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Examining Supervisor Impairment From the Counselor Trainee's Perspective.

Although there is a growing body of literature on counselor impairment, the topic of supervisor impairment has surprisingly been overlooked. The author explores the implications of working with an impaired supervisor at various levels of counselor development and discusses some of the critical factors that may influence how a supervisee decides to handle this problem. In addition to discussing the misuse of power by the impaired supervisor, other factors (e.g., the nature and severity of the supervisor's impairment) are also discussed. The author presents an ethical decision-making model that can be used to guide the counselor trainee through the arduous process of determining a viable course of action.

As salient as the body of research on impairment is, it has glossed over supervisor impairment, an issue of paramount importance. Although empirical and conceptual articles on counselor impairment are plentiful, there is a paucity of research on supervisor impairment and the complex set of issues surrounding this delicate topic. The limited literature that is available (Gottlieb, 1990; Kilburg, Nathan, & Thoreson, 1986; Lamb, 1999; Thoreson, Shaughnessy, & Frazier, 1995; Thoreson, Shaughnessy, Heppner, & Cook, 1993) seems to be embedded in the context of a broader discussion on counselor or psychologist impairment and, in most cases (with the exception of Kilburg et al., 1986), only briefly touches on this problem. On a related note, it seems that few authors have directly tackled the issue of ineffective supervision (Magnuson, Wilcoxon, & Norem, 2000; Watkins, 1997). Because the supervisor impairment literature is in its infancy, it seems necessary to reflect on some basic questions to establish a rudimentary framework for this discussion. Primarily, considering the power differential that invariably exists between supervisor and counselor trainee and the gatekeeping function that is an integral part of the supervisory role, what are the implications of working with an impaired supervisor? What risks accompany a trainee's decision to confront the issue directly? Conversely, what are the potential costs of remaining under the supervision of an impaired professional? Moreover, does the nature or severity of the supervisor's impairment have any bearing on the manner in which the trainee should address his or her predicament?

The purpose of this article is to explore the issues with which counselor trainees are likely to contend when their supervisors are impaired. The implications of the impaired supervisor's misuse of power and the nature and severity of the impairment are addressed. Ideas borrowed from the developmental model proposed by Stoltenberg, McNeill, and Delworth (1998) have demonstrated how counselor trainees at various levels of professional development may be adversely affected by their supervisors' impairment. The article concludes with the presentation of an ethical decision-making model that can help counselor trainees navigate through the process of finding workable solutions.

Before addressing any of the aforementioned issues, it seems critical to elucidate fundamental differences between the supervisory relationship and the counseling relationship. After all, if the process of counseling were indistinguishable from the process of supervision, researchers and helping professionals who are interested in supervisor impairment would simply need to extrapolate from the counselor or psychologist impairment literature. Although counseling and supervision are considered by some helping professionals to be parallel processes, many have discerned differences between them and generally regard them as separate processes. As Stoltenberg et al. (1998) noted, "our experience tells us that [counselors] in supervision are confronted with considerably different issues from those typically faced by clients in [counseling]" (p. ix). For example, although clients and trainees are in positions to receive support and encouragement, clients' disclosures are not subjected to the same kind of scrutiny that trainees' disclosures are. One must not forget that the supervisor is in an evaluative position and is expected to assess whether counselor trainees have acquired the necessary skills and competencies to advance in their programs of study. In contrast to counselors who do not function in this capacity, supervisors are ethically bound to function as gatekeepers and are authorized to make judgments that could potentially "make or break" a trainee's career. Aside from having different roles, supervisors and counselors also use different techniques and interventions that stem from the formulation of different goals (Stoltenberg et al., 1998).

The Nature and Severity of Supervisor Impairment: Critical Factors to Consider

Although a great deal of focus has been placed on sexual misconduct (Emerson & Markos, 1996; Kilburg et al., 1986; Smith & Fitzpatrick, 1995; Thoreson et al., 1995; Thoreson et al., 1993), other manifestations of impairment (e.g., burnout, substance abuse, emotional or mental disorders) have also received attention in the counseling and psychology literature (Farber, 1990; Kilburg et al., 1986). These articles indicate that impaired professionals come in all shapes and sizes and manifest their signs of impairment in a variety of ways. Although my purpose in writing this article was not to provide the reader with a detailed description of every manifestation of impairment, I want to emphasize how important it is for the counselor trainee to assess the nature and severity of the supervisor's impairment before proceeding with any course of action. Some forms of impairment are more or less complex than others and need to be addressed accordingly. For example, supervisors who sexually exploit their trainees must be treated differently than supervisors who behave irritably because they have repeatedly worked long hours. In contrast to the sexually inappropriate supervisor, who may need to receive intensive therapy for an underlying personality disorder (Kilburg et al., 1986), the burned-out counselor may benefit from taking a vacation or altering his or her schedule to include more opportunities for leisure and relaxation.

