The Supervision Process: Complications and Concerns

Judy DeTrude
Sam Houston State University


The supervision relationship requires examination of multiple issues, and the supervisory process must incorporate sensitivity to the role and responsibilities of both the supervisor and the supervisee. This article discusses several of the major supervisory ethical issues in the literature and presents a research survey of supervisors and supervisees in diverse settings. Supervisors and supervisees were asked to discuss their major ethical concerns. An important finding of this study is the commonality of responses for both the supervisors and supervisees in counseling and educational settings. The results also indicated that these commonalities exist in occupational fields completely unrelated to counseling and education. Respondents expressed their ethical concerns within the supervisory relationship and commented on ethical issues in their work setting. The findings in this research study seem to be congruent with those found in the literature which highlight the complexity of the supervisory relationship and possible ethical issues encountered during supervision.

The Supervision Process:

Complications and Concerns

The process of supervision is a complicated one with multiple elements and people involved. Supervisors are faced with a threefold responsibility of protecting the welfare of the client, mentoring supervisees in their professional development, and protecting the interests of the profession and public at large (Storm & Todd, 1997). Counseling supervisors take on multiple roles when they become involved in the supervision process which can be those of a supervisor, educator, mentor, evaluator, and role model for the counseling profession.

When agreeing to accept new supervisees, supervisors can conduct screening interviews, utilizing instruments such as the Postgraduate Competency Document that assesses general case management competencies, therapeutic relationship competencies, perceptual competencies, conceptual competencies, structural competencies, intervention competencies, and overall competencies (Storm & Todd, 1997).

Tannenbaum and Berman (1990) recommended nine areas for supervisors to continually monitor in their work with supervisees. These areas are:

  1. Supervise only in areas of expertise
  2. Choose a specific supervisory model
  3. Avoid dual relationships
  4. Regularly evaluate the supervisee’s competence
  5. Be available for supervision
  6. Formulate a sound supervisory contract
  7. Be aware of financial considerations in supervision
  8. Maintain professional liability coverage
  9. Supervise honestly and with integrity

Supervisees should also conduct interviews with potential supervisors to assess the professional and personal match of a future relationship. The ideal situation would be for supervisees to be able to choose from several supervisors, allowing for a “goodness of fit”, and consequently; have the choice to terminate the supervisory relationship if it is not a beneficial relationship. Tyler and Tyler (1997) outlined key points in a “Bill of Rights” for supervisees that can serve as a guide for the selection of a supervisor and the ongoing monitoring of the effectiveness of the relationship. Some of the key factors for supervisees to assess include the potential availability of the supervisor, the provision of feedback, clear guidelines for the application of theory, the competence of the supervisor, and the supervisor’s support of the professional development of the supervisee.

For the purpose of my research study and paper, the literature review focuses on several main ethical issues that may occur in the process of supervision. These selected issues are competences of the supervisor and the supervisee, dual relationships, and overwhelmed supervisors and supervisees.


Given that the role of supervisors is to increase competence, they bear a high level of responsibility to ensure that their supervisees are working within their own area of competence. Similarly, supervisors have an ethical responsibility to supervise only those therapist-client relationships wherein they possess a level of competence. As the persons responsible for assisting supervisees in their professional development, supervisors must assist therapists in understanding the limitations or extent of their abilities (Tyler & Tyler, 1997).

One area for supervisors to examine is their own preparedness and ongoing professional growth to support their competency in the supervision process. Remley and Herlihy (2001) present the concern that competent practitioners do not necessarily make competent supervisors. Multiple ways are available to ensure competent supervision and these are by adhering to the guidelines of professional associations and licensure boards. Licensure boards in many states have strict guidelines about the supervision, defined years of clinical experience, etc. (Texas State Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors, 1998).

Dual Relationships

Herlihy and Corey (1997, p.65) discuss the inherent duality in the supervisory relationship and the complexity of the supervising role that can create unique boundary issues. Cited as guidelines for supervisors are the Codes of Ethics for the Association of Counselor Education and Supervision (1993).

(2.10) Supervisors should not engage in any form of social contact or interaction, which would compromise the supervisor/supervisee relationship. Dual relationships with supervisees that might impair the supervisor’s objectivity and professional judgment should be avoided and/or supervisory relationship terminated.

(2.09) Supervisors who have multiple roles with supervisees should minimize potential conflicts. When supervisors function in more than one role (such as teacher, clinical supervisor, and administrative supervisor), the roles should be divided among several supervisors when possible. When this is not possible, it is important to carefully explain to the supervisee the expectations and responsibilities associated with each supervisory role.

As a means of clarifying dual relationships, Pearson and Piazza (1997) identified five categories for these relationships, and these are circumstantial multiple roles, structured multiple professional roles, shifts in professional roles, personal and professional role conflicts, and the predatory professional. The categories of the structured multiple professional roles and shifts in professional roles can occur easily in a supervisory relationship when supervisors can also be professor, mentors, etc. The careful monitoring of these categories can be accomplished by always keeping in mind the power differential that exists between the supervisor and supervisee. Out of hesitancy to discuss these dynamics, the power differential may be denied and result in the stifling of discussion about these imbalances (Pearson & Piazza, 1997).

