Monday, 12 July 2021

Welfel's model for ethical decision-making

It is always useful in career practice to have models to use as lenses to review our decisions. I have written about ethics models before (here), but would like to discuss another in this post. This time we consider Welfel's model of ethical decision-making (2015). 

Welfel introduces the model by saying: that the model "incorporates intellectual, emotional, sociocultural, and consultative aspects of ethical choices" (2015, p. 27). He continues by pointing out utility: that the framework is the "most useful when ethical questions arise, but it also has substantial value in identifying the broader ethical issues inherent in the context in which one works", and "A model of decision making can and should be proactive and has its best use as a preventive [training measure to rehearse likely] problems" (Welfel, 2015, p. 27).

Acting instinctively may not benefit us: like emergency services personnel practice ahead of crises, this model is best used as a training tool before we encounter problems. However, we can also use it as a structure for post-session reflection about our own response to an ethical situation, to improve our performance next time we encounter an ethical dilemma of similar proportions. While we will need to carefully consider multi-dimensional problems using every step in this model, simpler problems may require only a few of these steps. While we will need to carefully consider multi-dimensional problems using every step in this model, simpler problems may require only a few of these steps. Each step is as follows:

  1. Develop ethical sensitivity, integrating personal and professional values. Have thought about your own ethical practice standpoint: know your own ethical identity. Understand and have reflected on the practice philosophy and standards of your professional organisation, your workplace, and your ethical fit with those organisations (Welfel, 2015).
  2. Clarify facts, stakeholders, and the sociocultural context of the case. Is the relevant information about the situation available? Gather as much information from the client and relevant stakeholders without compromising client confidentiality (Welfel, 2015). 
  3. Define the central issues and the available options. List all the underlying ethical issues, or to broadly classify type of ethical problem, including determining the role that context has played. Consider assumptions arising from roles, values, culture, social privilege, social construction and power. Brainstorm possible courses of action openly: as many as you can think of without evaluating the viability of options (Welfel, 2015). 
  4. Refer to professional standards, guidelines, and relevant laws/regulations. Re-read the practice philosophy and standards of your professional organisation (such as the CDANZ Code of Ethics). Consider any legal issues (such as the Privacy Act). Consider how they help clarify the issue at hand. Normally, whatever we decide to do, we need to keep our client at the centre of our practice, let them know what we are planning to do, and seek their permission to act (if possible) (Welfel, 2015).
  5. Search out ethics scholarship. Other professionals may well have encountered the same type of issue, so consulting the body of scholarly literature can be very enlightening. As Welfel notes, this "has the added benefit of removing the emotional isolation involved in making a tough ethical decision" (2015, p. 40). (Welfel, 2015). 
  6. Apply ethical principles to the situation. Apply the professional/legal standards to the issue at hand, while: (a) having respect for the client's autonomy; (b) attempting do no harm (nonmaleficence); (c) remembering our responsibility to do 'good' (beneficence); (d) remembering our responsibility to act fairly (justice); and (e) placing our client's interests above our own BUT balancing that with our duty of truthfulness and to our profession (fidelity) (Welfel, 2015). 
  7. Consult with our professional supervisor and respected colleagues. Talk to our supervisor about ethical issues: before we take action (if time), or in reflecting on what happened afterwards. This is particularly important when considering what can be conflicting issues of fidelity (see step 6). Questions to address include: what facts are most important; what has not been considered; what is being misunderstood; is the analysis consistent with professional standards; are there other solutions (Welfel, 2015). 
  8. Deliberate and decide. Having identified the potential conflicts between our personal and professional values, we now need to decide on an appropriate course of action while keeping our client at the centre of our practice. We can remain committed to ethical, professional practice, while being courageous and doing 'the right thing' (Welfel, 2015). 
  9. Inform supervisor, implement and document decision-making process and actions. Making the decision on the 'right' action to take is usually the hardest part. Then we need to tell our professional supervisor about the decision. If there is client risk, and the client is a minor, vulnerable or is seeing other professionals, there may also be a need to break client confidentiality (Welfel, 2015). 
  10. Reflect on the experience. There is little learning without reflection. This is where we stop to consider what worked; what did not work and can be improved; what was missing; and what surprised us. We can consider what tools we may need in future to ensure that similar dilemmas can be appropriately navigated (Welfel, 2015). 
Following is Welfel's diagram of the model (2015, p. 31).

I hope you find this useful!

  • Reference: Welfel, E. R. (2015). Ethics in counseling and psychotherapy: Standards, research, and emerging issues (6th ed.). Cengage Learning.

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