There are many unprofessional behaviors and attitudes that may not be captured by labels such as "burnout" or "sexual misconduct"; these behaviors and attitudes also prevent clinical supervisors from working effectively with their trainees. In describing his supervisory complexity model, Watkins (1997)

identified the following ineffective supervisor qualities: intolerance; a lack of empathy; and discouragement, defensiveness, and a lack of interest in receiving consultation or training to enhance supervisory functioning. More recently, Magnuson et al. (2000) identified six overarching principles that represent the most prominent and repetitive "lousy supervisor behaviors." They are (a) unbalanced supervision, in which some elements of supervision are overemphasized to the exclusion of others; (b) developmentally inappropriate supervision, in which the supervisor is not responsive to the developmental needs of the trainee; (c) intolerance of differences, in which the supervisor demonstrates inflexibility in his or her role; (d) poor supervisory modeling and mentoring, in which unethical behaviors may be exhibited; (e) lack of supervisory training; and (f) apathy, or a lack of commitment to the counseling profession, to clients, and to the trainee. According to Magnuson et al. (2000), lousy supervisors may demonstrate their incompetence in three general spheres of the supervisory relationship: organizational/administrative, technical/cognitive, or the relational/affective aspects of their role. Thus, although a supervisor may be impaired in his or her role because of actions and attitudes that have their origins in psychopathology (e.g., personality disorders, substance abuse), he or she may be considered lousy for other reasons.

The preceding discussion may give the reader the impression that the term supervisor impairment is so broad that it encompasses virtually any behaviors or attitudes that result in ineffective supervision. I must clarify this because it is unfair to consider a supervisor impaired simply because he or she lacked experience or supervisory training. If this were true, every supervisor could be regarded as impaired early in his or her career. This notion intuitively seems wrong. The question remains, "What constitutes supervisor impairment?" Although recent literature (Magnuson et al., 2000; Watkins, 1997) has offered suggestions about what constitutes ineffective or lousy supervision, a distinction must be made between supervisory behaviors that fall within the boundary of impairment and those that fail to meet the criteria for impairment. Several authors have provided useful definitions of counselor, psychologist, or professional impairment (e.g., Bernard & Goodyear, 1998; Kilburg et al., 1986); however, these definitions are not tailored to the supervisory role or functions. A key aspect of my definition is that impairment involves the inability to perform the functions of one's supervisory role because of interference by something in one's behavior or environment. The supervisory functions, which are described by the Association for Counseling Education and Supervision in their Ethical Guidelines for Clinical Supervisors (Bernard & Goodyear, 1998) include (a) monitoring client welfare; (b) encouraging compliance with relevant legal, ethical, and professional standards for clinical practice; (c) monitoring clinical performance and professional development of supervisees; and (d) evaluating and certifying current performance and potential of supervisees for academic, screening, selection, placement, employment, and credentialing purposes (p. 306).

The last component of the definition is that the impairment results in "`diminished functioning' from a previous higher level" (Lamb, 1999, p. 702). Although some may argue that it is conceivable that a supervisor has always manifested signs of impairment in the context of the supervisory role, it is plausible that such an individual could be more appropriately classified as incompetent. Moreover, it seems highly improbable that an individual who exhibited obvious signs of impairment would be granted the authority to function in the supervisory role. It seems more reasonable to conclude that an Impaired supervisor maintained some semblance of professional demeanor and appropriate functioning in the supervisory role before exhibiting a diminished capacity to perform the role.

