Career confidentiality and Ph.D. students & postdocs

When I served as a career coach at conferences like ASCB and FASEB, students and postdocs could schedule 20-minute appointments to discuss any career or professional development topic. The range of what was shared was concerning: abusive PIs, sexual harassment in the lab – quite a bit of sexual harassment, accusations of theft and concerns about bias and discrimination. After I coached a postdoc, she thanked me for my help and shared because she wasn’t clear on the breadth of her PI’s power, she was afraid that if she spoke to anyone at her institution, her PI could find out about it.

That got me thinking; was I sure about what level of confidentiality OCPD staff were able to offer students and postdocs in counseling appointments? I was not.

In my office, there are a couple of complicating factors. We serve both students and postdocs, and our postdocs are considered employees as union-represented staff.  So the students are covered under FERPA, while postdocs are not. UCSF is also a HIPAA compliant institution as a health science campus, and we were curious if we were impacted by that at all.  Additionally, as an institution, we are obligated to abide by Title IX laws and are mandated reporters for sexual harassment.

Finally, some of the staff are trained counselors while others are scientists, and if you have licensed counselors of any sort, they may be subject to their own professional association’s code of ethics as a part of their license. The interesting thing is that many of us who serve graduate students or postdoc career and professional development needs aren’t embedded in a career center and don’t have a counseling background. Many might not have considered issues that those who have worked in traditional student service offices had. For example, are you obliged to tell a PI if they ask if someone used your services? Would you be obliged to disclose the details of a conversation if your dean (who could be your boss) asked? If a trainee ever sued your institution, would your counseling notes be subject to subpoena? etc. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, might it alter the way you discuss or offer your services?

Add to this the fact that unlike many students or postdocs who visit a student counseling or faculty staff assistance program (FSAP), many trainees don’t come into our office planning to speak about an inappropriate situation in the lab, clinic or classroom. Their presenting issue may be that they are looking to leave the lab or their program and came in for a CV review. It just comes up as part of the conversation. For example, in mock interviews at FASEB, I might ask an innocuous practice question, “Why are you thinking about leaving academe,” or “Tell me about a time you had a disagreement with someone. How did you handle it?” I’ve had reactions that range from laughing and blushing to stuttering and crying.  Caught off guard, they try to both process and explain their strong reaction, which results in them telling the counselor of a toxic work situation that meets the very definition of bullying, harassment or misconduct.

It’s not clear to me that all of our colleagues across the country have hammered this out. Yet if we are there to advocate for students and postdocs, then we need to know and signal how much confidentiality we really can offer before trainees start talking to us, and/or we are pressed to breach a trainee’s confidence. Questions include:

  • How you report out usage of your services and what level of detail to do you report?
  • Do you talk about your clients, how do you keep them anonymous?
  • If you’re a mandated reporter under Title IX – and many staff are – do you alert the client to that fact before you start the meeting, or only if it seems like the ‘conversation is veering into difficult territory?’
  • If someone from your organization’s crisis or threat assessment team reached out to you about one of your clients, are you clear about you would and could not share?
  • What if the student discloses their own inappropriate conduct (falsified data, bullying behaviors, etc.); as employees of the institution are you required to disclose that to anyone?
  • When using a client situation to illustrate an issue, what level of anonymity do you aim for? (As a medical science campus, we are HIPAA standards). For example, I once accidentally used client’s real name in a workshop to illustrate a point, and had to think, “do I alert the client to this fact?” It was slightly complicated because the person had already left the institution.
  • Is your technology compliant? For example, we adopted an online appointment scheduling module and had to switch to one that was HIPAA compliant.
  • What level what situations would you turn over your counseling notes, if you keep them? Only if subpoenaed in a legal case? What if a faculty person asked for them, or the client’s dean? What about your boss?

In our case, one of our fantastic staff started crafting out our policy for our office. It seemed reasonable to craft a policy built off of the National Career Development Association (NCDA) Code of Ethics which many licensed counselors who specialize in career counseling abide by.  She also researched the policies of our closest on-campus colleagues, such as  Student Health, the Faculty Staff Assistance Program, the Office of Postdoctoral Scholars, and the Office of the Ombuds. We talked about these issues with individuals up the reporting chain to understand their thoughts. Finally, she worked with our university’s legal office and got their approval regarding our final policy.

Where we landed is the text below. Basically, similar to all student service offices, career centers, and offices that offer counseling services, our office can offer a high level of confidentiality with a few need-to-know caveats. We are obliged to report accusations of any sort of abuse: sexual harassment/violence, childcare or elder abuse. We are obliged to inform the university of evidence of discrimination. Finally,  if we think the person is a threat to themselves or others we need to inform others. But in general, we would not share the names of trainees with their advisors/PIs, deans, etc. or any details about their usage of our services without the trainee’s permission.

At the Office of Career and Professional Development, we strive to protect the confidential information of our clients. We do not share confidential information without client consent or without sound legal or ethical justification. We also make every effort to ensure that confidentiality of clients are maintained by the OCPD team, including administrative staff, OCPD trainees, and student workers.

During the counseling session, we inform clients of the limitations of confidentiality and we try to identify foreseeable situations in which confidential information must be disclosed.

The general requirement that we keep information confidential does not apply when disclosure is required to protect clients or identified others from serious and foreseeable harm or when legal requirements demand that confidential information must be revealed.

Examples of when we may disclose confidential information may include, but are not limited to:

To the extent possible, we take reasonable steps to inform clients of the above limitations before confidential information is disclosed. When we are required to disclose confidential information, only essential information is revealed and only on a need to know basis.

The OCPD Confidentiality Policy was drafted based on the guidelines and standards set forth by the National Career Development Association (NCDA) Code of Ethics.

To explain to clients, we have shared this information on our website, we include a link to this information in our appointment confirmation emails,  and we let clients’ know in an abridged version in the ‘setting expectations’ part at the beginning of appointments. Depending on the issue, we have at times made referrals to offices like our Ombuds, or FSAP or the Care Advocate, all of which have a higher level of confidentiality than our office and are better able to support trainees on certain issues.

Some may say that it’s overkill, and that’s okay.  OCPD’s group project this year has been to articulate our values and principles when we 1) communicate, 2) make decisions, 3) manage change and 4) handle conflict (an effort I’ll write more about later). Our ultimate goal is to figure out how to do our work with integrity, and we think this is part of that goal works.

We’ve refined our understanding that our goal is to be student and postdoc advocates who are committed to transparency.  If I really want to protect students and postdocs, they need to be able to make an informed choice before they disclose sensitive information to us. Also, part of my job is thinking about how to never unnecessarily put my staff in a difficult position. If we are ever approached by colleagues, I want the group to be clear about what we are legally obligated to share and what our boundaries are. The time to figure that out is not at that moment. It’s now. Also, we recognize that part of our credibility is based on trust. If we lose that, we are dead in the water.

So we’ll take an extra minute to brief a client with the abridged version of the level of confidentiality we can truly offer before an appointment starts. If a student is here for a CV, would this seem odd? Well, maybe, many of our students/postdocs visit other offices (like student counseling services or FSAP), so they are used to some of spiel. We expect what will happen is what happens in student counseling; that a few will ask us some additional questions but most will nod and move on to their CV.

So to any student or postdoc seeking career services who might have concerns about anything being discussed, I would say it is reasonable to ask what level of confidentiality they can expect at the beginning of the appointment.

photo credit: Jeremy Wilburn. UIS Students in Classrooms via photopin. Creative Commons License.