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  • Case Study: Discussing Students by E-mail

    Organizational Structure
    A career services professional emails a colleague about a student.

    TAGS: case study, ethics, principles

    Scenario: The career services director has encouraged the staff to interact and brainstorm with each other when problem student situations arise. The interaction could occur in person or via e-mail.

    Several of the counselors have been e-mailing each other about Bob, a student who has had problems landing a job. Jill, the person with whom the student has been working, has pinpointed the problem as his poor presentation during interviews. Jill has been e-mailing Joe and Joyce about the problem and how the issue should be addressed with the student. These individuals know the student and have worked with him in the past. Some of the e-mails refer to the student’s dress as “pimp-like” and to his communication abilities as if “he were high on drugs.” Jim opines that “Maybe if Bob would stop partying all night with his low-life friends before his interviews, he would do a better job at the interview.”

    Pam, a student intern in your office, happens to see one of these e-mails and tells Bob. Bob is furious and storms into your office demanding an explanation. Pam also becomes concerned about what is being put in writing about her and demands to see all of the e-mails among the counselors pertaining to her.

    Questions:

    • What are the ethical/legal issues that this scenario raises?
    • Does “counselor confidentiality” have any significance in this scenario?
    • Would your response be any different if this exchange occurred in the context of a staff meeting? If so, why? If not, why not?
    • What about the intern’s access to the e-mail?
    • How do you handle this situation?

    Analysis: This issue most certainly needs to be addressed by the career services director with the student, student workers, and all staff members.

    We know that, as the supervisor, you have encouraged your staff to discuss problem student situations in person or by e-mail, and more of the discussions are being conducted by e-mail. One of the counselors, Jill, has been e-mailing two other counselors, Joe and Joyce, about Bob, a student with whom she has been working. Some of this e-mail communication contains derogatory comments about Bob. A student intern, Pam, sees these derogatory e-mails and informs Bob. Both Pam and Bob are upset. Pam demands to see all of the e-mail communications concerning her, and Bob demands an explanation from you.

    The following are not known. Which counselors made the derogatory comments about Bob? Were these comments based on fact or merely speculative opinions? How did the student intern obtain access to the counselors’ e-mail communication about Bob?

    Ethically, this scenario raises the issue of maintaining confidentiality of student information. As outlined in Principle 5, all personal information related to candidates and their interviews, and their engagement with services, programs, and resources must be protected. While information about Bob was not shared outside of the career services office, the staff members in question did not exercise sound judgment and fairness in maintaining the confidentiality of student information. Also, the fact that some of the counselors made derogatory comments about Bob calls into question their professional competence and whether they have appropriate counseling skills.

    Further, as outlined in Principle 2, career services professionals shall “act without bias when advising, servicing, interviewing, or making employment decisions.” The counselors’ comments are troubling because they stem from differences in values with Bob and may not be based on fact.

    Principle 4 is also called into question. This Principle states that career services shall “comply with laws associated with local, state, and federal entities, including but not limited to EEO compliance, immigration, and affirmative action, and to respond to complaints of non-compliance in a timely and prudent manner.”

    Principles: 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.”

    Principle 2 states that career services shall “act without bias when advising, servicing, interviewing, or making employment decisions.”

    Principle 4 states that career services shall “comply with laws associated with local, state, and federal entities, including but not limited to EEO compliance, immigration and affirmative action and to respond to complaints of non-compliance in a timely and prudent manner.”

    Options for Resolution: Several questions need to be discussed regarding this scenario. They include:

    Does “counselor confidentiality” have any significance in this scenario? No. Clients, or students, as in Bob’s case, share information with counselors with the understanding that their confidences will not be compromised. It would have been permissible for Jill to discuss Bob’s situation with other staff members if she had obtained his permission to do so. At a minimum, however, student interns should not have access to these confidential discussions.

    Would your response be any different if this exchange occurred in the context of a staff meeting? If so, why? If not, why not? Assuming no minutes were taken, had the conversation occurred in a meeting rather than via e-mail, there would be no permanent record of the discussion. However, the career services staff members used unprofessional language and discussed subjective impressions, not factual information.

    What about the intern’s access to the e-mail? It is possible that interns may, at times, have access to confidential student information, regardless of the source, but student interns, just as counselors, must be trained in the proper use of this information and abide by office policies and guidelines.

    What is the director to do? The career services director should apologize to the student and offer to reassign him to another counselor, or, given the seriousness of the situation and his discomfort, offer to work with Bob personally. The director should speak with career services staff, individually and collectively, to document the situation and to explain why this type of communication is unacceptable. Then, the director should work with staff to formulate a policy and guidelines about the dissemination of confidential student information in the context of counseling sessions.

    Posted June 2017.