The underlying concern for a dual relationship between the supervisor and supervisee is the potential for “abuse of power” due to the status differential in this relationship. Much of the literature focuses mainly on a dual relationship of a sexual nature that could occur in supervision (Corey, Corey, & Callahan, 1993), but again the parallel process of being a role model for the trainee is emphasized. If the boundaries in the supervisory relationship are not clear, the supervisee can interpret this as permission to cross boundaries in the clinical realm and then face ramifications for creating dual relationships with clients.

Being Overwhelmed

The ethical issue of “being overwhelmed” refers to both the role of the supervisor and also that of the supervisee. Supervisors can face this dilemma if they absorb too many supervisees and cannot responsibly manage their role (Corey, Corey & Callahan, 1993); and supervisees may also experience this parallel process by trying to see too many clients since both have multiple responsibilities for keeping current on critical issues, policies, codes, paper work, etc. It is the role of the supervisor to monitor the activities of the supervisee and not encourage taking on too many clients or volunteering for too many extra committees or projects. As a new professional, the supervisee may have difficulties self-monitoring and imposing limitations for discovery of possibilities


This article addresses the ethical concerns of supervisors and supervisees across diverse professional fields of employment. Students in a one-credit counseling course were given the assignment of interviewing both supervisors and supervisees as a means of assessing what their current ethical concerns were. Students were given the option of choosing interviewees from professions other than just the mental heath field, and the interviews did not have to be with matched supervisors and supervisees. There was a heavy concentration of interviews in the field of education, but this would be related to many of the students working in this field of education and pursuing a master’s degree with this one-credit course. A total of 33 interviews were conducted with supervisors and 32 supervisees. One student did not complete a supervisee interview.

The interviewers were instructed to identify the professional field of both the supervisor and the supervisee and then use an open format for asking them what they viewed as ethical issues in their selected role. Major categories were developed for the professional fields, and the ethical concerns/issues were also grouped into the major ethical issues in supervision.


Professional Background of the Supervisors

The professional fields identified by the supervisors were varied, but most were in the fields of counseling and education. The most frequent responses were split between counseling/clinical supervisor and principal with 11 respondents in each of these categories (See Table 1). Aside from four responses, all were in the general field of education. Supervisors indicating diverse fields came form the professional fields of air tragic controller, oil company executive, engineer, and medical field.

Table 1

Supervisors and Their Professional Fields

Supervisor Professional Field Frequency of Responses Percentage of Total Responses
Counseling/Clinical Supervisor 11< 33%
Principal 11 33%
Supervising Teacher 5 15%
Program Director at School 2 6%
Air Traffic Controller 1 3%
Oil Company Executive 1 3%
Engineer 1 3%
Medical Field 1 3%

Professional Backgrounds of the Supervisees

A total of 32 interviews were conducted with individuals who identified themselves as currently being in supervision. These respondents were mostly concentrated in the field of education with only seven counseling professionals, four as interns, two as practicum students, and one as a counselor. This is in contrast to the supervisor fields, which had 11 in this category. This group also had more occupational diversity with two correction officers, an instructional assistant, and a custom’s agent (See Table 2).

Table 2

Supervisees and Their Professional Fields

Supervisee Professional Field Frequency of Responses Percentage of Total Responses
Teacher 15 47%
Student Teacher 4 13%
Counseling Intern 4 13%
Correctional Officer 2 6%
Practicum Student 2 6%
Medical Field 1 3%
Instructional Assistant 1 3%
Engineer 1 3%
Customs Agent 1 3%
Counselor 1 3%

Ethical Concerns and Related Comments of the Supervisors

Ethical Concern #1 Incompetent/Impaired Supervisee

The ethical concern rated highest by the supervisors was working with an incompetent or impaired supervisee. This was mentioned 16 times by the supervisors. Some of their comments for this particular issue were: “No follow-up with clients. Supervisee opens cases but does not see anyone. They are not qualified to work on some issues but try anyway. Ethical issues are discussed in classes but students forget them on the job.”

Ethical Concern #2 Conflict within the System (listed 12 times)

“Have to act as an arbitrator – walk a fine line. Avoiding biases when working with parents and teachers. Conflicts among the professional staff; between professional staff and paraprofessionals.”

Ethical Concern #3 Dual Relationships (listed 10 times)

“Teachers getting too emotionally involved with students. Supervising someone the same age. Now supervising former friends and colleagues.”

These additional ethical concerns did not have comments by the respondents.

