Ethical Issues and Standards in Group Counselling


The adoption and use of group counselling has been one of most viable ways of reaching out for counselling needs of the vast majority and also in a more effective way. Nevertheless, this modality has its own share of challenges which are directly related to ethical issues surrounding the process of counselling and how professionalism can be brought on board. In spite of the fact that group counselling is being encouraged as a viable tool of advancing group therapy, it is equally important to bear in mind client comfort and security in addition to that of the professional therapist offering the service. On the same note, the counselling profession itself should be safeguarded by initiating and implementing certain standards of ethics which can act as ground rules.

There are certain standard ethics which have been prescribed worldwide by different organisations to be used as basis for acceptable counselling practice. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) is very instrumental in instituting ethical standards which ought to be used in events such as group counselling.

There are two key areas associated with ethical matters in advancing group counselling. The first line of concern is on the rights and duties of each party of a given group while the second area deals with leadership of the group and how counselling duty should be conducted. This paper explores much of the ethical issues surrounding group counselling and care and the relevance of each group member in the process as well as the core responsibilities of a group leader.

Critical Look

According to Corey Williams, and Moline (1995), group therapies and the impact on individual group members has been given more attention of late due to the high level of success of such groups. The profession which deals with mental health seems to be benefiting a lot from well-established group therapies which of course are following certain ethical standards. This has however, not been the case from historical times when group counselling therapy was concerned to be less effective in tackling mental health challenges (Glass, 1998). Indeed, there are professional arguments which states that the same level of efficiency can still be achieved when conducting psychological therapy among groups just in the same way as individualised counselling (Markus & King, 2003). Group counselling is becoming more popular than before. Hence, there is dire need for mental health practitioners to institute basic rules and regulation. Although there are organisations which have the mandate to set ethical standards of operation in group therapy, such standards should be reinforced by individual mental healthcare professionals.

Even as we investigate the relevance of both the group head and the members, it is equally imperative to underscore the overwhelming challenges which such leaders might face during group therapies and hence it is incumbent for leaders to not only acquaint themselves to the set ethical standards, they should also be quite articulate and creative in their line of duty to enhance optimum success (Kottler, 1994). It should also be noted that group disagreements and other challenges are inevitable and should be naturally expected (Kraus, DeEsch, &

Geroski, 2001). Dilemmas which may be face by group leaders are quite often perceived as deterrents to smooth group therapy and can also act as one of the reasons for failure in group therapy.

The therapeutic ability of each group may never be the same, these groups should take note that they are capable of producing both a constructive or destructive effect to clients who are part and parcel of group members. Hence, there is need to specifically give definition of a group composition as well as the ethical standards through which such groups will be run. These are boundary rules which a given group should stick to.

Establishing Guiding Principles

The standards of ethics which have been established by some organisations like the American Psychological Association and the American Counselling Association were not initially meant and precisely directed to address the growing need of maintaining ethics while conducting group therapy (Roback, Moore, Bloch & Shelton, 1996). The main purpose of the guidelines which were incepted by these organisations was to enhance the suitability in training. For instance, ASGW has the mandate of ensuring that group counselling procedure are carried out using the best techniques recommended and which may not harm either the group leader or members. This organisation was also very keen on how individual group members would perform their various roles and duties with great competence and as a result, leaders were supposed to under special training on how to handle their group counselling sessions in the most competent manner. One important issue dwelt on when group leaders are being trained is on the issue of diversity of individual group members who may vary in a myriad of ways but at the same time, their needs should be met within a group setting. In so doing, it is also imperative to clearly elaborate what is meant by a group work because group counselling sessions basically entails com on activities which must be carries out within a group.

Group Work Activities

It is not possible to establish real standards of ethics without defining the composition of a group work. In any case, a group work would entail the working principles of a given team of counsellors. To be more precise, group work involves the ability of group members to integrate within a common pool, share ideas, articulate issues surrounding them both at a personal and group level and eventually finding workable solutions to them. Team spirit cannot be separated from group work.

