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  • Case Study: Confidentiality of Student Counseling

    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 e-mail 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. Principles 1, 3, 4, and 5 of the Principles for Ethical Professional Practice are used to address this scenario.

    This case study provides insight into:

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

    The Case

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

    “I am working with a 54-year-old Latina client who is attempting to identify career options. Her previous work history includes:

    • Writer (she writes about foods and restaurants; she is a gourmet cook);
    • Freelance proofreader/editor;
    • Mediation specialist for community disputes;
    • Customer service (she handles a customer service department in the private sector);
    • Public information specialist (she created brochures for government agencies);
    • Radio broadcasting, sales, and advertising.

    She has an undergraduate degree in communications and media (1981) and is completing her master’s in English. Her thesis and area of greatest interest currently is in 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 her explore her options:

    • She really wants to live in a rural area, preferably in the Northwest or New England.
    • She has developed a vision disability that is making any close work difficult for her. She is seeing specialists for this condition and is not losing her sight, but eyestrain causes her eyes to cross. As much as she really enjoys desktop publishing and proofing work, she has estimated that she could do this work only about 25 percent of the time.
    • She has developed a loss of range of motion in her right wrist making typing difficult. At home, she uses voice recognition software.

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


    • Is the level of detail in this listserv email 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, her gender and age, and that she has a disability. Additionally, the professional shared information about her race, graduation year, major, and her preferred location. The demographic data of the client are so narrowed that confidentiality and privacy are compromised. We assume that the professional did not get permission from the client to present her case to the listserv. However, even with the authorization from a client, the professional should remove any identifiable demographic information that would expose identity.

    Counselors should be reminded that information shared on listservs and other electronic media should be considered public information. 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 are ethical standards of practice that restrict the exposure of clients to others as potential ramifications can follow suit, thus exposing the professional, and the educational institution, to a variety of potential legal issues.

    Be mindful that when seeking assistance through listserv and other electronic media others can view the information provided and respond. It is also recommended with sensitive information to reach out to colleagues for assistance by phone versus email. Even if the information is provided by phone, however, it does not relieve the counselor of the confidentiality and privacy requirements. Even with a phone call, consent from the client should be obtained prior to disclosure.

    Principles That Apply:

    • Principle 1: Practice reasonable, responsible, and transparent behavior.
    • Principle 3: Ensure equitable access.
    • Principle 4: Comply with laws.
    • Principle 5: Protect confidentiality of all personal information related to candidates and their interviews, and their engagement with services, programs, and resources, and 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 the action runs counter to the Principles for Ethical Professional Practice, specifically Principle 5. The professional should be made aware of alternatives that should be followed to avoid this breach of client confidentiality:

    • Share with the client the article, “Playing Fair: Your Rights and Responsibilities as a Job Seeker,” which points out the client’s rights to confidentiality.
    • Only discuss and disclose facts about the client that are general in nature and do not make him or her identifiable, such as “female specially-abled looking for opportunity in the field of journalism.”
    • Fully disclose the post within the group membership to the client and its potential accessibility.
    • Offer to discuss the issue with a select group of colleagues, preferably over the phone, as opposed to a group where the membership is unknown. Again, avoid providing identifiable information.
    • If the client agrees to have information shared, whether on a group listserv or with a specific group of colleagues, be sure to indicate to the group that the client’s permission has been obtained. Further, such permission should be obtained in writing from the client.

    The client in this scenario should be informed about the breach of confidentiality and given a copy of “Playing Fair: Your Rights and Responsibilities as a Job Seeker.” She needs to be assured that this breach of confidentiality is being taken seriously and steps have been taken to prevent this from happening in the future. The counselor should consider posting the “Playing Fair” article in the career services office so that students are made aware of their rights.

    Reviewed and revised by the 2019 Principles for Ethical Professional Practice Committee. Posted September 2019.

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