In addition to pinpointing the precise nature of the Impairment, the severity of the impairment must also be considered when determining a proper course of action. For example, at certain points in their careers, supervisors are likely to experience moments of emotional and physical depletion, Irritability, and feelings of disillusionment. To identify these transient feelings as symptoms of burnout would be to dilute the meaning of the term, especially for individuals who are experiencing the full-blown burnout syndrome, in which there is a constellation of symptoms that seems unrelenting (Farber, 1990). A supervisor who is sometimes irritable would certainly have a different impact on trainees than a supervisor who is plagued with multiple symptoms. It is imperative to assess each situation on an individual basis before reaching any conclusions about how to address the problem. To reiterate, depending on the nature and severity of the supervisor's impairment, a different treatment strategy might be indicated. Supervisors experiencing chemical dependency and alcoholism might benefit from participating in a formal treatment program as well as other forms of counseling. Supervisors who are experiencing depression may benefit from a combination of psychiatric and counseling services. Sexual predators who have supervisory positions may or may not benefit from long-term rehabilitation. In extreme cases, legal sanctions may be necessary if victimized supervisees are willing to come forward with their painful disclosures. In contrast to impaired supervisors, ineffective supervisors whose incompetence is directly linked to poor preparation may be able to improve their skills markedly by receiving proper supervisory training or by working with a consultant.

The Misuse of Power: A By-Product of Impairment

Although certain theoretical orientations emphasize the power differential between supervisor and trainee more than others (e.g., the psychoanalytic vs. the client-centered approach), few would argue that in practice a power differential exists, regardless of theoretical orientation. As I suggested previously, the role of the supervisor is inherently powerful because it has an evaluative component. Thus, a potential hazard of working with an impaired "gatekeeper" may be the exploitation of the trainee that stems from the misuse (e.g., requesting that the trainee run personal errands) or in extreme instances, the blatant abuse (e.g., sexual exploitation of the trainee) of the supervisor's power. As Herlihy (1996) pointed out, "few situations are more distressing for professional counselors than to know or suspect that a colleague is practicing while being impaired" (p. 118). If it is distressing when the case involves a colleague who presumably holds a position of equal power, then it makes intuitive sense that it would be all the more distressing to work with an impaired supervisor who, by virtue of his or her role, has the preponderance of power in the relationship. In accordance with the views of U. Delworth (personal communication, October 12, 1999), who has written extensively on the topic of supervision, the implications of the misuse of power may be considerably worse for trainees than for clients because clients always have the option to terminate therapy. Trainees may, however, be trapped if they want to advance in their careers.

In suggesting this, I do not want to imply that clients in this position have an easy task ahead of them if they decide to leave an impaired counselor. Several factors, including dependency and low self-esteem, can make this difficult task virtually impossible for some clients. Nonetheless, although such clients are certainly not in an enviable position, it can be argued that trainees who work under the guidance of impaired supervisors have fewer options than the client who has an impaired counselor. Even the most assertive counselor trainees must proceed with caution in dealing with impaired supervisors because of the potential consequences that may be more severe because of the supervisor's misuse of power.

It is possible that trainees will encounter no negative repercussions for transferring to new supervisors. It is also possible that trainees could enter a political "mine field" if they choose to directly confront this problem by changing supervisors. Another consideration is that, in some cases, changing supervisors is not a viable option. For example, in rural areas where resources tend to be relatively sparse, some settings may employ only one clinical supervisor. This could also be the case in a university setting.

Implications of Working With an Impaired Supervisor: A Developmental Perspective

In recent years, there has been burgeoning interest in developmental models of counseling and clinical supervision. The Integrated Developmental Model (IDM) created by Stoltenberg et al. (1998) is a widely used model of supervision "that has had a major impact on the field of clinical supervision and remains one of the most important resources for practitioners" (p. x). As a critical component of their model, these authors have painstakingly delineated levels of counselor development. Given its widespread appeal, it seems appropriate to use this model as a basis for discussing the issues or themes that might emerge at various stages of counselor development when the trainee has been matched with an impaired supervisor.

According to Stoltenberg et al. (1998), Level 1 counselors tend to be highly motivated, extremely anxious, and dependent on the supervisor for guidance and structure. Because they lack experience as counselors, they are typically highly self-focused and are inclined to have limited self-awareness. In fact, as they are in their professional infancy moving toward toddlerhood, beginning counselors are not expected to have a sophisticated awareness of their strengths and weaknesses (Stoltenberg et al., 1998). Thus, Level 1 counselors have "a strong desire to emulate experienced [counselors], often the supervisor, as a means of developing skill and confidence and moving beyond the anxious neophyte role" (Stoltenberg et al., 1998, p. 27). Given this premise, one can imagine how vulnerable the Level 1 counselor is when matched with an impaired supervisor.