According to Glass (1998), group work has its roots in the psychological therapy which requires the attention of more than one person or in other words several people coming together. Group work will capture a bigger population whose roles and responsibilities need some checks and balances in from of ethical standards. Since psychotherapy is being adopted in group work at a very high rate, there is also an increasing need to have some regulations in place. Some counselling groups may be therapeutic while others not at all (Glass, 1998). This variation again calls for the need to adopt various ethical standards of operation which can meet all manner of cases or incidences occurring within a group. At this point, it is important to note that the definition which is given to any counselling group will equally determine its standards of ethics. For example, the way a therapeutic group will be driven is not the same way as that other group which is not therapeutic at all.

In essence, there are four main types of groups depending on the nature and composition of the group. As mentioned earlier, there are those groups mandated with a particular task, hence they are task groups. On the other hand, we have groups which handle counselling whole others deal with psychological education. In addition, psychotherapy is another special group which can be constituted by a group leader. This wide array of groups with activities stemming from counselling matters should have well set standards and ethics to monitor their working.

The rights and duties of Group members

The rights of each group member in a counselling session is very crucial bearing in mind that there exists a multiple of groups which have different practices that must be respected at all costs. There is a higher probability that there is usually significant amount of ignorance on individual rights and duties among group members when they come part and parcel of certain counselling groups Corey et l., 1995). This has a direct correlation to the kind of ethics which will be practised in those groups. For example, how will a group member be bale to evaluate the performance of his or her group in terms of ethics if lack of awareness on individual rights and responsibilities prevails?

Screening and Assessment of Group members

As individuals join counselling groups, it is ethical for them to not only understand but also acknowledge the type of members they are going to team up with. They should be able to establish whether the other group members have the capacity to meet the psychotherapy needs. To be precise, a member joining a group should be able to screen the group and give a final evaluation if it will meet the desired needs. If this is not done, it is synonymous to breaking a very fundamental principle in group counselling. It is highly likely for a member to be disappointed within a short period of time if proper screening of a group was not done.

On the same note, members who are already in an established counselling group should also be ethically permitted to screen incoming members to ascertain if they really fit within the boundaries of the group or not. Indeed, screening of individuals or groups is meant to achieve two man goals. Firstly, an incoming member is capable of assessing whether the group will delver according to his or her expectations and secondly, the group members are capable of assessing if the prospective member is matching with the ideals of the group. This is an ethical issue which is quite often ignored by both counselling groups and individual members. Corey et al. (1995), observe that as part of the ethical issues surrounding group counselling, individual members have the responsibilities of inquiring the key aim of the group, the organisation of the group as well as the joining requirements of new members. Besides, the competences of a group leader should also be an issue of concern.

Another very crucial aspect in group counselling is the ability of the group members and the leader to maintain confidentiality. There are those groups which often have a short lifespan due t the fact that the ethical standards surrounding confidentiality were broken or missing altogether. In such instances, a member joining a group should be in a position to understand the rules surrounding confidentiality in that particular group and how such rules may be overlooked or broken for the sake of ethical standards or other important reasons. Since it is inevitable to avoid risks associated with group counselling, it is equally necessary to prepare incoming members on the possible risks and issues they may face while in the team.

This is indeed ethical owing to the fact that lack of preparedness is the key cause of alarm and disappointment among members in a group (Marino, 1994). When group members are discussing ethical issues, they should include some of the potential demerits of their group as well as the risks entailed in group deliberations. The discussion should not stop at this point. Rather, group members should work out modalities of reducing these potential and lethal risks. Moreover, is upon group leaders to discuss in detail with new members or those wishing to join the group on the strengths and weaknesses surrounding the group so that they can decide for themselves whether to join or not. For new members, this procedure will also serve as a platform for orientation to the group although key issues pertaining to the counselling group must be tackled at an earlier stage than this. In addition, the new member will eventually be able to establish whether he or she is compatible to the operations of the group. This is the best preventive measure which can be taken by any counselling group to deter incidences of malpractice in group counselling.

