Ethics

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“The question counselors should be asking themselves is not ‘is it OK for me to use social media?’ The question should be ‘is this particular tool the best way to help this specific client with this specific need?’ ”

Dr. David Kaplan, Chief Professional Officer for the American Counseling Association

Social media and other telecommunication methods offer unique opportunities for service providers to stay connected with consumers (see Communication for more on the benefits and drawbacks of telecommunication). However, the diversity of uses, the ever-evolving nature of social media platforms, and the lack of ethical guidelines keeping pace with these changes, can leave providers intimidated or unsure about using social media in practice. Adding to this confusion is limited guidance for social media use by professional organizations.

Ethics of Using Distance Communication Methods

The Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC) Code of Professional Ethics (2017) outlines some best practices for telecommunication use during distance counseling. Some of the key ethical considerations include:

  • Don’t use tools you’re not comfortable with

Distance technologies can be great tools for connecting with consumers. However, if you don’t know how to use them effectively they can be frustrating and could compromise the counseling relationship.

  • Consider the consumer’s behavior, skills, and access

Think about a consumer’s technical abilities and access to technology before engaging in distance counseling. Do they have the tools and accommodations they need to access social media and the internet?

Also keep in mind that people sometimes behave differently online than they do in-person, which could have positive or negative impacts on the counseling dynamic. For example, people with Autism Spectrum Disorder could have an easier time sharing information. Or, a person could feel less inhibited, and be more willing to behave inappropriately or aggressively. If telecommunications don’t work for a consumer, don’t be afraid to find a better method.

  • Be aware of required record keeping

Emails, transcripts, recordings and instant messages become part of the counseling record.

  • Communicate confidentiality risks

Distance counseling introduces a number of confidentiality concerns. Be sure to clearly communicate these risks to the consumer before using distance counseling. See email confidentiality for more information about mitigating security risks and other best practices.

  • Prepare for technology failure and crises  

Create a backup communication plan in the event that preferred technology fails or in case of something that requires immediate action.

  • Outline boundaries  

Clearly communicate with consumers when you will be available and how quickly they can expect a response to an email, text message or phone call.

  • Secure informed consent

Clearly address all of the points highlighted above as well as any other points relevant to your practice in your informed consent document. See What to Include in an Informed Consent Form below for more information.

Ethics of Social Media Use

The Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC) Code of Professional Ethics (2017) includes specific guidelines for social media use. These include:

  • A distinct separation of professional and personal pages and profiles
  • Acknowledging that information posted on social media sites can be easily shared and become permanent part of the public domain
  • Informing consumers about the benefits, limitations, and boundaries of social media use within VR practice
  • Limiting counselor internet searches (including Google searches) on consumers unless it is relevant to the employment goals and the consumer has been informed
  • Writing social media posts that do not include any personally identifiable information, without written consent from the consumer

Now, let’s dive a bit deeper and see how those some of those guidelines apply to a Vocational Rehabilitation counselor’s practice. 

A counselor shows a woman something on a smartphone
Separation of professional and personal accounts

Who should I “friend?”

It is a good idea to have a plan in place for how you respond to a “friend” request on your personal account from a consumer. Think about how you want to connect with different types of people professionally and which platform(s) to use.

For some people, connecting with social media is second nature. However, if you get a request to connect from someone who has boundary issues, being “friends” on social media may not be appropriate.

(See To Accept or Not to Accept? How to respond when clients send “Friend Request” to their psychotherapists or counselors on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or other social networking sites for more. Though this article is written for therapists, the information is applicable for any professional online relationship.)

If you do choose to connect with someone professionally on social media, use different privacy settings to make sure you are only sharing the information you are comfortable (or permitted) to share. Connecting with someone on social media does not have to mean allowing them unfettered access to your social media profiles.

For example, Facebook allows users to organize their “friends” into lists, which have different viewing privileges. Similarly, you can block certain individuals from viewing certain posts or pictures. See “How to Manage Your Social Media Privacy Settings” from the Center for Identity at the University of Texas at Austin for more details about privacy settings.

Multiple Accounts

Keeping your professional and personal social media accounts separate is a great idea in theory, but can be difficult in practice. For instance, some social media sites only let you have one account per user. Before you create more than one account on the same social media platform, make sure you are compliant with the terms of use policy.

One way to address this is to use some social media sites in a professional context and others sites for personal use. For example, LinkedIn might be the platform you use to connect with consumers, and Facebook is your personal account where you only connect with friends.

Or, you could consider creating a “business” page for connecting with consumers. See Facebook pages for Therapists: How to Set Up a Practice Page for more information.

Another strategy for keeping personal and professional accounts separate is to use different email addresses for different accounts. For instance, use a Gmail account for your personal social media pages and a work email for your professional accounts. This will keep social media sites from suggesting you as a connection to consumers or coworkers when it combs through their address book for suggestions of people they should connect with.

