Managing counsellor-client boundaries in an electronic world


9 Mar 2018 |  for trainees | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory


Increasingly, therapists need to be aware of their electronic presence, and how that might affect their clients. Here are some pointers.

Avoid Googling your clients

Searching on the internet for your client's details is a bit like asking a private detective to search for information about them, and it takes your relationship with them out of the counselling room and the therapeutic hour in ways that they may be unaware of. For many people there is a surprising amount of information on the internet, which they may not know is there. It may be difficult for the client to discover that you know things about them that they may not even realise are public, or difficult for you to sit with information about the client that they're not aware that you know.

Keep your private face private

Differentiate between your public presence and your personal presence online. For example, if you have a public page on Facebook or Twitter, it helps if this is your professional presence only, and if the information on it corresponds to that which you publicise for your practice as a counsellor, or which is relevant for another formal or professional role, if you have one.

If you have a personal page on a social networking site or elsewhere, this is better kept private and viewable only by those whom you select to be able to see it (not clients or former clients).

Managing your public face

If you're going to advertise as a private practitioner, it’s likely that you will provide information on the internet, on your own website or on other sites that you may wish to place details on. Some issues to think about:

  • what information do you want to disclose? Think about what information you want to provide – textual description, contact details and images such as photos. Selecting a small, basic set of information that you consistently use publicly will help you manage it later, if you need to make changes.

  • how are you going to manage it? Some of your details may change over time, such as fees, qualifications and practice location. Avoid wording that will age (eg. say “since 2016” rather than “for the last two years”) If you disseminate your details widely on the internet, how are you going to keep them up to date? Or remove them if you retire or stop practicing temporarily? What if someone finds an out-of-date fee structure advertised for you and asks to pay less?

If you lose track of where you have placed information about yourself (eg free directories) a useful way to track it down is to search for your details yourself. Remembering which details you supplied, such as phone number or address, helps.

Linking in social and professional networks

For clarity of boundaries, it's best not to link to clients on social networks like Facebook, or on professional networks such as Linkedin. If you receive a request to link to a client, an appropriate response might be to explain that the professional requirement on you to treat your clients’ identities as confidential means that you're not able to make public your links with them.

Think hard when communicating electronically

Email and texting may be a very common or normal way of communicating for your client, especially for younger client groups, but you may want to take care that it doesn’t become a way of avoiding relating fully. We live in an age where electronic communication leaves us simultaneously more connected electronically and more isolated physically from each other.

When you send messages and attachments by email, or via a website, you lose control over confidentiality. As soon as you click on send or upload, there are others who have access to it, such as those who manage those services. If you send confidential information electronically, consider encrypyting it before you send it, or getting consent for sending it from relevant parties.

sending information unencrypted is like sending a postcard: you don't know who will read it on the way

Take care also, to note what messages you may be giving via your online names or email addresses. For example, and an email address suffix such as bill_123@madasafish.com, or a prefix such as psycho123@mail.com may not project the professional image that you meant to convey, and an apparently shared email address, such as themulliganfamily@mail.com or julietandphilip@googlemail.com may bring into doubt issues of privacy and confidentiality.

Contracting for online counselling and supervision

Counsellors who work online should make sure that their clients fully understand, and that their contract reflects, the limits of confidentiality that follow from using third-party internet providers and software companies (such as Skype). These organisations normally don't contract for complete confidentiality - retaining the right for their own staff to have access to content, for technical or other purposes, and perhaps public authorities in some cases. It's a good idea to make sure that your clients understand that this is beyond your control.

Counsellors whose supervision is done online (across the internet) should also think about contract with their clients to allow them to do this. However safe a counsellor feels entrusting client information to a third party who delivers it across the internet, it's a breach of confidentiality to do so without client consent. It's wise to contract explicitly with the client for permission to do this, and it's a good idea to make sure that they're aware of the risks related to their case information being accessible by staff from internet companies, public authorities and those who illegally breach security measures of the third-party organisations that you're entrusting your client's privacy to.


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