Members’ Participation

Group counsellors should be vigil on the ethical challenges which may arise when members are participating in discussion forums. Several hiccups abound when it comes to participation. For example, there are those members who may opt not to participate in particular discussions due to personal reasons. It is upon group leaders to act wisely when drawing the different categories of discussions for instance, voluntary and involuntary discussions. Should members be allowed to decide whether they are going to participate or not? On the other hand, there are members, who may at no specified time, opt to abandon the group. Should this be permitted? The other issue surrounding participation is on those activities which members are expected to play active roles during the group meetings.

As can be noted, these are very sensitive group issues which might put both group members and leadership at crossroads not knowing the next step to take. According to Glass (1998), counsellors often encounter the possibility of training group members who may be sitting within a group either voluntarily or involuntarily. If this is the case, then these therapists are often left with almost no choice when it comes to the training aspect in groups. The only way to handle this intrigue is for the group counsellors or therapists to seek the consent of these group members who are not willing to be part and parcel of the group and then conduct the process of training. The idea behind this is that counselling, whether at an individual or group level, should be free of any form of coercion. Involuntary members should then be persuaded and convinced as much as possible to remain in the group and be trained accordingly.

Further, it is also ethical for a group to understand that its main task is to assist individual members to get their own responses but not to compel them to do what the group deems fit. If a group becomes authoritative, it is more likely that members will develop a feeling of coercion by being compelled to share their most confidential details. This will not auger well and as a result, some group members may opt to leave the group thereby not achieving any benefit at all. A group should provide a comfortable environment for every member to air his or her feelings and should also restrain from groupthink scenario whereby members give faulty decisions to protect the image of the group(Roback, Moore, Bloch, & Shelton, 1996).


The ability to treat all information related to group members with high level of confidentiality is one very important parameter which accounts for ethics in group counselling. It is upon the responsibility of the group members together with the leadership to critically assess and evaluate some of the demerits of lack of confidentiality in group counselling sessions (Paradise & Kirby, 1990). If this is done properly, members will be able to seize the opportunity of treating information related to fellow members with utmost respect at all times. A therapist alone cannot be able to develop an aura of confidence to all members to confide to each other. However, it is a collective responsibility of each and every group member to maintain a confidential atmosphere in order to facilitate members’ trust towards each other (Springfield et al. 2001). This, nevertheless, does not spare the group counsellor from keeping client’s information as confidential as possible. He or she is not ethically allowed top expose client’s details without prior permission and consent from the concerned party.

The Duties of a leader

Most of the ethical concerns which engulfs a group often originate from a group leader. The manner in which a group leader conducts him or herself in running the affairs of the team determines how best the group goes through the counselling hurdles (Glass, 1998). Kraus et al. (2001) observed that challenges and disputes which may be encountered by a group is the main stumbling block of a group leader. The responsiveness of a group leader during such instances may either break or make the harmony within a group. A group leader should therefore stick to and follow certain ethical standards in order to avoid any chances of disenfranchising the group. There are those guidelines which have been stipulated by authenticated bodies like the American Psychological Association and ACA which group leaders can embrace in the course of counselling.

Standards of Training

The growing popularity of group therapy in the modern era indeed calls for proper training of group leaders who are bestowed with the task of moderating group counselling affairs. Such leaders should receive competent training with a bias on ethical standards required when handling group counselling. A competent and skilled group leader should among other qualities, be able to coordinate the activities of the group well, listen and respond promptly to member’s concerns, assist individual members realise meaningful experiences out of the group sessions as well as bring together and make use of what they have learnt (Kottler 1994).


In summing up this paper, it is crucial to note that group counselling process, if well utilised, can be a very viable tool in advancing individual growth and transformation. On the same note, it is possible to abuse this tool if ethical standards are not put in place. In this regard, standards of ethics when embracing group counselling will enhance not only the rights of members, but also the leadership of the group. Organisations such as ASGW and ACA have drawn ethical guidelines which can be used as measures when conducting group counselling. Challenges which erupt out of group counselling are indeed real sources of growth and are at the same time inevitable. It is the task of group leaders to take control of such challenges and turn them into beneficial ventures.


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