Boundaries Among Colleagues
Recently, I testified as an expert witness in a federal court case that focused on boundary issues in social work. The plaintiff in this case, a social worker, claimed that her rights were violated when she was terminated from a field placement that was part of her MSW program requirements.
Briefly, the plaintiff’s field instructor, other agency staff, and school of social work faculty were concerned about the manner in which the student expressed her religious beliefs with colleagues in the agency. The evidence produced at trial showed that the social work student distributed religious pamphlets in the agency and shared with colleagues a number of strongly held beliefs concerning clients who are gay, lesbian, or may consider abortion as an option. Both trial testimony and exhibits demonstrated the defendants’ earnest efforts to provide the social work student with constructive feedback, information about professional boundaries, and opportunities to bring her behavior in line with widely accepted ethical standards in social work.
Ultimately the student’s field placement was terminated because of the student’s unwillingness to comply with the agency and school of social work’s requirements. The school of social work then arranged an alternative field placement that the student successfully completed. Following her graduation, the student sued the school of social work and field placement agency. The federal court jury returned a verdict for the defendants; the plaintiff did not prevail on any counts in her lawsuit.
This compelling court case raises important issues concerning boundaries and dual relationships in social work. Discussions of boundary issues most often focus on the relationships between social workers and clients. Common ethical challenges involve matters such as the appropriateness of personal relationships between social workers and clients or former clients, practitioner self-disclosure, responding to clients’ social invitations and gifts, performing favors for clients, and bartering for services.
In contrast, the court case in which I recently testified focused on boundary issues among professionals. The key questions before the court concerned whether the plaintiff’s social work supervisors violated free speech rights, the right to equal protection, and civil rights.
My testimony supported that the plaintiff has a fundamental right to whatever religious beliefs she chooses to hold; I do not think the social work profession has a right to interfere with practitioners’ religious beliefs. However, I asserted in my testimony that social workers have an ethical duty to maintain clear boundaries in their relationships with colleagues and clients. More specifically, social workers have an ethical obligation to avoid conflicts of interest and dual relationships with colleagues that may interfere with colleagues’ and employers’ ability to serve clients, meet clients’ needs, and carry out the agency’s mission. The evidence in this case demonstrated to me that the manner in which the plaintiff expressed her religious beliefs created a hostile work environment that could interfere with social work colleagues’ ability to collaborate with the plaintiff in their work with clients, could have a detrimental impact on clients, and was inconsistent with prevailing ethical standards in social work. I testified that social workers’ expression of their personal beliefs must be respectful and avoid intimidation that could interfere with colleagues’ ability to perform their professional duties.
This particular case provides a healthy reminder that social workers need to maintain clear boundaries in their relationships with each other, as well as with clients. During the course of social workers’ careers, diverse opportunities arise for possible dual relationships with colleagues in the form of personal, social, and business relationships. Examples include a social work supervisor and supervisee who choose to date; social work colleagues who enter into a business relationship that may conflict with their employer’s interests; a field instructor who agrees to provide psychotherapy to the student she supervises; and a social worker who proselytizes colleagues in the workplace.
Whenever opportunities for dual relationships with colleagues arise, social workers should be cognizant of prevailing ethical standards and consider how such relationships might be perceived by their peers. The current National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics, unlike its predecessors, includes numerous standards pertaining to dual relationships involving social work supervisors, consultants, educators, and field instructors (standards 3.01[b,c] and 3.02[d]). As in relationships with clients, social workers who serve as colleagues, supervisors, and educators should not engage in dual or multiple relationships in which there is a risk of exploitation or potential harm to the colleague, supervisee, or student. Furthermore, “social workers should be alert to and avoid conflicts of interest that interfere with the exercise of professional discretion and impartial judgment” (standard 1.06[a]) and “should not take unfair advantage of any professional relationship or exploit others to further their personal, religious, political, or business interests” (standard 1.06[b]).
None of this is to say that social workers should never have personal relationships with colleagues or discuss political or religious issues. That would be an extreme and inappropriate prohibition. It is entirely reasonable and appropriate for social workers to chat with each other about diverse personal issues and, under some circumstances, to have social contact (for example, when social work colleagues agree to get together over the weekend for dinner or some other social event). However, social workers must recognize that some forms of dual relationships with colleagues would violate the profession’s ethical standards if they entail a conflict of interest, exploitation, or are likely to significantly interfere with social workers’ professional and impartial judgment.
Some issues involving dual relationships among colleagues are resolved more easily than others. For example, there is virtual consensus in the profession that social work field instructors should not provide professional services to the students they supervise; social work administrators should not date subordinates for whom they have administrative responsibility; and educators should not become romantically involved with their students. At all costs, social workers must avoid potentially exploitative and harmful conflicts of interest.
However, other dual relationships are more ambiguous and may generate legitimate disagreement among social workers. Examples include whether colleagues who are in lateral positions should make it known to supervisors and other colleagues that they are romantically involved; whether it is appropriate for a social work supervisor to invite a supervisee to a political or religious event that will take place “off the clock”; and whether it is appropriate for a social worker to refer clients who need clinical services to a former agency colleague who is now in private practice. In these more vague circumstances, social workers should carefully examine standards in the NASW Code of Ethics, review ethics guidelines promulgated by their state’s licensing or regulatory board, and consult with thoughtful colleagues.
Understandably, social workers are often preoccupied with dual relationships involving clients. Seasoned social workers know that we must be equally mindful of complex dual relationships among ourselves and vigilant about their ethical implications.
— Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work, Rhode Island College. He is the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, healthcare, criminal justice, and professional ethics.