Defensive Supervisees – Cannot take feedback (listed eight times)
Conflict with Ethics (listed seven times)
Not Enough Time with Supervisees (listed four times)
Paperwork not Finished (listed four times)
Overwhelmed (listed three times)
Multicultural Issues with Those Beings Supervised (listed two times)
Confidentiality Issues (listed two times)
Decreased Systems Support for Role (listed two times)
Supervisee Using Place of Work for Personal Needs (listed two times)
Falsification of Information on Reports (listed one time)

Aside from the first ethical issue, supervising an incompetent supervisee, the majority of the other issues seem to address interpersonal factors within the working system and navigating the system itself.

Ethical Concerns and Related Comments of the Supervisees

Ethical Concern #1 Conflictual Ethics in Workplace with Personal/Licensure Ethics (listed 12 times)

“The supervisor chooses to ignore unethical things. The program policies conflict with the care of the clients. Being able to lay your head down at night and know you did the right thing.”

Ethical Concern #2 Being Overwhelmed-Time Constraints (listed 11 times)

“Cannot leave the job at the office. Overload – have too many patients and then the stress level builds. Cannot keep up with clients and documentation.”

Ethical Concern #3 Not prepared for the work (listed seven times)

“Struggling with counseling – not sure if doing the right work.. Do not feel prepared – place is disorganized and there are a lot of staff changes.”

Ethical Concern #4 Incompetent Supervisor (listed seven times)

“The supervisor does not know the work environment. Supervisor does not follow through on things. Supervisor is not qualified – going outside the system to get supervision.”

These additional ethical concerns did not have comments by the respondents

Dual Relationships (listed five times)
Not Enough Time with Supervisor (listed five times)
Not Enough Support form Supervisor (listed five times)
Pulled Between Multiple Supervisors (listed five times)
Philosophical Disputes with Supervisor (listed four times)
Not Enough Feedback form Supervisor (listed four times)
Burn Out (listed four times)
Feels Used by the Supervisor (listed three times)
Confidentiality Issues (listed three times)

While the issue of incompetence was #1 for the supervisors, the responses of the supervisees place this at #4. The main reported concern for the supervisees was conflictual ethics in the workplace whereas the supervisors did not list this in their top concerns. Many of the supervisee comments focused on the relationship or lack of relationship with the supervisor. The respondents were critical in the lack of help and support they received form the supervisors.

The responses of the supervisors seemed to suggest that the supervisors were analyzing the whole setting when addressing concerns while the supervisee responses focused more on their needs versus the needs of what was happening in the entire system. This may be true for all supervisory relationships, as the supervisor will usually have multiple responsibilities beyond just working with the supervisees while often the supervisees at the beginning of their professional careers will focus on their own development and may be less focused on the entire system.

Limitations and Recommendation for Future Research

This research study consisted of self-report measures and may therefore include responses that would categorize respondents in a positive manner. The interviewers conducted these sessions with an open format and most likely had inconsistencies in their style of interviewing and manner of providing feedback to the interviewees.

The results of this study cannot be generalized to a larger population and only represent the respondents who participated in this study.

It seems important to focus on several critical ethical issues in future research with supervisees and supervisors. The literature identified several main issues, and the respondents were congruent in mentioning these same issues that are experienced in the supervision process.

The supervision process is a delicate one and is composed of multiple roles and responsibilities for both the supervisor and supervisee which leads to the critical need to monitor this relationship for the identified sensitive issues in this study. Excellent resources are available to support this monitoring with some mentioned in the text of the article by Todd and Storm (1997) and Storm and Todd (1997). As the person maintaining more power and status in this relationship, the major responsibility for overseeing the process rests with the supervisor. Remaining ethical may mean continuing education in supervision, consultation with colleagues, critiquing supervision video and audiotapes, etc. By taking on this important role, the supervisor thus communicates to the trainee the importance of “being ethical” in all phases of counseling work.


Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (1993, Summer). Ethical guidelines for counseling supervisors. ACES Spectrum, 53 (4).

Corey, G., Corey, M. & Callahan, P. (1993). Issues and ethics in the helping professions. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.

Herlihy, B. & Corey, G. (1997). Boundary issues in counseling: Multiple roles and responsibilities. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Pearson, B. & Piazza, N. (1997, December). Classification of dual relationships in the helping professions. Counselor Education and Supervision, 37, 89-99.

Remely, T. & Herlihy, B. (2001). Ethical, legal, and professional issues in counseling. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Storm, C. & Todd, T. (1997). The reasonable complete systemic supervisor resource guide. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Todd, T. & Storm, C. (1997). The complete systemic supervisor. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Tannenbaum, R. & Berman, M. (1990). Ethical and legal issues in psychotherapy supervision. Psychotherapy in Private Practice, 8 (4), 65-77.

Tyler, J. & Tyler, C. (1997). Ethics in supervision: Managing supervisee rights and supervisor responsibilities. In J. Lonsdale (Ed.) The Hatherleigh guide to ethics in therapy. New York, NY: Hatherleigh Press.