American Sociological Association

Case 01. Competence in Professional Practice


Sandra Price, Ph.D. is the C.E.O. of a private research and consulting practice. Over the years she has gained considerable experience in conducting evaluations and needs assessments in a variety of social service areas--e.g., educational programs, services for the elderly, alcohol treatment services, and programs for the mentally impaired. A former client for whom she recently completed a study approached her for some additional consulting work. The previous study involved determining the needs for graduated living environments for the elderly in their rural community. Dr. Price recognizes the importance of maintaining a good reputation since much of her work comes from previous clients who have been satisfied. At this time, however, Dr. Price has pressing commitments to other clients/projects.

This new request, although it still related to the elderly population, was outside of the realm of her specific expertise. The client requested that Dr. Price gather data and make economic projections with regard to the need for skilled care facilities for the elderly. The data gathered needed to take into account the amount of skilled care currently in existence (and projected for the future) in the surrounding counties. Important decisions about capital expenditures would be made based on the results of this research. Furthermore, the study had to be completed within a two month time frame.


  1. What are the challenges of competence that this situation raises?
  2. Given the limits of her expertise, the time frame and her on-going client relationships, what should she do?
  3. If the client persists in wanting Dr. Price to do this work, what should she do?


Dr. Price, as an independent consultant, must continue to engage new clients so that she can maintain a profitable business. She has not falsely advertised her background, credentials, or areas of expertise. She has been approached by the client because of her previous work for the client on a somewhat related project; the client was very satisfied with her work and therefore solicited her expertise for this new study. However, the new study involves an expertise for which Dr. Price has not had direct experience. Therefore, she does not currently possess the competence to complete the study. On the other hand, the expertise required would not be difficult to learn since she has a sound statistical background and an excellent ability to grasp these new techniques with some reading and consultation with persons who make economic projections in the health care field.

The difficulty lies in the time frame specified for the completion of the study. Dr. Price knows that to learn the new techniques and feel comfortable with them, she would need more time. Furthermore, she has other pressing commitments that would not enable her to devote the time needed to complete the study within the short time frame.

Dr. Price recognizes that the need to engage new clients for the business cannot take precedence over her personal integrity and maintaining her reputation for competent work. If she is unable to utilize other experts in the study or to gain the requisite knowledge before completing the project, she should not undertake the work herself. She should consider the possibility of subcontracting the work to someone with forecasting expertise. In the long run, her reputation as a competent researcher and consultant could be compromised if she engages in projects where her level of expertise is wanting. Moreover, if her projections resulted in considerable expenditures, and they later proved to be misleading and based on faulty assumptions, Dr. Price will have caused considerable harm to her client. When delivering services to clients, it is important to be mindful that a primary obligation is to function competently. When pro-viding services outside of one's area of competence, the risk of harm increases considerably.


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