Websites that offer products and services often post testimonials by satisfied customers and clients. Although testimonials are effective marketing tools, our professional ethics limit their use for promoting our work.
Each mental health profession has its own ethics code regarding endorsements and testimonials. Scroll down for the relevant ethics codes of psychologists, social workers, counselors and MFTs.
Here are some questions that colleagues have asked us about testimonials:
1. Is it ethical to ask clients to post a testimonial on my website?
This is against the code of ethics for psychologists, social workers and counselors, as it subjects the client to potential undue influence. The ethics code for marriage and family therapists does not address testimonials, but it does state that therapists are to avoid exploitation of clients.
2. What if I post a client's testimonial but just use their initials, not their name, to protect privacy?
While privacy is certainly a concern, the ethical issue in this case is one of putting the client in an awkward situation by asking them to write a testimonial. Because of the power differential between you and client, they may comply in order to please you or to avoid disappointing you - which could complicate the therapeutic relationship.
3. Can I ask for testimonials from past clients?
The ethics codes of counselors specifically states that former clients should not be asked for testimonials for two years after termination of services.
The ethics codes of psychologists, social workers and MFTs do not specifically prohibit asking for testimonials from former clients, but they do note that professionals need to avoid exploiting anyone who may be vulnerable to undue influence.
Consider that sometimes clients return after 5, 10 or more years. Asking former clients to give testimonials can contaminate the therapeutic relationship that you established with them. Thus, it is best to assume that "once a client, always a client" and to never to ask former clients for testimonials.
4. Are there any circumstances in which asking for a testimonial IS ethical?
Yes. Asking for testimonials from colleagues, referral sources, community leaders, agency directors, and the like, does not violate ethics. Because there is minimal power differential between you and these types of people, they are unlikely to feel exploited by you.
Similarly, if you wrote a book you can request testimonials from readers. If you conducted a one-time training session, it may be appropriate to ask for testimonials, but use your discretion. Invite the group (rather than approach individuals) to provide comments at a later time, and do not offer incentives in return for testimonials.
But even with such precautions, consider long-term implications. For example, let's say you do a 3-hour workshop for parents on how to manage toddlers' tantrums. At the end of your presentation you tell the audience you would appreciate their posting comments on your website. You are later pleased to see that many folks posted flattering comments, including Melanie, mother of 2-year-old twins.
A few weeks later Melanie wants to set up an appointment with you for therapy unrelated to parenting. If you take her on, your roles will change from workshop leader and participant, to therapist and client.
This, in itself, is not unethical. However, given that she has already posted positive comments about your workshop, might she be reluctant to speak up if she feels uneasy or angry about something you said or did during her therapy? And does that mean you should not accept her as a client? And if you refer her to someone else, might she feel rejected?
There are no simple answers to these types of questions. However, the example does illustrate that we need to be continually mindful of implications of our actions on the therapeutic relationship.
Relevant Mental Health Professionals' Ethics Codes
Psychologists do not solicit testimonials from cur-rent therapy clients/patients or other persons who because of their particular circumstances are vulnerable to undue influence.
(b) Social workers should not engage in solicitation of testimonial endorsements (including solicitation of consent to use a client's prior statement as a testimonial endorsement) from current clients or from other people who, because of their particular circumstances, are vulnerable to undue influence
Counselors who use testimonials do not solicit them from current clients, former clients, or any other persons who may be vulnerable to undue influence. Counselors discuss with clients the implications of and obtain permission for the use of any testimonial.
62.NCCs shall not solicit testimonials from current clients or their families and close friends. Recognizing the possibility of future requests for services, NCCs shall not solicit testimonials from former clients within two years from the date of service termination.
Marriage and family therapists do not engage in the exploitation of clients, students, trainees, supervisees, employees, colleagues, or research subjects.
Image credit: testimonial by BomSymbols from the Noun Project