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  • Case Study: Discussing Students by Email

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

    TAGS: case study, ethics, principles

    Summary

    The following case study discusses ethical considerations when career services professionals seek opinions and feedback of other career services staff on challenging student situations. The Principles for Ethical Professional Practice are used to address this scenario, incorporating Principles 2, 4, and 5. This case study provides insight on the following:

    • Student/counselor confidentiality and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
    • When/how it is appropriate for counselors to ask for feedback from other career services professionals.
    • Managing staff, including professional and student staff members.

    The Case

    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 email.

    Several of the counselors have been emailing 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 emailing 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 emails 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 emails 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 emails among the counselors pertaining to her.

    Questions:

    • What are the ethical/legal issues that this scenario raises?
    • Are diverse perspectives and identities valued in the office or among the staff?
    • 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 email?
    • 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 email, and more of the discussions are being conducted by email. One of the counselors, Jill, has been emailing two other counselors, Joe and Joyce, about Bob, a student with whom she has been working. Some of this email communication contains derogatory comments about Bob. A student intern, Pam, sees these derogatory emails and informs Bob. Both Pam and Bob are upset. Pam demands to see all of the email 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’ email 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. The comments further expose the office to potential liability for discrimination if they were based upon Bob’s race or gender.

    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. In addition, expressions such as “pimp-like” and “as if he were high on drugs” as well as alluding to the student’s “partying all night with low-life friends” as a factor that compromised Bob’s abilities are judgmental statements and speculative in nature. According to the NACE Statement of Diversity and Inclusion, inclusion is a core value. Accordingly, “as NACE members and organizations engage in the career development and/or recruitment of the new work force, members and organizations should show sensitivity for individual and cultural differences.”

    Principle 4 is also called into question as the student intern’s access to student information may violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law that restricts access to student records in order to protect students’ privacy. FERPA’s protections may extend to notes or comments about a student. As such, the comments made by the counselors may be protected by FERPA and therefore the disclosure of the information would be contrary to the requirements of the law. 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.”

    Principles That Apply:

    • Principle 2: Act without bias when advising, servicing, interviewing, or making employment decisions.
    • Principle 4: 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.
    • Principle 5: Protect confidentiality of all personal information related to candidates and their interviews, and their engagement with services, programs, and resources; protect confidentiality of student information related to professional plans.

    Options for Resolution: Several questions need to be addressed. They include:

    • Are diverse perspectives and identities valued in the office or among the staff?

    No. In this case, assumptions were made regarding Bob based upon his dress and demeanor. According to the NACE Statement of Diversity and Inclusion, in creating a supportive learning environment for all students, it is critical to “foster open communication of diverse perspectives and show sensitivity for individual differences.” Thus, it is imperative to value Bob’s unique experiences. Facts and information should be used to discuss the student. As such, it would have been acceptable to describe Bob’s unique appearance and behaviors in the email instead of labeling them. Descriptors would allow for those receiving the information to identify changes in Bob’s appearance and behaviors that are outside of his norm. Accordingly, Jill, Joe, and Joyce can use this information to validate their concerns about Bob. If necessary, counselors could present their concerns to the director for additional consideration and feedback. The counselors comments could be viewed as discriminatory, based on Bob’s race, gender, or other protected classification.

    • Does “counselor confidentiality” have any significance in this scenario?

    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?

    No. While there may not be documented evidence of the comments had the conversation occurred in a meeting instead of in email, and assuming no minutes were taken, there were still witnesses to the inappropriate comments and discussion. Accordingly, the potential liability is not negated merely because the words are not documented.

    • What about the intern’s access to the email?

    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 and must be provided with information related to FERPA.

    • 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.

    In addition, the director should speak with career services staff, individually and collectively, to document the situation, explain why this type of communication is unacceptable, and provide discipline if necessary. Then, the director should require the staff to complete professional development/training specifically designed to counter microaggressions and bias for the purpose of creating a more inclusive, respectful, and productive counseling/coaching and workplace environment.

    The director should also work with staff to formulate a policy and guidelines about the dissemination of confidential student information in the context of counseling sessions.

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

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