Navigating Dual Relationships in Social Work

Navigating Dual Relationships

The personal nature of social work makes it quite rewarding. Practitioners meet clients at their point of need and offer direct support for their well-being. It’s common for bonds to form as social workers help clients empower themselves. However, they must take care to avoid pursuing dual relationships in social work that may pose risks to clients.

What Are Dual Relationships in Social Work?

Dual relationships form when social workers interact with clients for reasons outside their professional duties. Dual relationships are not inherently unethical, but the National Association of Social Work says to proceed with caution before starting a relationship that puts clients at “risk of exploitation or potential harm.” These relationships can take on many forms, including:


This type of relationship may seem innocuous. After all, friendships easily form when people build rapport through small talk and other lighthearted interactions.

However, allowing social work boundaries with clients to slip away may signal that friendly interactions come before professional relationships, according to Community Care. If this happens, a social worker may lose the authority needed to intervene on a client’s behalf.

Employment Relationships

As an article in Nature Research explores, there is a connection “between social and economic inequality and poor mental health.” This inequality explains why social workers often help people overcome barriers to employment. But offering jobs to clients creates a dual relationship with various pitfalls.

Dr. Frederic G. Reamer, a professor at Rhode Island College, outlined in Social Work Today how employing a former client could cause:

  • Emotional trauma. Social workers turn from supporters to supervisors when they hire clients. This pivot puts therapy providers in positions where they may reprimand clients. Such experiences may lead to confusion and distress.
  • Future service issues. If an agency hires a client who must resume services, it may be a conflict of interest for the agency to offer them. This situation would cause issues for clients in small towns with only one provider.

Business Partnerships

When a social worker and client go into business together, their economic prospects become entwined. This dynamic poses risks because clients may make decisions based not on their well-being but the social worker’s financial interests.

Do these risks mean dual relationships in social work are always off-limits? Let’s explore two perspectives on how to answer this question.

Examples of Dual Relationships in Social Work

FriendshipsEmployment RelationshipsBusiness Partnerships

Two Perspectives on Dual Relationships in Social Work

While dual relationships in social work pose some risks, practitioners may view extended interactions with clients differently. Dr. Claudia J. Dewane of Temple University examined perspectives on dual relationships in Social Work Today, grouping social workers in two camps:

  • Absolutists avoid dual relationships in social work at all costs.
  • Relativists may allow dual relationships to form naturally through interactions.

Dr. Dewane contrasted these perspectives through a hypothetical situation where a social worker considers adopting a terminally ill client’s child. A relativist might believe the adoption is acceptable because it contributes to the greater good. By contrast, an absolutist may worry the adoption would exploit the client, so this action may go against the NASW Code of Ethics.

Environments Where Dual Relationships May Form

Of course, decision-making in social work is not always clear cut. A social worker’s perspective on absolutism and relativism can depend on many considerations, especially their work environment. For this reason, it’s crucial to understand how dual relationships can form when social workers:

Visit a Client’s Home

Home care providers work in settings where clients literally feel “at home.” As such, the client may feel comfortable enough to take control of the relationship, according to Social Work Today. For example, they may invite social workers to join family activities, such as sharing a meal.

Social workers consider many factors when they receive these invitations, including cultural norms. So, gaining cultural competence helps social workers find the best way to balance client relationships.

Offer Their Phone Number to Clients

Sending a text message is a quick way to check in with clients. But this convenience could make it easier for dual relationships in social work to form, according to Social Work Today. Social workers should set limits for when clients can reach them at a personal number. Otherwise, they may work longer hours and face an erosion of professional boundaries in social work interactions.

Connect With Clients on Social Media

Facebook, Instagram and other social media provide a view into a person’s life. That transparency undercuts a practitioner’s ability to maintain professional boundaries in social work. Therefore, social workers should be cautious when accepting clients’ friend and follow requests.

Ethical social workers also avoid searching social media sites for unneeded client information. This respect for client confidentiality even plays into integrity in social work practice, as detailed in the NASW Code of Ethics.

Work in Close-Knit Communities

It could be said that in small towns, no one is a stranger. This familiarity increases the likelihood that social workers will interact with clients outside their professional relationships. As a result, it can be tricky for social workers in close-knit communities to navigate dual relationships in social work.

The Journal of Social Work studied tactics that help social workers succeed in rural communities where dual relationships are common. As the journal found, following ethical codes is necessary to protect a client’s well-being. But social workers should also commit to an essential practice: self-reflection.

Using Self-Reflection to Navigate Dual Relationships in Social Work

A study by Social Work Education explored the role that self-reflection plays in professional development, focusing on:

  • Reflection on action takes place after social workers engage with clients. This reflection allows them to “think about and link their practice to knowledge.” It provides time to analyze their performance and devise ways to meet their obligations to their clients.
  • Reflection in action takes place when a social worker engages clients. Through this in-the-moment reflection, social workers think “about their experience and what they are doing while they are doing it.” It enables social workers to monitor their behavior to ensure it aligns with strict ethical standards.

How do these techniques help practitioners navigate dual relationships in social work? To answer that question, let’s consider the Journal of Social Work’s study of social workers in small towns. Its authors concluded that self-reflection enables social workers to practice “explicit decision-making” when facing dual relationships. This approach helps simplify difficult choices as social workers follow standards to:

  • Prioritize client well-being over personal interests.
  • Deliver consistent support to each client.
  • Protect themselves in multifaceted relationships.

The journal noted that successful self-reflection requires professional development. Social workers should continue their education to acquire the tools and knowledge to navigate dual relationships in social work.

Educational opportunities also enable newcomers to enter this field. If you’re interested in moving into social work, you can build foundational knowledge in an online bachelor’s degree in social work program. By earning your online BSW with Campbellsville University, you will learn to provide client support rooted in strong ethics and Christian values.

Campbellsville University’s online social work program offers flexibility for meeting your work and family commitments as you take classes. You will also build experience providing direct support with clients during an on-site practicum. Once you graduate, you will be ready to thrive in social work practice or further your education in an online MSW program.