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Gee, I hate to bother about this, but… Addressing the Unethical Behavior of Colleagues

Ed Etzel & Jack C. Watson II 

Not too long ago, a sport psychology list serve participant posted an inquiry about a possible AASP member’s involvement in questionable professional behavior with a student. Frustration was expressed by members of the list serve concerning the practical value of our code of ethics, the issue of professional accountability in our field, and AASP’s perceived passivity in view of such puzzling situations. Why do we have a code that includes lofty principles and standards, certification of highly trained, experienced professionals, and an Ethics Committee, when sometimes it seems there are no consequences doled out to those who behave unethically? What direction is there for us? Who is available to assist you in these situations? How does one go about responding to these serious matters? In this article, we will attempt to provide the reader with some basic guidance into dealing with the questionable behaviors of others in the field of sport psychology.

First, we need to state that these questions are critical to daily professional behavior and are appropriate for members of AASP to inquire about. Fortunately, our ethics code (Whelan, 1998) provides members with some clear guidance on these matters. A visit to our web site ( will allow you to link to the current Ethical Standards, which is an appropriate place to start the process of understanding how to deal with suspected ethical violations. The general purposes of our code and direction about how to go about addressing ethical conflicts are found in section 25:

25. Resolution of Ethical Conflicts

The successful implementation of an ethics code requires a personal commitment to act ethically, encourage ethical behavior by others, and consult with others concerning ethical problems. When applying the code of ethical conduct, AASP members may encounter problems in identifying unethical conduct or in resolving ethical conflict. When faced with significant ethical concerns, one should consider the following courses of action:

Before any action is taken, one may benefit from advice from uninvolved and objective advisors or peers familiar with ethical issues.

When members believe that there may have been an ethical violation by another member, they may attempt to clarify and resolve the issue by bringing the matter to the attention of the other involved parties if such an informal resolution appears appropriate and the intervention does not violate any confidentiality rights that may be involved.

Discuss ethical problems with your immediate supervisor except when it appears that the supervisor is involved in the ethical issue, in which case the problem should be presented to the next higher administrative level. If satisfactory resolution cannot be achieved when the problem is initially presented, the issue should be submitted to the next higher administrative level.

Contact with levels above the immediate administrator should be initiated only with the administrator\'s knowledge, assuming that the administrator is not involved. If the ethical problem or conflict still exists after exhausting all levels of internal review, support from appropriate professional organizations should be obtained.

Based upon this specific passage, as well as the rest of the standards, it should be noted that the successful implementation of an ethics code can be demanding. Central to this argument is that all members are:

  1. responsible for knowing what professional behaviors are ethical and not,
  2. responsible and accountable for their own professional behavior,
  3. influential models for others in our field,
  4. often faced with situations in which what is right or wrong is difficult to determine,
  5. “advised to seek advice” in the face of uncertainty before taking any action,
  6. encouraged to address a complaint with another person with caution, and
  7. encouraged to seek the assistance of AASP or other appropriate organizations (e.g., state or provincial psychology ethics boards, institutional review boards, APA) if the situation does not resolve itself.

A core assumption of this process is that members know what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior in work-related settings. Further, members should monitor their own behavior; the behavior of peers as well as those they are responsible for (e.g., supervisees). These activities are the core of ethical accountability. Unfortunately, in reality, people do not always think and act ethically. Instead, they succumb to temptation, make mistakes and poor decisions, abuse the influence they have over others, and fail to monitor the behaviors of others.

What then should one do when faced with a challenging ethical matter such as the one presented on our list serve? Although the aforementioned information from our code is a helpful point of departure, the path that lies beyond is often more challenging. Frankly, the decision to confront a peer, superior, or subordinate is a challenging, risky, and often scary one. Based on personal experience, one of the authors can say that actually doing so is a rather prolonged and stressful experience. It takes considerable time, preparation, determination, and some courage to proceed. Unfortunately, this may be the major reason why many people are reluctant to confront the behaviors of others.

Useful guidance for this process is provided for us by several experts in the area of psychological ethics (Bersoff, 1999; Koocher & Keith-Spiegel, 1998; Nagy, 2000). Given the space limitations of this column, perhaps the most practical advice we can share with you is to first and always, confidentially discuss your concerns with a trusted, knowledgeable colleague or advisor. Also, be clear about your motivation to proceed. Some other questions to ask yourself and to discuss with a colleague are: What is your purpose for proceeding? What principles or standards have apparently been violated? What real evidence do you have to proceed with your complaint? What do you specifically need to do to proceed in a way that is respectful of the person whose behavior is in question? What do you want and need to say? How will you present your concerns (i.e., in-person [best], over the telephone [less desirable], or in letter or e-mail form [worst])? What record of your communications should you keep?

Finally, be prepared for the other person to be, shall we say, quite bothered by your confrontation. As one of our colleagues recently said, most people think that they are great drivers. Similarly, most professionals think that they are very ethical people and may take considerable offense to your complaint. It is important to put a great deal of thought into how you would like to approach the person with this confrontation. First, it would probably be a good idea to script and practice your initial statement/concerns to this person. Second, pick a location for this conversation that is both private and comfortable for both persons. Third, as stated above, expect some resistance. Fourth, use your effective listening skills, and do not allow yourself to get sucked into an emotionally laden argument that is full of blaming and self-defense. Fifth, continue to restate your concerns, while taking into account the statements of the other individual, and hopefully the defensiveness will decrease. Lastly, if this confrontation fails to produce any marked changes in behavior, it may be necessary to take this complaint to a higher level (e.g, AASP ethics committee, state psychology board).

In summary, we recognize that questioning another person’s ethical behavior can be a very difficult situation to be in. However, it should be noted that a service profession such as sport psychology will only be successful if it is trusted and respected by those individuals who consider using its services. Therefore, it is essential for each one of us as representatives of the field to protect our clients and the reputation of our chosen profession. For this to occur, we must read and understand the ethical standards, behave in an ethical manner, and help others to also act ethically. In so doing, we may be faced with difficult situations that require us to confront others about their behaviors. We need to be aware of our responsibilities in doing so, consult with others, and take steps to make these confrontations as positive as possible. Furthermore, if needed, we need to be willing to pursue these matters further.


Bersoff, D. (1999). Ethical conflicts in psychology (2nd ed.). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Koocher, G., & Keith-Spiegel, P. (1998). Ethics in psychology: Professional standards and cases (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Nagy, T. (2000). Ethics in plain English: An illustrative casebook for psychologists. Washington, D.C,: American Psychological Association.

Whelan, J. (1998). Ethical principles and standards of the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology. In M.L. Sachs, K.L. Burke & S. Gomer (Eds.), Directory of Graduate Programs in Applied Sport Psychology (5th ed., pp. 247-258). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology, Inc.