Online Privacy

Many people do not use privacy settings on social media sites, and most default settings are public. This means a Google search may pull up a consumer’s complete social media profile and activities. Googling a consumer’s name can be helpful for learning more about a consumer and/or working with the consumer to clean up a consumer’s online reputation before diving into a job search. However, avoid engaging in these activities without a consumer’s knowledge and consent.

As a Vocational Rehabilitation counselor, expect that people will Google your name to learn more about you. If you are active on Twitter or write a blog, think about how your posts might influence relationships with consumers or coworkers. Keep in mind that you may not be aware that consumers or coworkers are following you.

Counselor Use of Public Social Media

Social media introduces an increased possibility of unintentional, rather than malicious, disclosure of confidential information. It is best to keep conversations about sensitive topics face-to-face. If that is not possible, use an encrypted email or direct messaging service.

There are many ways to accidentally disclose confidential information. For instance, even the act of friending a consumer may disclose to others that you are involved in a counseling relationship with one another.  Also, do not post pictures of consumers without their knowledge and written consent.

Social Media and Informed Consent

An important first step when using social media and distance counseling methods is to clearly define expectations in an informed consent document.

During the first in-person meeting with a new consumer, discuss how you will use technology in the counseling relationship. How you decide to use social media/distance counseling is largely a personal choice dictated by the needs of the consumer, state law, and agency policy.

Even if you decide not to use online communication methods, clearly state this in the informed consent form and define how you will respond to friend requests, emails or other attempts to communicate through distance technologies.

What to Include In an Informed Consent Form

  • How are you going to use social media and/or distance counseling methods?

Begin the informed consent form by clearly outlining how you are going to use technology. Will you only use it to communicate in between face-to-face meetings? Or, will distance counseling methods take the place of face-to-face meetings? If yes, what platform will you use? Will you connect with consumers on social media sites?

You may decide to not use social media at all. However, you may want or need to work cooperatively with consumers to evaluate their online identity. Discuss what this will look like and consider under what circumstances you will Google their name.

  • How does your agency use technology with consumers?

If your agency has any social media presence, discuss the intended purpose and how consumers can interact with that page. In addition, be sure to address your agencies policy on distance counseling (if there is one)!

  • Boundaries

Clearly state your expectations for interaction on social media sites and other telecommunication methods. Is it okay for consumers to message you on social media sites? If not, what is the preferred method of communication in between face-to-face meetings? Outline when you will respond to messages so you don’t end up feeling like you are on call 24/7. Will you respond to email messages at 11:00 at night? If you do accept requests for connections on social media sites, will you continue with that connection once the professional relationship has ended?

  • Risks

There are confidentiality risks to using social media and other technologies during a job search. Discuss how you will work to mitigate these risks by using appropriate security settings, and that you will not post anything confidential on your own personal social media sites. Also discuss with the consumer how their public posts may disclose disability or health status.

Keely Kolmes, a psychologist based in California, shared her social media informed consent document online. It is a great resource for writing an informed consent document specific to social media.

Responding to negative review

The internet is an interactive environment where any user with a Google or Yelp account can leave a positive or negative online review. While positive comments are generally welcome, negative comments can be difficult to address. In general, avoid deleting negative comments unless they directly violate your agency’s terms of service. The best course of action with a negative comment may be to ignore it. However, if you feel a response is warranted, keep it brief and invite the reviewer to contact you privately.

References

Commission on Rehabilitation. (2017).Code of Professional Ethics for Rehabilitation Counselors. Retrieved from:  https://www.crccertification.com/filebin/pdf/ethics/CodeOfEthics_01-01-2017.pdf

Center for Credentialing and Education. (n.d.) DCC Distance Credentialed Counselor. Retrieved from: http://www.cce-global.org/dcc

Daniel-Burke, R. (host). (March, 2015). Ethics and social media. Retrieved from:  https://www.counseling.org/knowledge-center/podcasts

Kolmes, K. (June 30,2012). A yelp review is no an authorization to release client information: Online reviews and confidentiality. Retrieved from: http://drkkolmes.com/2012/06/30/yelproi/

Ipsen, C. & Goe, R. (2016). Factors associated with consumer engagement and satisfaction with the Vocational Rehabilitation system. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 44 (1), 85-96. Doi: 10.323/JVR-150782Zur, O. (2015).

Suler, J. (2004). The online disinhibition effect. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 7 (3), 321-326.

Zur, O. (2015) To Accept or Not to Accept? How to respond when clients send “Friend Request” to their psychotherapists or counselors on social networking sites. Retrieved from: http://www.zurinstitute.com/socialnetworking.html

 

 

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