American Counseling Association Code of Ethics

Counselors play a key role in developing individuals and shaping communities. In their role, counselors are often responsible for cultivating and maintaining relationships, monitoring clients’ well-being, and working with different cultural values and confidential information. The American Counseling Association (ACA) understands this and has a code of ethics, updated every 10 years, to help counselors navigate the challenging and sensitive aspects of their roles. Below we have compiled a basic summary of the 2014 ACA code of ethics, so counselors have the foundational knowledge to work in the field confidently and ethically.

What Is the Purpose for the ACA Code of Ethics?

Ethics codes provide professional standards for counselors with the purpose of protecting the dignity and well-being of clients. The main reasons for the code of ethics include informing professional counselors and counselors-in-training of their ethical guidelines, professional obligations, and responsibilities to their clients. This helps counselors decide an appropriate plan of action for their clients and provides the ethical standards by which complaints and inquiries can be made regarding ACA members.  

The five core professional values of the Counseling@Northwestern program include:

  1. Enhancing human development throughout the life span.
  2. Honoring diversity and embracing a multicultural approach in support of the worth, dignity, potential, and uniqueness of people within their social and cultural contexts.
  3. Promoting social justice
  4. Safeguarding the integrity of the counselor-client relationship.
  5. Practicing in a competent and ethical manner.

Major Sections of the ACA 2014 Code of Ethics

The Counseling Relationship (Section A)

The purpose of Section A is to provide ethical guidelines that focus on the counseling relationship such as client welfare, informed consent, and managing multiple relationships.

Counselors must:

  • Work hard to create and sustain a relationship with their clients based on trust.
  • Obtain informed consent from clients entering a counseling relationship.
  • Respect a client’s confidentiality and privacy.
  • Explain to clients what the counseling relationship entails (which could include fees, group work, and termination).
  • Be cognizant of client’s culture, values, and beliefs.

Confidentiality and Privacy (Section B)

The purpose of Section B is to provide ethical guidelines that focus on the importance of trust, boundaries, and confidential interactions.

Counselors must:

  • Communicate the concept of confidentiality with their clients on an ongoing basis and do so in a culturally sensitive way.
  • Inform clients about the limitations of confidentiality regarding what situations information must be disclosed (e.g., to protect clients or others from harm).
  • Discuss if and how information may be shared with others.
  • Understand legal and ethical issues involved in working with clients who cannot provide informed consent (such as minors or clients with impairment).
  • Maintain and store records in an approved way.

Professional Responsibility (Section C)

The purpose of Section C is to provide ethical guidelines that focus on respecting the practice of counseling.

Counselors must:

  • Adhere to the ACA Code of Ethics.
  • Practice within one’s boundaries of competence.
  • Participate in associations that help improve the profession.
  • Practice counseling based on scientific foundations.
  • Be mindful when advertising and talking with the media.
  • Engage in self-care activities so they can work at their highest capacity.

Relationships with Colleagues, Employees, and Employers (Section D)

The purpose of Section D is to provide ethical guidelines that focus on developing working relationships with those within and outside of the counseling field.

Counselors must:

  • Develop relationships with colleagues from other disciplines and be respectful of those who have different theoretical approaches.
  • Provide consultation services within areas of competence.
  • Provide appropriate consultation referrals when requested or necessary.

Evaluation, Assessment, and Interpretation  (Section E)

The purpose of Section E is to provide ethical guidelines that focus on how to ethically use formal and informal assessments to guide treatment plans and intervention selection.

Counselors must:

  • Understand the use of assessments as an important part of information gathering and to assist in conducting clients’ treatment and evaluation.
  • Use educational, mental health, forensic, and career assessments (among others) on which they are trained and have had comprehensive supervised experience administering and interpreting.
  • Diagnose clients and interpret assessments accurately and in a culturally sensitive manner.

Supervision, Training, and Teaching (Section F)

The purpose of Section F is to provide ethical guidelines that focus on how to develop relationships with supervisees, students, and trainees in ways that support ethical boundaries in a learning environment.

 Counseling supervisors must:

  • Be trained in supervision methods and techniques before they offer supervision services.
  • Be responsible for monitoring supervisees’ clients’ welfare and supervisees’ performance and development through a variety of supervision modalities, such as regular meetings and live supervision.
  • Inform supervisees of their clients’ rights and inform clients with information regarding the supervision process and its limitation on confidentiality.
  • Be aware of and address the role of multiculturalism and diversity in the supervisory relationship.
  • Endorse supervisees that they deem qualified and sufficiently able to perform duties in the areas of certification, licensure, employment, or completion of an academic of training program.

Counselor educators must:

  • Be knowledgeable regarding the ethical, legal, and everyday aspects of the profession including how diversity impacts groups and individuals.
  • Inform students of their ethical responsibilities and standards as professionals and as students.
  • Provide ongoing feedback, evaluation, and act as gatekeepers to the profession.
  • Promote the use of techniques, procedures, and modalities that are grounded in theory and have scientific foundations.
  • Develop clear policies and provide direct assistance regarding field placement.

Counseling students must:

  • Be aware of their responsibility to follow the ACA Code of Ethics and applicable laws.
  • Understand the implications of taking a break from counseling others when impaired.
  • Disclose their status as supervisees before beginning counseling others.

Research and Publication (Section G)

The purpose of Section G is to provide ethical guidelines that focus on how to ethically conduct human subjects research and publish and/or present results.

Counselors must:

  • Conduct research that is aligned with ethical principles, federal and state laws, host institutional regulations, and scientific standards of governing research.
  • Adhere to confidentiality in their research.
  • Be responsible for participants’ welfare throughout the research process.
  • Inform individuals of their rights as a research participant through informed consent.
  • Plan, conduct, and report research accurately.

Distance Counseling, Technology, and Social Media (Section H)

The purpose of Section H is to provide ethical guidelines that focus on how to ethically use technology and social media within the field of counseling.

Counselors must:

  • Be knowledgeable about the laws governing distance counseling and social media.
  • Only utilize distance counseling after gaining competence through training and supervised experience in this specialty area.
  • Inform clients about the limits of confidentiality and potential Internet interruptions due to the nature of technology.
  • Understand the benefits and drawbacks related to distance counseling
  • Utilize a professional presence if they choose to use social media platforms
  • Avoid disclosing confidential information through social media.
  • Utilize informed consent to explain the boundaries of social media.

Resolving Ethical Issues (Section I)

The purpose of Section I is to provide ethical guidelines that focus on how to address and resolve ethical issues with other counselors.

Counselors must:

  • Behave in an ethical and legal manner and recognize when there is a conflict between ethics codes and laws.
  • Utilize and document an ethical decision-making process when faced with an ethical dilemma.
  • Hold other counselors to similar standards of professional conduct.
  • Resolve ethical dilemmas with direct and open communication to all parties involved.
  • Seek consultation when necessary.
  • Become familiar with the ACA Policy of Procedures for Processing Complains of Ethical Violations and use it as a reference.

This summary of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics is meant to introduce and review the main points of the code. Counselors are responsible for reading the entire document and understanding how to implement the ACA Code of Ethics in practice. For more information, view the ACA Code of Ethics.