

Since the children do not bear legal responsibility for their decisions, the work of a school psychologist implies communication and cooperation with students’ caregivers. When a student is referred to educational or psychological assessment or counseling service due to the behavioral problems, a psychologist should perform the standard of informed consent prior the beginning of procedures.

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However, in some cases, such as the student’s self-referral or the emergency situations in which the psychologist may suspect that a student is at risk of self-harm or is dangerous to others, the parent notice is not required (NASP, 2002). In the nonemergency cases, the psychologists always seek parents’ consent and inform them about nature, purposes, goals, costs, and potential risks of the procedures in which the students will participate.

Both the students and their parents should be given with the opportunity to refuse the offered services, and despite the character of their choice, the competent school specialist will always show respect to students’ decisions and rights (NASP, 2002).

Acting according to the principle of inclusion, the professional considers the cultural and linguistic differences of the minor students and their caregivers. The linguistic diversity may create barriers to the provision of services and conduction of assessment and it is thus suggested to address the human and information resources that would facilitate the communication with the diverse students. Moreover, the psychologists need to promote the acceptance of individual, social, cultural, and other demographic differences in students, and they should eliminate the potential effects of biases and prejudices on the course of their work (APA, 2010).

A professional respects diversity and considers individuals’ sociocultural differences, physical and intellectual abilities at every stage of his/her practice: while seeking consent, establishing relationships, designing education tests, and proceeding with assessment or counseling. By following these ethical standards, one may avoid misunderstanding and minimize the discomfort that can be caused by the implemented procedures.

In the conduction of educational testing, the psychologists need to perform within the boundaries of their competence and should avoid the situations in which the lack of experience and knowledge may lead to the misinterpretation of test results, establishment of a wrong diagnosis, and inappropriate referral of students to special education. While using the computerized or paper-and-pencil version of tests, the psychologists need to take into account all norms and standards of conduct, time frames, students’ needs and capabilities, testing environment and other factors that may affect the conformity with the principle of equivalency and equity. The reliability and validity of results depend on the consideration of all these factors in the application of both computerized and paper-and-pencil versions of tests.

The ethical obligation for the provision of the professional services within the boundaries of the psychologists’ expertise is regarded as the main principle of ethical practice that may lead to the reduction of test bias (APA, 2010). To avoid the risks of test misuse, the assessment must be administered by a competent specialist. In this case, the validity of test outcomes will be increased, and the risk of negative influence on the students’ well-being will be prevented.

In the conduction of educational testing, the psychologists also need to follow the principle of fairness. According to the California State Personnel Board (CSPB) (2003), the concept of fairness relates to the professional responsibility in administration, scoring, reporting, and interpretation of test results. Fairness implies the “lack of bias, equitable treatment in the testing process, equality in outcomes of testing, and opportunity to learn” (California State Personnel Board [CSPB], 2003).

The concept of fairness is qualitatively different from the concept of test bias because the unfair usage of test results doesn’t necessarily indicate that the test is biased. But at the same time, the lack of test bias may be regarded as the premise of test results’ fairness (American Educational Research Association [AERA], APA, & National Council on Measurement in Education [NCME], 1999).

Therefore, for the increase in data validity and reliability, the psychologists need to follow the standardized procedures in test conduction and administration, and they need to be aware of the fact that the interpretation of test largely depends on the level of professionalism and the technological advancement in school. It is also important to consider participants’ ethnic, cultural, and social characteristics that may provoke test bias for the reduction of their impact on the outcomes of assessment.

Ethical Dilemma in Prenatal Psychology

The diagnosis and assessment of infants and their mothers in the field of prenatal development have many psychological, emotional, and ethical implications. Counseling in prenatal psychology is often related to conveying the important information about adverse developmental outcomes, risk factors, and potential consequences of the infant’s exposure to the negative experience (Macer, 1998). The communication with the patients on such delicate and personal subjects creates multiple challenges in the process of ethical decision-making.