Although some neophyte counselors may be more unsuspecting than others of the misguided behaviors of their supervisors, in whom they have imbued a tremendous amount of power and authority, all counselors at this phase of development are at risk of being harmed (to varying degrees). Even Level 1 trainees who are confident in their perceptions that their supervisors are acting in an inappropriate and ethically questionable fashion are likely to be adversely affected by such a supervisory relationship.

At the very least, these previously optimistic and highly motivated counselors may develop a cynical view of the profession, which may detract from their effectiveness as helping professionals. Their disenchantment with their supervisory experience may conceivably be manifested in a variety of ways, including low morale and an increasingly pessimistic view of "counseling"; symptoms of their own distress (e.g., depression, anxiety); or the decision to reevaluate their educational and career plans and leave the helping professions altogether. Although individuals at this level may be well-versed in ethical standards and principles, the inappropriate modeling of their supervisors may obfuscate their own ethical boundaries.

In contrast to the Level 1 counselor who is highly motivated, the motivation of the Level 2 counselor, who has enough counseling experience to recognize the complexity of the process, tends to fluctuate (Stoltenberg et al., 1998). Even under optimal supervisory conditions, with shaken confidence, the Level 2 counselor may experience transient feelings of despair and confusion. At this phase in the counselor's development, the autonomy-dependency conflict is likely to be heightened as the Level 2 counselor attempts to function independently (Stoltenberg et al., 1998). Of course, analogous to an adolescent who is struggling to establish a personal identity, the Level 2 counselor who wants to establish a professional identity vacillates between functioning independently and regressing toward the dependency of Level 1. The trainee's capacity for empathy seems much more apparent in this phase as self-preoccupation and performance anxiety, which are characteristic of Level l, are replaced by a more intensive focus on client dynamics. Stoltenberg et al. (1998) noted that Level 2 counselors "may be most susceptible to overt or covert client manipulations due to their tendency to overaccomodate to the client's perspective" (p. 79) resulting in what appears to be enmeshed behavior.

With this description of the Level 2 counselor in mind, a salient issue surfaces regarding supervisor impairment. Considering that this phase of counselor development can potentially be very difficult for both the supervisor and trainee because of the trainee's confusion and resistant demeanor, it would behoove the Level 2 counselor to reflect on the following question: "To what extent is my developmental level as a counselor trainee coloring my perception that my supervisor is impaired?" In other words, Level 2 counselors, who may be scrutinizing their supervisors through a resistant and somewhat distorted lens, must ultimately assess how accurate their perceptions are. Although it is possible that Level 2 counselors' perceptions are correct, it is also possible that some supervisees may be unrelentingly critical of their supervisors because of several factors (e.g., phase of counselor development, personality characteristics). This caveat seems necessary: Although counselors at all levels of development must reflect on this issue, counselors at Level 2 must be especially aware of their own agendas because their push for autonomy and independence may compel them to take an adversarial stance in their supervisory relationship.

In instances in which the Level 2 counselor has accurately assessed a supervisor to be impaired, feelings of despair and confusion and the instability of the phase might be exacerbated. One devastating consequence of working under the guidance of an impaired supervisor at this level may be the "squashing" or suppression of the supervisee's blossoming independence.

In addition to the aforementioned levels, Stoltenberg et al. (1998) have postulated a Level 3 as well as a Level 3i (Integrated) in the context of the IDM. Because the major distinction between these two levels is that Level 3i involves the integration of skills mastered in Level 3, my discussion will focus on Level 3 only. As they transition from the potentially turbulent Level 2, trainees at Level 3 seem to be stable in their motivation and are no longer paralyzed by their doubts. As their professional identities take shape, Level 3 counselors are comfortable with their autonomy and have an accurate sense of their strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, whereas they previously had a limited awareness, these advanced counselors are now able to focus on the client, the process, and their own personal reactions simultaneously (Stoltenberg et al., 1998).

