Thinking of Ethics: There's a Rogue Elephant on the Loose!

Ed Etzel & Jack Watson 

At one time or another, many of us unfortunately run across members in the applied sport psychology community who engage in ethically questionable activities with evidently little concern for the ethical principles and the consequences of their actions. Truth be told, many of these rather free wheeling people do so, even though it would seem that they should have had sufficient ethical education and training or at least common sense to behave differently.

Somehow, an often visible minority of professionals and students tend to roam freely around the field, taking risks and engaging in independent behaviors that would likely be seen as at least questionable to the average AASP member. These folks may be likened to "rogue elephants"-- outliers who are inclined to "do their own thing", and not responding to feedback from others (e.g., colleagues, ethics boards, licensing bodies). Common instances of rogue activity are undertakings such as:

  1. professionals providing mental health services without a license;
  2. graduate students marketing their services and practicing without supervision;
  3. misrepresenting one\'s credentials and skills;
  4. going beyond the limits of one\'s competencies;
  5. entering into harmful or potentially harmful dual relationships (e.g., dating clients or recent ex-clients or students, entering into business relationships, accepting inappropriate gifts from clients);
  6. not responding to feedback or complaints from others such as peers or clients;
  7. practicing when one is "impaired";
  8. utilizing new and unproven interventions or practices; and/or
  9. openly slamming others in the media or on the Internet.

It seems that many such elephants just don\'t get it. Could this be a new DSM-V code entitled "Those who just don\'t get it"?

The central dilemma facing each of us is what to do, if anything, as an ethical member of AASP when you become aware of the suspect actions of an apparently unethical beast on the loose? All too often, the response to these predicaments, especially minor or "gray" ethical problems, (e.g., a slip of confidential information in a meeting or encounter, a third party inaccurately portraying our degree or credentials in the media), is that we tend to turn a blind eye on such situations and do nothing. It is certainly easier to do this because it is often not at all fun to confront others. This is particularly difficult if you are a student member and you are concerned about the behavior of a professional. Although it is quite an uncomfortable, stressful and time consuming task to confront an elephant, we are compelled to do so. (It has been our experience that confronted elephants react quite defensively!) Nevertheless, if we do not take our responsibility to respond to apparent ethical violations seriously, our code is essentially worthless; there is no substance behind the document. Frankly speaking, some members believe this to be true. However, the AASP ethics committee will listen to all complaints brought to the group, provide consultation, and typically encourage member action first and foremost.

Passivity enables rogues to continue to roam the field and take advantage of clients, students and others. Not only does this hurt you as a local academic or practitioner in direct contact with the rogue beast, but in all probability it is also negatively impacting our field as a whole. Passivity cultivates an undesirable bad impression of applied sport psychology to our customers and trainees. When we accept membership in AASP or other allied professional organizations, we assume responsibility to monitor our own behavior and the behavior or our peers. It is very important for us to monitor our own profession as much as possible, as it is also possible that clients and "customers" do not even know that rogue behavior is inappropriate or unethical.

Where do the roots of this problem lie? Is it in the hands of the programs that train the students or in the faculty members who did or were supposed to supervise these offending individuals? We must focus our attention away from blaming others, and towards dealing with the problem at hand and to confronting those individuals with the problematic behaviors. If this rogue elephant is a student, it may be a wise decision to discuss the issue with his/her program or supervisor. If not a student, your confrontation of the person(s) should involve a brief description of the ethical principles, standards or laws that they may be taking too loosely. Again, be as prepared as you can for them to be defensive about being confronted with these issues. (After all, everyone thinks s/he is a good driver, right?) Do not stoop to their level, but instead, be prepared for such a reaction. Remain as calm and cool as you can when handling their reactions. Listen to what they have to say about their actions, and continue to counter with your knowledge of the standards and the potential negative effects that the person may be having upon the profession. If an agreement about the behavior cannot be reached, this may be the time to ask for outside assistance from the Ethics Committee or other members of the field.

The "take home" message of this commentary is that all positive as well as negative professional behaviors of the sport psychology community likely affect you and our client base. Clearly, there will probably always be rogues on the loose just like there will always be charlatans in other fields. However, each of us has to do our part to shape the view of our clients so that they can be confident in the fact that the vast majority of applied sport psychology professionals are honest and that their services can be useful to them. For this reason, we must attempt to provide effective supervision to our students, monitor ourselves and our fellow professionals, and be willing to take action when a situations calls for it. Take some comfort in the fact that you are acting as an ethical, model practitioner should, when you hear trumpeting or see the tips of tusks emerge from the jungle.

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