Take Action: Call Out Troubling Behavior

Benjamin E. Caldwell, PsyD

If you were aware of a colleague who had a substance abuse problem, would you say anything to them? What if you had a colleague who was sleeping with a client?

Most of us, thankfully, are aware of our professional obligations in such an instance. We also are reluctant to live up to those obligations. In a study of psychology students that presented situations similar to the ones described above, most of the participants said they knew what they should do. And they said that what they actually would do is far less. They chose protecting their colleague over protecting the clients seen by the colleague, allowing unethical and even dangerous behavior to continue. (Lest you think this was something that students would have taught out of them, in a follow-up study, practicing psychologists also often said they would do less than they knew they should to intervene.)

That impulse is understandable. We want to protect our friends and colleagues from negative consequences. We minimize the impact of colleagues’ bad actions to justify avoiding a confrontation and possible conflict. We don’t want to believe that someone we know could be doing harm to the profession as a whole.

Often, though, these are just rationalizations, and ones that only wind up furthering the harm done to all of us when one of us acts unprofessionally. Our entire skill set is supposed to be focused on gently and kindly holding up a mirror to people whose actions aren’t getting them the kind of life they want for themselves and their loved ones. While the relationship is of course not the same, we should address ineffective and troubling behaviors among colleagues just as readily as we would problematic behaviors among clients. We owe it to our colleagues – and their clients, and the profession we all share – to gently confront troubling behavior from the first time we see it.

There are lots of good ways to do so that are helpful without being combative or accusatory. Approaching a colleague from a place of concern is usually far better than approaching from a place of contempt. A simple “I think that [situation] didn’t go the way you probably wanted, and I’m worried. Can I help?” may be all it takes. It’s also consistent with our ethical obligations, as standard 5.2 in the CAMFT Code of Ethics encourages us to “assist colleagues who are impaired due to substance abuse, emotional problems, or mental illness.” Even with problematic behavior that can’t reasonably be ascribed to those causes, the opening of standard 5 instructs us to communicate with colleagues “to promote the welfare and best interests of patients” – interests that are surely served when one colleague, gently, kindly, and privately, raises concern about another’s potentially harmful actions.

We’re all in this together. Thanks for all you do.

Benjamin E. Caldwell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (#42723) in Los Angeles. He is the author of Saving Psychotherapy and Basics of California Law for LMFTs, LPCCs, and LCSWs.