One can speculate that the more advanced counselor trainees are the less likely they are to be scathed by their supervisors' impairments. Of course, this is not a blanket assumption. Even the most seasoned counselors could be harmed by the inappropriate behavior of their supervisors, depending on the nature and the severity of the transgressions. In general, however, it seems plausible that as trainees' skills become more advanced and they develop more collegial relationships with their supervisors, the power differential will become narrower, and fewer instances of such abuse will be observed. Counselor trainees who have begun to solidify their professional identities and integrate their skills may be better equipped than neophyte counselors to buffer themselves from the harmful effects of the supervisors' impairments. It is probable that advanced trainees have had prior experiences with other supervisors; thus, this frame of reference might help Level 3 counselors sift through their reactions to their supervisors' impairments in a more expedient fashion. Whereas novice counselors may second-guess their initial impressions about their impaired supervisors and minimize their own feelings due to their lack of experience, Level 3 counselors are in a much different position.

When faced with such a predicament, these individuals may immediately recall past supervisory relationships that seemed healthier and more productive. Reminiscing about these past training experiences may help counselor trainees to identify, in concrete and measurable ways, what is "wrong" with their current supervisory relationships. Of course, if trainees recognize that their pattern has been to perceive all supervisors as impaired, it seems imperative for them to engage in further self-examination to determine whether their assessments are fair and accurate. I do not expect that Level 3 counselors would function in this manner very often--advanced counselor trainees tend to be highly self-aware and would have recognized such blind spots earlier in their development.

As discussed previously, the nature and severity of the supervisor's impairment will surely have an impact on the manner in which trainees at all levels of development internalize their interactions with and respond to that supervisor. For example, a severely burned-out supervisor who expresses little regard for client welfare and whose disillusionment in the profession of counseling prompts him or her to lash out at trainees in a caustic manner may elicit different reactions from Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 counselors. More advanced trainees may be able to readily identify the supervisor's behavior as symptoms of burnout and may be professionally mature enough to maintain solid boundaries and filter out the supervisor's negative influence. On the other hand, Level 1 counselors, who have had little or no prior supervised experience, may perceive the supervisor's hostile and biting remarks as an indication that they are hopelessly incompetent. This perception, in addition to their high level of anxiety (which typifies novice counselors) may leave them feeling defeated and may cause them to abandon their dreams of becoming counselors. In reaction to the severely burned-out supervisor, Level 2 counselors may regress to the Level 1 dependent stance after internalizing the supervisor's caustic remarks as a sign they are not performing adequately and should not be taking the kind of risks that will propel them to a more advanced level of development. Conversely, Level 2 counselors may attempt to practice in a more autonomous fashion than their skills and competence warrant by disregarding all supervisory feedback. Either reaction would be detrimental to their professional growth and to the welfare of their clients. The reader should be aware that several factors interact in each situation to make each case of supervisor impairment unique. Thus, rather than provide cut-and-dried answers regarding how a trainee should address any given type of impairment, it seems more useful to provide trainees with a framework for navigating through the process of reaching workable solutions that take into account a constellation of factors.

To Act or Not to Act? That Is the Question

As mentioned previously, several factors contribute to the complexity of the decision to either confront or endure working with an impaired supervisor, including the power differential that is inherent in the supervisory relationship, one's level of development as a counselor, the nature and severity of the impairment, and the personalities of both the supervisor and trainee. Given the high stakes involved, trainees at all levels of development may benefit from using an ethical decision-making model to guide them through the process of reaching such a decision. One ethical decision-making model, originally proposed by Forester-Miller and Davis (1995) and later adapted by Herlihy (1996), seems to be useful for these purposes. Because Herlihy's model (1996) must be modified to be useful in cases of supervisor impairment, the following model contains some original elements.

An Ethical Decision-Making Model

Step 1: Identify the Problem and Your Relationship to It

Trainees are advised to be specific and objective in writing down the situation(s) that led to their belief that the supervisor was indeed impaired (Herlihy, 1996). Innuendoes, hypotheses, assumptions, and suspicions should be distinguished from facts (Herlihy, 1996). The following questions should be explored to clarify one's feelings and thoughts about the matter.

1. If I suspect that my supervisor is impaired, what are the indicators that he or she has a problem? Do these indicators (observable behaviors) form a basis for the likelihood that my supervisor is distressed or impaired?

2. How am I affected by my supervisor's impairment? How might my level of development as a counselor (based on the model developed by Stoltenberg et al., 1998) influence my reaction to my supervisor's impairment? How are my clients affected by my supervisor's impairment? How are agency or institutional policies/procedures influenced by this supervisor's impairment?

