At least once a month, I receive a telephone call from a Florida psychologist who tells me that he or she knows that a colleague -- or a practitioner of a different profession -- is guilty of committing an ethical violation. The psychologist then typically asks if I agree with their appraisal of the situation and expresses frustration regarding the problem. Finally, they ask what they should do, often expecting that the Florida Psychological Associaton (FPA) will handle the problem. They often express surprise when I remind them that, according to our Ethical Principles, their first responsibility is to have a little talk with the alleged offender.
The American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (2002) suggests that our first obligation in these situations is to first seek an “informal” solution through professional consultation. Specifically, Principle 1.04 states:
When psychologists believe that there may have been an ethical violation by another psychologist, they attempt to resolve the issue by bringing it to the attention of that individual, if an informal resolution appears appropriate and the intervention does not violate any confidentiality rights that may be involved. (See also Standards 1.02, Conflicts Between Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority, and 1.03, Conflicts Between Ethics and Organizational Demands.)
But what happens if the offender isn’t willing to change or just pretends to seriously address the problem? Or what happens if they insist the problem doesn’t exist? I then explain that it may be necessary for them to report the matter to the appropriate professional board. At that point, we consider Principle 1.05. If the alleged offender is a psychologist, then the problem would be reported to the Florida Board of Psychology at 850- 488-0595, or referred to the APA Ethics Committee. If, however, the practitioner is a member of a different profession, then the appropriate professional board must be contacted. However, one must always remember that the ethical standards of the individual’s profession are those that apply, not those of the American Psychological Association. Psychology’s ethical standards only apply to psychologists. Of course, if the individual isn’t a member of any recognized profession, ethical considerations are unenforceable and little can be done as long as the person is functioning within the law.
If an apparent ethical violation has substantially harmed or is likely to substantially harm a person or organization and is not appropriate for informal resolution under Standard 1.04, Informal Resolution of Ethical Violations, or is not resolved properly in that fashion, psychologists take further action appropriate to the situation. Such action might include referral to state or national committees on professional ethics, to state licensing boards, or to the appropriate institutional authorities. This standard does not apply when an intervention would violate confidentiality rights or when psychologists have been retained to review the work of another psychologist whose professional conduct is in question. (See also Standard 1.02, Conflicts Between Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority.)
For a variety of reasons, psychologists are often unwilling to confront these problems in either way outlined above. For example, sometimes psychologists are afraid of insulting the other professional or sometimes they fear some form of retribution. However, we must all have a little courage and remember that it part of our own ethical duty to address these matters in a productive, professional, and effective manner. We’re all in this together and we’re all trying to serve humanity well. Don't be afraid to make a constructive intervention; we can all do better!