This article will cover definitions, ethical issues/dilemmas, warning signs of ethical violations, and strategies to prevent problematic dual relationships from occurring. Examples will be discussed to raise questions that need to be considered when a professional is deciding what to do.
A dual relationship is when a professional has more than one relationship with a client/consumer. It may be a friendship, romance, marriage, employment, business, etc. For example, the person may be your social work client and may be an auto service repair person who you go to, to fix your car.
The NASW Code of Ethics 1.06 page 9 states:
“Social workers should not engage in dual or multiple relationships with clients or former clients in which there is a risk of exploitation or potential harm to the client. In instances when dual or multiply relationships are unavoidable, social workers should take steps to protect clients and are responsible for setting clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive boundaries. (Dual or multiple relationships occur when social workers relate to clients in more than one relationship, whether professional, social, or business.. Dual or multiple relationships can occur simultaneously or consecutively).”
The key words are “risk of harm or exploitation”. Some dual relationships are not problematic at all, such as the professional and client both being members of the PTA or the same church. Dual relationships can be problematic even if the other relationship occurred before there was a professional one. They can also be simultaneous or take place after the professional relationship has officially ended. The code clearly puts the responsibility on the social worker to set clear professional boundaries in the interest of the client’s well-being. This is even the case if the client approaches the worker to have a secondary relationship or the client is seeming to consent to another relationship initiated by the worker.
Possibility of Harm
A key issue with dual relationships is that social workers’ power intrudes on other relationships they may have with their clients (Kagle & Giebelhausen, 1994). This becomes acute when the professional role is a clinical one, as the worker’s influence and client’s vulnerability carry over into other relationships. This can seem innocuous, especially when it is a non-sexual dual relationship. For example, when a social worker is deciding whether to have her car repaired at the client’s auto body shop. The worker must always ponder the question of whether there is a risk of harm or exploitation. The client may be harmed if the social worker has complaints about the service and/or the price. Does the client feel compelled to lower the price? Does the client feel emotionally injured because of the worker’s dissatisfaction? What the social worker says in the customer role is so much more potent than any other customer because of their professional influence. Social workers need to set limits on their behavior to protect their clients.
Social workers in secondary relationships with clients are in position to subordinate the client’s needs to their own. If professionals do so, they violate the ethical standard 1.01 of promoting the well-being of clients and recognizing that “clients’ interests are primary”. This is why dual relationships are found in the NASW Code under the category of conflicts of interest.
Clients are not given true informed consent in dual relationships. They are not likely to be aware of the power differential in the worker/client relationship and do not see that professional power is unchecked by rules of professional conduct in dual relationships. Thus, there is potential for harm to occur. The client may feel flattered that the social worker is interested in them for other than professional reasons. What if for example, the social worker is interested in becoming friends with the client after the therapy is over? It may seem that both therapeutic relationships and friendships have commonalities such as trust, support, openness, loyalty (Schultz, 1991). However, there are major differences in that therapeutic relationships are socially sanctioned and controlled by professions and the state and friendships are reciprocal and voluntary. (Kagle & Giebelhausen, 1994). If a therapeutic relationship were to become reciprocal by the social work non-judiciously self-disclosing personal information to the client, the roles of worker and client would become blurred and permit exploitation of the client.
There is also potential for harm in dual relationships because of the possibility of transference and counter-transference. Whether or not one believes in the psychodynamic theoretical framework about the projection of unconscious needs and the recreation of significant relationships in a therapeutic relationship, one must be aware of the possibility of the social worker and client getting in touch with emotions and then acting out with each other significant events and relationships in their lives.
Social workers in their sincere attempts to empower clients may work to equalize power between them and their clients. This may do harm. The harm would come from the denial of the unequal power between the professional and clients. Clients have needs which motivate them to seek resources, expertise, support, etc. that social workers can provide. Social workers need to acknowledge their power, to be aware of its potential impact on any relationship (s) that they may have or consider having with clients or ex-clients.
Warning Signs of Boundary Violations or Dual Relationships
It is important to realize that a boundary crossing is rarely a one-time event, but rather a series of incidents that occur over time. So, they are part of a process. Thus, it may be referred to as a “slippery slope” that may turn into an ethical violation. Thus, it requires vigilance on the part of the social worker to notice and make corrections before harm is done.
The following list provides some pitfalls to watch for: (Peterson, 1992)
- This situation is unique and I am meeting the client’s needs. For example, the social worker states ‘I do not normally accept gifts from clients, but I will make an exception for this client.’
- Reversal of worker/client roles. For example, the social worker is feeling depressed and looks forward to compliments from and conversation with her client.
- The worker withholds critical knowledge or behavior from the client. This is about the worker having an agenda in regard to the client that is not shared and is not about the professional work.
- The client feels caught in a double bind, that if they comply with what the worker asks them to do they may satisfy them in the short term by agreeing, but in the end may disappoint them. If the client decides to not do it, they fear they will lose their worker. For example, the client is an English literature professor and the social work is an aspiring author who has a manuscript she wants the client to review and provide feedback. This is a conflict of interest for the social worker as it is taking advantage of the client for one’s own interests. The client may feel coerced to do it and worry about the impact of providing honest criticism to their social worker
- The professional is indulging their privilege with the client for their own self-gratification, and not in the interest of the client. The worker may decide to disclose their own history of drug addiction and how successful they have been in gaining control of their life, because it boosts the worker’s self- esteem.
Prevention of Boundary Violations
Some strategies for avoiding inappropriate boundary crossing will be listed below:
- Get in touch with one’s own issues and do not project them on your clients. Seek therapy when needed.
- Work on being aware of and controlling counter-transference and do not play into the client’s transference. Assist your clients to understand and deal with it.
- Receive supervision and discuss boundary issues and dual relationships, as well as your concerns about misuse of power with clients.
- Realize demands and stress of being a social worker and receive support from family, friends and social networks.
- Guard against over commitment and limitless dedication to one’s clients.
- Be cautious about disclosing your personal information with clients. You should share the least amount of information to make your point and only disclose if it is in the interest of clients.
- Set boundaries early on with clients by discussing the potential for overlap and preferred ways of handling outside encounters. Discuss your policies with clients in regard to gift giving, dual relationships, times when you are available, rules for emergency contacts, use of email, texting, and other forms of social media, so there is no confusion. Be consistent in the implementation of the policies.
- Accept your greater power and use it judiciously to meet clients’ needs.
- Continually monitor your motivation and self-interest to see that your client’s interests are primary.
Kagle, J.D. & Giebelhausen, P.N. (1994). Dual relationships and professional boundaries. Social Work, 39, 213 to 202.
NASW Code of Ethics, NASW, Washington, D.C., 2008
Peterson, M.R. (1992). At personal risk. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Schultz, l. K. (1991).Women’s adult development: The importance of friendship. Journal of Independent Social Work, 5 (2), 19-30.