3. What needs do I have under these circumstances that may affect my judgment or cloud my thinking? Given my developmental level, how might my need to function autonomously as a counselor affect my perceptions and impressions of my supervisor and his or her behavior? If I am feeling reluctant to take action, is it because I am fearful of retribution by the supervisor or the entire staff of the agency or the institution? What repercussions do I anticipate if I take action? How might my clients and I be affected if I choose not to directly take action?

Step 2: Apply the Current Code of Ethics of the American Counseling Association (ACA)

The ACA (1995) Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice contains valuable information about the issue of impairment (Section C.2.g.) as well as ethical guidelines for the supervisory role (Section F). A perusal of the ethical code may help trainees clarify their positions regarding any questionable supervisor behaviors. Although the following excerpt from ACA's (1995) Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice focuses on the issue of counselor impairment, the spirit of principle C.2.g can also be applied to the issue of supervisor impairment.
   C.2.g Impairment. Counselors refrain from offering or accepting
   professional services when their physical, mental, or emotional problems
   are likely to harm a client or others. They are alert to the signs of
   impairment, seek assistance for problems, and, if necessary, limit,
   suspend, or terminate their professional responsibilities. (Cottone &
   Tarvydas, 1998, pp. 30-31)

Step 3: Determine the Nature and Dimensions of the Dilemma

Before deciding on a course of action, it is important for the counselor trainee to reflect on the moral dimensions of the supervisor's inappropriate behavior. The five moral principles of the counseling profession outlined by Kitchener (1984) are a useful framework for assessing the moral aspects of the dilemma. These include autonomy, or one's right to exercise freedom of action and choice; nonmaleficence, or one's commitment to do no harm; justice, or fairness; fidelity, or one's commitment to keep promises and be faithful; and beneficence, or one's commitment to promote healthy functioning (Herlihy, 1996). The counselor trainee must consider the following questions: Does the supervisor in question seem to embrace all of these principles? If not, which ones seem to be overlooked? Furthermore, how are my clients and how am I specifically affected by my supervisor's unwillingness or inability to adhere to the principles? Trainees may seek consultation with experienced colleagues who will be able to remain objective and who are perceived as being trustworthy and fair. "Consulting a colleague is a fruitful action to take in any ethical dilemma, because decisions made in isolation are rarely as sound as decisions made in consultation" (Herlihy, 1996, p. 121).

Step 4: Generate Potential Courses of Action

At this point, counselors must consider whether or not an informal resolution is possible. As Herlihy (1996) suggested, "an informal resolution should be first attempted, if at all possible. Support for this approach is found in the Code of Ethics' (ACA, 1995, p. 121). Although Herlihy offers sound advice, the reader must be mindful that this statement was made in the context of a discussion on colleague impairment. The trainee must always consider how the power differential may affect the outcome. In contrast to Herlihy's view, VandenBos and Duthie (as cited in Kilburg et al., 1986) suggest that "when a person is in a one-down power position, he or she should not attempt to directly approach the distressed professional" (p. 221). They stated, "the vast majority of reported attempts at such direct, personal confrontations by persons in a `one-down' position in a power or authority relationship have failed" (VandenBos & Duthie, as cited in Kilburg et al., 1986, pp. 220-221).

Nevertheless, if the trainee believes that the supervisor may respond to a direct confrontation and is willing to take this risk, then it would be wise for him or her to offer feedback tentatively and to use "describing words rather than judging words in a spirit of caring and empathy" (Herlihy, 1996, p. 121). Confrontations that are respectful, sensitive, and that demonstrate preparedness are more likely to be well-received (Herlihy, 1996). I would recommend direct confrontation only for cases in which the trainee was confident that retribution would not be a consequence of the confrontation. If an informal resolution seems unlikely, trainees should generate other courses of action before proceeding to the next step. For example, the impaired supervisor's supervisor (e.g., agency or regional director) could be consulted and could subsequently take action. In addition, the supervisor's colleagues on-site or on the training program's faculty could also be approached about this matter and could take action as equals. Because identifying a supervisor as impaired is a serious allegation, counselor trainees who opt to consult with other professionals are advised to describe the situation with as much specificity and objectivity as possible. The trainee who is able to report observable behaviors in a dispassionate fashion without attacking the character of the supervisor in question will most likely be perceived as more credible than a trainee who reports vague and irrelevant information that is based on assumptions or suspicions.