In the situation when a pregnant woman diagnosed with a mental disorder, such a chronic stress or depression, comes for the professional recommendation and conclusion, a psychologist may feel moral barriers to informing the patient about the probability of the infant’s cognitive or physiological underdevelopment. The difficulty arises because the conveyed information may increase mother’s distress and the extension of fetus’ exposure.

For the development of an adequate decision in the difficult situation, it is possible to implement the five-step model for ethical decision-making also known as IDEAL. The model includes five major steps: identify, develop, explore, act, and look back (Knapp & VandeCreek, 2006). The ethical problem in the mentioned case is hidden in the possibility to harm the well-being of mother and fetus after informing her about the probability of negative developmental outcomes.

At the same time, the provision of the important information to the patient and her timely referral to the fetal screening may result in the development of an effective behavioral intervention aimed to improve the emotional state of the mother. Moreover, in case the screening results reveal some developmental abnormalities, it will be possible to take the measures to minimize negative outcomes for a child in time.

According to the ethical principle of beneficence, “psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm” (APA, 2010, p.3). Informing the patient with depression about the influence of her condition on the course of pregnancy is beneficial for her because, in this case, the possibility for the prevention of severe adverse outcomes occurs. However, it may be suggested to implement the technique of a non-directive counseling to mitigate the risk of distress increase (Macer, 1998).

It is also important to inform the client about the positive sides of the early diagnosis to stimulate her for the addressing the cognitive and behavioral therapy and increase the efficiency of intervention practices.

According to the model of ethical relativism, virtue and merit are not absolute phenomena, and they depend on the cultural, social, and individual characteristics (Mcdonald, 2010). Based on this idea, the interpretation of risk information also depends on individual features of psychologists and patients. Through the process of communication, the psychologist should attempt to identify the potential reaction of the client to receiving the risk information, and should act accordingly.

When one patient may perceive the risk information as a benefit for early treatment, another individual may focus on the negative side of the news. Therefore, the psychologist’s decision about the extent and character of the provided information should proceed from the situational context.

According to Kant’s formalist theory, the moral will of every individual is autonomous and independent of ethical regulations imposed by the social institutions (Tavory, 2011). Autonomy of ethical decision-making may be regarded as a core value and the basis of the universal ethical laws. Similarly to the model of ethical relativism, the formalist theory focuses on the individualism of ethical decision-making – it depends on the context of the particular situation, personal strengths and weaknesses of the individuals involved in it.

The applied ethical models suggest looking at the ethical issues from the distinct perspectives, and they all have value. However, it is possible to say that the five-step model of decision-making is associated with the practical benefits more than other two. The implementation of the IDEAL steps helped to scrutinize the problem, find the alternatives, evaluate them, and select the most appropriate one. It is possible to say that the model of ethical relativism and formalist theory can be effectively applied for resolving of some minor ethical issues because of the lack of their connectedness to the ethical standards and unclear boundaries of their implementation.

References

American Counseling Association (2014). ACA code of ethics. Web.

American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, & National Council on Measurement in Education. (1999). Standards for educational and psychological testing. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

American Psychological Association. (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Web.

California State Personnel Board. (2003). Summary of the standards for educational and psychological testing. Web.

Knapp, S., & VandeCreek, L. (2006). Practical ethics for psychologists: A positive approach. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Macer, D. (1998). Ethics and Prenatal Diagnosis. In A. Milunsky (Ed.), Genetic disorders and the fetus: Diagnosis, prevention and treatment (pp. 999-1024). Baltimore, US: John Hopkins University Press.

Mcdonald, G. (2010). Ethical relativism vs absolutism: Research implications. European Business Review, 22(4), 446-464. Web.

National Association of School Psychologists. (2010). Principles of professional ethics. Web.

Odre des psychologues du Quebec. (2005). Conflict of roles and conflict of interests (Part 2). Web.

Tavory, I. (2011). The question of moral action: A formalist position. Sociological Theory, 29(4), 272-293,341. Web.

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