Can a counselling service help solve ethical dilemmas?

Where to go when rights compete

Making decisions about ethical dilemmas is a difficult but defining part of our lives
Making decisions about ethical dilemmas is a difficult but defining part of our lives

Ethical dilemmas do not deal with what is clearly right or wrong but rather with issues that require us to consider competing rights and wrongs.

While moral philosophy offers us general prescriptions about what to consider when we resolve dilemmas, these prescriptions do not make our decisions for us when we have difficult choices to make in real life.

Philosophers may tell us, for example, to fulfil our duties or pay attention to consequences, but they do not tell us what to do when we have duties that are not neatly arranged in a hierarchy and compete with each other.

Similarly, decision-making theories and models can help us understand how we make decisions or may tell us what to consider when we are making decisions but they do not tell us what decision to make.

Making decisions about ethical dilemmas is a difficult but defining part of our lives. Very often, these situations can cause significant distress. We can make it easier if we improve our ability to identify what matters in a situation, what needs to be considered and what sort of decision we can live with.

It may also be helpful to talk with trusted colleagues or consult with others. Talking about our dilemmas can help us to identify important issues, to better understand the situation and to clarify what option we can live with.

Ethi-call of St James Ethics Centre in Sydney is a free, independent and confidential counselling service that helps people resolve ethical dilemmas, both personal and professional. According to Kathleen Gilbert, the coordinator at Ethi-call, the counselling service receives calls from accountants who face a variety of ethical decisions.


Related: Professional resources: Ethics and professional identity

Counsellors don’t offer advice but support the caller to find the best decision in the context of the caller’s own circumstances and values.– Kathleen Gilbert


“The [counselling] process session involves a guided decision-making process which helps the caller to identify the ethical dimensions involved and to examine the situation in the light of the caller’s own values,” says Gilbert.

“[Our] counsellors don’t offer advice but support the caller to find the best decision in the context of the caller’s own circumstances and values.

“The process also offers a valuable learning experience, raising the caller’s awareness of the ethical dimension of life, and providing a decision-making tool which can be used whenever ethical dilemmas arise.”

The issues raised can be personal or professional. When accountants call, their issues often involve conflicts between what the professional code of ethics sanctions and pressure from an employer or client, personal considerations or matters of conscience.

“A hypothetical example may be an accountant may who calls with an ethical dilemma involving the discovery of an instance of malpractice or negligent practice by one of his/her colleagues,” says Gilbert.

“Professional standards obviously mandate reporting of the incident, but [let’s say] the colleague is a friend who has been under a lot of pressure with his wife’s treatment for cancer, financial difficulties and his own struggles with depression following his son’s suicide several years ago. The caller holds very high professional standards, but fears that the colleague may be pushed over the edge by the consequences of any disclosure of his professional conduct. What the ethical courses of action may be available in this situation?

“The  counsellor would help the caller explore this dilemma by taking him or her through St James Ethics Centre’s ethical decision-making process. This process involves careful questioning designed to look at the situation in the broadest possible way: consideration of all the people involved, what different philosophical ethical frameworks can offer, relevant legal and professional codes, the caller’s own values and beliefs, and the consequences of different courses of action.

Callers often assume that there is only one option open to them, and this course of action doesn’t sit easily with them. During the session callers are encouraged to think about what other options or combinations of options there may be to enable them to resolve the dilemma.

“Even though this sample situation is very difficult, by the end of the session the caller should be in a better position to decide on a course of action he or she can live with, knowing that the ethical dimensions have been thoroughly examined.”

How does the service work?

Ethi-call is free, confidential, and as anonymous as you want it to be. The service is available Australia-wide by calling 1800 672 303.

You may reach a counsellor directly but more often you will be asked to make an appointment (within one to two days) when you will call back and speak to the counsellor. You will not be asked for personal or company names, but you will be asked to give a first name (not necessarily your real name) and a phone number. You will be called only if the appointment needs to be changed in case of counsellor unavailability.

The session lasts about an hour. Usually this is enough but a follow-up session is available if the caller wants one.

Although Ethi-call is primarily a telephone service, face-to-face sessions are also available at the Ethics Centre’s office in the Sydney CBD.

Ethi-call counsellors will not interpret professional codes of ethics. The service deals with ethical dilemmas, not legal or professional issues.


Dr Eva Tsahuridu is CPA Australia’s policy adviser, professional standards and governance.

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