Step 5: Consider Potential Consequences of All Options and Determine a Course of Action

"Counselors need to consider the potential consequences of all possible decisions, including the decision to take no action at all" (Herlihy, 1996, p. 122). At this point, the following questions need to be explored: How will all parties involved be affected if the impairment is not addressed? How might future trainees and their clients be affected if the supervisor's impairment worsens? Another consideration is the potential impact of the unaddressed impairment on the reputation of the profession. According to Herlihy (1996),
   A common public perception is that some long-established professions have
   been remiss in their obligation to police their own ranks. Indeed, the
   perception is fairly widespread that members of some professions routinely
   "protect their own" at the expense of consumers. Counseling, as a
   relatively young profession, has both an opportunity and an obligation to
   maintain the public trust. (p. 122)

If taking some form of action seems inevitable, the counselor trainee must consider the potential consequences (both positive and negative) of each option. It may be helpful to weigh all of the options by writing down a list of the best-case scenarios and worst-case scenarios for each course of action. If a confrontation is unsuccessful, what steps can be taken to protect oneself from negative repercussions? If no support is available within the agency or institution, who (if anyone) is willing and able to offer the trainee support and adequate protection? In the unlikely event that the trainee cannot identify one trustworthy professional, he or she may be able to turn to a university ombudsman for protection. It should be emphasized that options that "do not clearly give the desired results or cause even more problematic consequences should be immediately eliminated. The remaining options can then be reviewed, and an option or combination of options can be selected that best fits the situation" (Herlihy, 1996, p. 124).

Step 6: Evaluate the Selected Course of Action

Throughout the decision-making process, the trainee must reflect on all possible ethical considerations. A number of "tests" can then be applied to help one move to the last phase. Primarily, the test of "publicity" involves reflecting on the question "How comfortable would I be if my actions were reported by the media?" The test of "universality" raises the question "Would I recommend my course of action to other trainees who are faced with a similar predicament?"
   The third test involves tuning into oneself to check for "moral traces,"
   those lingering feelings of doubt or discomfort that ethically
   conscientious professionals sometimes experience after they have made a
   decision.... Finally, in applying the test of "justice," counselors assess
   their fairness by asking if they would treat another impaired professional
   the same way in this situation. (Herlihy, 1996, p. 124)

If these "tests" have been satisfactorily met, the trainee is advised to proceed to Step 7.

Step 7: Implement a Course of Action

There is no way to circumvent the fact that taking the appropriate course of action in such a case is extremely difficult. As Stadler suggested (as cited in Herlihy, 1996), "counselors need to strengthen their egos to allow them to carry out the plan" (p. 124). Furthermore, it is crucial to remember that it is impossible to guarantee that a trainee's decision regarding an impaired supervisor will be considered purely ethical and wise by everyone (Herlihy, 1996). Thorough documentation is of paramount importance, and trainees would be wise to keep a record of all incidents involving the impaired supervisor (e.g., conversations with colleagues).


Most impairments do not develop overnight. Whereas some supervisors' ineffectiveness may simply reflect inadequate training and experience, other supervisors' impairments may be manifestations of stress or psychopathology. As in the case of clients who initiate counseling after having neglected their mental health needs for prolonged periods of time, one may conjecture that impaired supervisors are experiencing more severe symptoms of impairment because they have failed to heed a series of warning signs regarding the gradual deterioration of their emotional functioning. Just as counselors need to be compassionate toward their clients, they also need to be compassionate toward their supervisors. After all, no helping professional is immune from experiencing distress. As compassionate as a trainee might be, however, he or she may be forced to take action against an impaired supervisor if the quality of supervision is being compromised or if the trainee believes that he or she is in harm's way.

By initiating this discussion about supervisor impairment, focusing on the trainee's plight, I invite helping professionals to continue this discourse and explore the topic from a number of perspectives. As the role of the supervisor becomes more complex and demanding, counselor educators can no longer ignore the issue of supervisor impairment.


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Michelle C. Muratori is a doctoral student in counselor education at The University of Iowa, Iowa City. The author thanks Marnie Azadian and Ginger Dickson, who provided valuable assistance on this article. Correspondence regarding this article should be sent to Michelle C. Muratori, 210 Lindquist Center, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242 (e-mail:
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Author:Muratori, Michelle C.
Publication:Counselor Education and Supervision
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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