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ACA Code of Ethics

Why Understanding The 2023 ACA Code of Ethics Is Important

It is important to learn the ACA Code of Ethics. Second to your state counseling board code of ethics, the ACA Code of ethics is the most referenced ethical code by counselors. 

The American Counseling Association is also the organization that provided funds to take action towards legal LPC interstate counseling practice. This step towards interstate practice is commonly known as the Counseling Compact.

LPCs/LMHCs should also understand the American Counseling Association may possess powers with certain state counseling boards when licensees of those states are subject to disciplinary action. 

There are several manners in which some states have adopted the ACA Code of ethics as their board code of ethics:

1) They have adopted the ACA Code of Ethics by reference. In other words ‘we don’t have the text of the ACA code in our law or rules, but read them and those are the ethics you should follow.’

2) The state has written into law that licensees need to follow the ACA code of ethics unless there is a conflict with other sections of law. In those cases, state law prevails. 

3) It is not written into state law, but is written into board rules.

4) Still other states, the ACA Code of Ethics is actually adopted and enforced as law. 

In all cases, The ACA has disciplinary powers over it’s members and can suspend or revoke membership.

However, in many states, some of ACA’s ethical guidelines may conflict with your state licensing law. 

Abiding by the ACA code of ethics may not prevent state board disciplinary action as the two ethics codes may conflict. Examples are bartering and patients with communicable diseases.

*This information in no manner reflects the opinions or views of this writer.*

Six ACA Code Sections

For 2023, the ACA Code of Ethics has not changed. It is the same as the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics.

Here is a comprehensive guide that clarifies six of the least understood and important sections of the ACA Code of Ethics. This article will include ACA’s position on:

  1. bartering, intimate and prohibited non-counseling relationships,
  2. confidentiality,
  3. bartering,
  4. infectious disease disclosure,
  5. nondiscrimination,
  6. sexual relationships,
  7. testimonials,
  8. telemental health training and distance counseling.

In many states when there is a conflict, your state board ethics prevail.

1) Section A: Bartering, Intimate and Prohibited Non-Counseling Relationships


Counselors may barter if the arrangement is not exploitive and does not cause the patient harm. If the client consents in writing and it is culturally appropriate bartering is permissible. 

Whereas this is ACA’s official position, it’s important to understand why bartering is unethical by it’s very nature.

Intimates Relationships With Counseling Clients

LPCs cannot engage a patient for counseling if they are in a current intimate relationship.

LPCs are prohibited from engaging in intimate relationships with clients for 5 years from the last date of contact. Important: this may conflict with your state licensing law and rules. 

Essentially, any treatments to which the LPC subjects their clients should be presented in writing, verbally and ongoing.

Provide informed consent in language the patient can understand. Acquire a basic understanding of cultural and developmental issues of your patients. If the patient does not clearly understand what the LPC has conveyed, the counselor has not adequately provided the patient informed consent.


2) Section B: Confidentiality and Privacy

Contagious and Life-Threatening Diseases

“Counselors may be justified in disclosing their patient’s infectious disease status to known third parties.” 

Note: this is subject to the counselor’s state law.

Responsibility to Parents and Legal Guardians

Counselors work to establish, as appropriate, collaborative relationships with parents/guardians to best serve clients.

Client Access To Records

Generally, ACA’s ethics policy is the counselor provides the minimum necessary information when a patient requests a copy of their records.

3) Section C: Testimonials, Professional Responsibility

“The counselor acts in the best interest of patients when interacting with at all levels of groups and society.”

Counselor Incapacitation, Death, Retirement, or Termination of Practice

“In the event of death, the counselor prepares and identifies a third party licensed mental health professional who will become the custodian of patient records.”

Some states have laws governing mental health records retention. Many states do not have specific retention requirements. Often the law that is cited is that which governs general medical records.


“Counselors do not solicit testimonials from current or former patients or others who may be vulnerable to undue influence.”

The primary consideration is the power differential of the counselor over a client or current supervisee. There is a power differential with former patients and it is wise to consider that power as permanent. 

ACA strongly takes into consideration the power differential between the counselor and patients or others. 

By default, it is the counselor’s responsibility to determine the level of power differential. 

In contrast, when supervision is terminated the supervisor/supervisee  have simply become peers in the counseling profession. Each become individually responsible for their counseling licenses.


The ACA Code of Ethics position on discrimination is strict and broad.

“Counselors do not discriminate based on age, culture, disability, ethnicity, race, religion/spirituality, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital/partnership status, language preference,
socioeconomic status, immigration status, or any basis proscribed by law.”

Does this require we treat every client regardless of the above factors? 

1) We are required to cause treatment to occur if necessary with individuals seeking services. We are not required to treat every client we encounter. 

2) Discriminatory counseling is often disciplined by the board as incompetence or working out of one’s area of expertise.

3) We are required to protect our clients from harm.

There are instances when it is not possible for a therapist or they are not willing to change their viewpoints on a demographic. For example, a counselor’s religious beliefs could cause harm to a client. 

4) Section D: Employers: Relationships With

Negative Conditions and Protection From Punitive Action

“Counselors alert their employers of inappropriate policies and practices. They attempt to effect changes…through constructive action…When such policies are …damaging to client…take appropriate further
action. Such action may include…voluntary
termination of employment.”

It is not uncommon for counselor/employer relationships to become adversarial. When a counselor has determined the organizational policies are harmful to clients or require them to practice unethically, they may need to make difficult decisions. Among them are leaving the counseling center.  

“Counselors do not harass a colleague or employee or dismiss an employee who has acted in a responsible and ethical manner to expose inappropriate employer policies or practices.”


A counselor in a position of oversight at an employer, does not harass or retaliate against the colleague/ employee. 

Be cautious when accepting employment.

5) Section F: Supervision, Training, and Teaching

  • Counselors are fair and accurate in their assessment of supervisees.
  • Counselors foster respectful relationships with their supervisees,

Multicultural Issues/ Diversity in Supervision

“Counselors seek to understand cultural considerations in their work with supervisors.”

There are problems inherent in a counselor treating a patient from a culture foreign to them. 

2) A discriminatory action is often disciplined by the board as incompetence or working out of one’s area of expertise.

3) We are required to protect our clients from harm.

There are instances when it is not possible for a therapist or they are not willing to change their viewpoints on a demographic. For example, a counselor’s religious beliefs could cause harm to a client.

Sexual Relationships With Supervisees

Sexual relationships with current or former supervisees is prohibited. 

6) Section H: Distance Counseling, Technology, and Social Media

Social Media

Counselors don’t search for clients’ presence on social media unless given consent to view such information.

It has become common practice for websites and social media to track site visitors. This raises the problem of following the client in an inappropriate manner. 

Distance Counseling Relationship

Counselors state in their patient informed consent both the benefits and limitations of telemental health and complete appropriate telemental health training and continuing education. 

Summarizing The ACA Code of Ethics

It is important to read and understand the American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics particularly if you are an ACA member.

1) State licensing board ethics may conflict with ACA’s code of ethics. Even if not specifically written into law, state ethics rules and regulations may have the same force of law. 

2 Consider all factors when deciding whether to barter, use testimonials, accept a client with qualities, opinions or interests you do not share, accept employment, or deliver telemental health versus face-to-face counseling. 

You deserve a former licensing board president on your side.

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