Ethical Drift. What is it?

Photo by Valeria Zoncoll on Unsplash

By Nicole Postma, M.S., BCBA

Guest Author

I made it up, but here is what I think it means.

Definition: An unintended consequence subsequently from a gradual change in ethical behavior as a result of unplanned environmental factors; often entails a shift in the clinician’s interpretation of the code of ethics.

The idea is based off the concept of observer drift. (Cooper, Heron, Heward, 2007)

So, what does that mean in practice?

Remember when you took that one ethics course in grad school and then that was it? There was no Ethics Applied! It required you to rely on your supervisor to guide you to be ethical. Unfortunately, many of us in the field essentially work on an island when it comes to in home and community-based settings. In fact, when you start in the field, how do you know your supervisor is even ethical to begin with? Is this a conversation we should have in an interview? While it probably should, it likely doesn’t happen.

At any rate, developing and maintaining ethical behavior as outlined by our code requires pinpointed behavior, feedback, and reinforcement to create ethical habits.  Without habit, “ethical drift” might occur. Here is my story of ethical drift and how my supervisor played a critical role in a career defining moment.

Back in the day when I was a new analyst and the ink was still drying on my certificate, I was assigned to a family that had 3 neurotypical children, each with mental health diagnoses.  To further complicate the matter, the mother was also diagnosed with a mental health disorder. As a result, this family required me to provide an extensive amount of training and in-home support.

Right away I identified some boundary issues family members were engaged in while receiving services. For example, calls and text messages outside of what I would consider reasonable work hours, offers to ride together to an IEP meeting, invitations s to dinner, etc. I knew all of these things were on the naughty list of the ethics code, so I declined all invitations….for a while.

After nine months of providing services to this family, target behaviors continued occur at very high rates and intensity, and sometimes required crisis intervention. I frequently reminded the mother that if I ever felt those in the home were in danger as a result of these behaviors, I would need to call the police as I was not trained in crisis management. Well, that day finally came. Doo-doo hit the fan.

There was a very dangerous situation and I felt the need to call the police who removed the child and transported to a  mental health treatment center. I thought to myself “Whew! Maybe that is what was finally needed here.” I did not anticipate what the mother’s reaction would be. I remember as if it was yesterday. She looked at me with such anger and tears in her eyes as she was begging them not to take her teenager away, “How dare you do this to my child?!”

I got in my car and thought, “Wait a second, I told this parent this could happen. How am I the bad guy (or gal!)? How did I end up here?” I called my supervisor in tears. She talked me through the situation, provided empathy, and said we would talk more in the morning as it was 10pm. When I spoke to her the next morning she removed me from the case. I thought to myself “But I have put blood, sweat, and tears into this family.” I know I did the right thing by calling for help.

What I did not have the insight to see at the time was that I had gotten myself in too deep with this family. Throughout those months my boundaries drifted with this family. I did have a few meals with the family. I did ride to the many IEP meetings. I started answering all of those late phone calls. I drifted from what I knew was ethical behavior without ever thinking of what the consequences might be. That parent thought I was their family friend and I just got their baby arrested.

This was a defining moment for me in my analyst career. As I have been doing this now for 10 years, I realize I am not alone. I have talked to many seasoned analysts who can recall that defining ethical drift moment for them. I am thankful that I had a supervisor who could see what happened with a more global view than I could. I appreciated her coaching me by helping to identify what went wrong and how to prevent such incidences in the future. Though we never talked about the car rides I shouldn’t have taken, or maybe the piece of pizza I shouldn’t have accepted, I knew all of those little things were what led me to drift outside of my ethical boundaries.

So that’s what I like to call “ethical drift.” You may be wondering whatever happened to the family. With another more seasoned analyst in place, eventually it was determined there were too many barriers to treatment to effectively provide services and they were referred out.

About a year ago I got a LinkedIn connection request from the mother.  While a younger me would have accepted it, the seasoned me thought “Hell to the No!” So I declined it.  No more drift me 😉


Cooper, J., Heron, T., and Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Nicole Postma is a BCBA that received her Masters of Science with a degree in Organizational Behavior Management from Florida Institute of Technology and received her undergraduate degree from Western Michigan University. She has been working in the field of behavior analysis for over 10 years with extensive experience working with staff management and training, adults with disabilities, neurotypical children in foster care, and has also worked as a coordinate for UCF Card. Currently Nicole works for Positive Behavior Supports along with being an instructor for OBM Applied!. She has recently been featured as a SME panelist with Dr. Jon Bailey regarding the topic of Ethics in Schools.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience!! I too have felt that pang of guilt when you repeatedly have to decline food offerings over and over. I did not so much feel it when I refused to respond to texts or emails outside of appropriate business hours, but I couldn’t forget their existence which carried a different weight on it’s own. I no longer carry a case load, and in fact work in crisis services, much happier. Glad you found your niche as well.

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