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  • Case Study: Confidentiality of Counseling Students

    Organizational Structure
    A career counselor speaks with a student about confidential issues.

    TAGS: case study, ethics, principles, privacy


    The following case study describes the role of career centers when a student’s identifiable demographics are sent via email by staff personnel and shared with others outside the university. The student has come to the career center for assistance in finding a job in a specific field as well as the regional area. The Principles for Ethical Professional Practice is used to address this scenario. This case study provides insight into the following:

    • The role of career centers in this situation;
    • Implications for the career coach given their actions;
    • Considerations for privacy and confidentiality;
    • Exposure of a protected class using identifiable information; and
    • Potential legal implications.

    The Case

    Scenario: The following inquiry was posted to a 1,000-person online forum (hereafter referred to as a “group”) for counseling professionals:

    “I am working with a 54-year-old Latinx student who is attempting to identify their career options. Their previous work history includes:

    • Writer (loves writing about foods and restaurants; is a gourmet cook)
    • Freelance proofreader/editor
    • A mediation specialist for community disputes
    • They handle a customer service in the private sector.
    • Public information specialist—created brochures for government agencies
    • Radio broadcasting, sales, and advertising

    They have an undergraduate degree in communications and media (1981) and are completing their master’s in English. Their thesis and area of greatest interest focuses on media literacy. It deals with educating the public about the impact media has on us, particularly the influence of violence.

    Here are the “kinks” in helping them explore their options:

    • The client really wants to live in a rural area, preferably in the Northwest or New England.
    • They developed a vision disability that is making any close work difficult. They are seeing specialists for this condition and are not losing their sight, but too much eye strain causes their eyes to cross. As much as they enjoy desktop publishing and proofing work, they estimated that they could do this work only about 25 percent of the time.
    • The student has developed a loss of range of motion in their right wrist making typing difficult. At home, they use voice recognition software.

    I would love suggestions of positions they might pursue in the public relations/media/ journalism/mediation areas that would accommodate their disabilities.”


    • Is the level of detail in this post appropriate?
    • Has a breach of confidentiality occurred between the counselor and the client?
    • What rules or guidelines would you propose for disclosure of client information on a professional listserv?
    • What are the ethical/legal issues that this scenario raises?
    • Does ‘counselor confidentiality’ have any significance in this scenario?
    • How would you handle this situation?”

    Analysis: A career services professional shared detailed client information seeking advice on career options—the professional shared confidential information, including that the client is a member of a protected class, their gender, their age, and that they have a disability. Additionally, the professional shared information about their race/ethnicity, graduation year and major, as well as their location of professional interest. The demographic data of the client is so narrowed that confidentiality and privacy may be compromised. We assume that the professional did not get permission from the client to present their case to the listserv. However, even with the authorization from a client, it is the ethical duty of the professional to remove any identifiable demographic information.

    Counselors should be reminded that information shared on listservs and other digital media should be considered public information. This includes but is not limited to social networking sites, video conferencing platforms, and any online messaging applications. Counselors should also be mindful that the disclosure of certain student identifying information may be considered a violation of FERPA. Clients should always be consulted before a career services professional seeks advice on their case and should be informed of the rights to confidentiality. Career counselor client confidentiality and privacy is an ethical standard of practice that restricts the exposure of clients to others as potential ramifications can follow-suit, thus exposing the professional to a variety of other legal issues.

    Be mindful that when seeking assistance others can view and respond. It is also recommended with sensitive information to reach out to colleagues for assistance by phone versus email.

    Principles That Apply: Four of the five principles were highlighted as points of concern:

    • Principle 1: Practice reasonable, responsible, and transparent behavior.
    • Principle 3: Ensure equitable access.
    • Principle 4: Comply with laws.
    • Principle 5: Protect confidentiality of client.

    Principle 5 first states, “Protect confidentiality of all personal information related to candidates and their interviews, and their engagement with services, programs, and resources,” and secondly, “protect confidentiality of student information related to professional plans.”

    Options for Resolution: Principle 5 is very clear when it states that personal information of students is to be protected.

    First of all, the career services professional posting this case should be informed that their action is addressed in the NACE Principles for Ethical Professional Practice, specifically Principle 5. He or she should be made aware of different alternatives that should be followed to avoid this breach of client confidentiality. They include:

    • Share with the client the article, ““Rights and Responsibilities for Job Seekers, Employers, and Career Centers,” pointing out their rights to confidentiality.
    • Only discuss and disclose unidentifiable facts of the client, such as “career-changing professional looking for opportunity in the field of journalism.”
    • Fully disclose the post within the group membership to the client and its potential accessibility to the client.
    • Offer to discuss the issue with a select group of colleagues, preferably over phone, as opposed to a group where the membership is unknown. Again, avoid providing identifiable information of the client.
    • If the client agrees to have the information shared, whether in a group or to a specific group of colleagues, be sure to indicate to the group that the client’s written authorization  has been obtained.

    The client should be informed about the breach of confidentiality and given a copy of the “Rights and Responsibilities” article. The client needs to be assured that this breach of confidentiality is will be addressed and steps have been taken to prevent this from happening in the future. Suggested actions could include a formal written letter of apology, immediate removal of the public post, and/or a formal internal reprimand of the counselor as appropriately decided by the career center. The counselor should also consider posting the “Rights and Responsibilities” article in the career center and on the center’s website so that students are made aware of their rights.

    Reviewed and revised by the 2020-21 Principles for Ethical Professional Practice Committee. Posted October 2021.

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