- How do I maintain professional boundaries when I live and work in the same small community where I see my clients outside of work?
- What should I do if I’m attracted to a client or one of their family members?
- What does the Code of Conduct say about this?
Challenges within the social worker-client relationship can emerge unexpectedly. When social workers live and work in the same community the challenges can be even greater.
This guidance note provides advice about maintaining personal and professional boundaries. It contains examples of the types of notifications the Social Workers Registration Board (SWRB) receives, relating to professional boundaries. There are also some questions to consider for further opportunities to reflect on this topic.
The SWRB receives notifications about breaches of professional boundaries by registered social workers. These notifications may take the form of complaints or concerns raised by members of the public, people receiving social work services, employers or colleagues. This includes situations where social workers have:
- entered into personal relationships with their clients, members of the client’s whānau or someone else in the client’s support network. This could be either one of their own clients (past or present), or clients of the service they work for.
- sent emails, images/photos via social media, or text messages to young people or students outside the professional setting
- maintained contact with clients “off the books” following the end of their professional client-social work relationship
- invited clients into their home
- provided their own money to assist clients financially
- asked clients for references and other favours
- not declared a personal conflict of interest or discussed a potential conflict with their supervisor.
The Code of Conduct
The SWRB Code of Conduct (the Code) sets out the minimum professional standards of integrity and conduct that apply to registered social workers and to the social work profession in general. The following principles are relevant to maintaining professional boundaries:
Principle 1: Act with integrity and honesty.
- Acting honestly and ethically in all personal and professional behaviour.
- Communicating in an appropriate, open, accurate and straightforward way.
- Declining any request to be a legal representative or power of attorney for a client.
- Not working in a situation where there is a conflict of interest.
Aotearoa is a small country, so people are often interconnected, especially if you live and work in the same community. This can include whakapapa and whanaungatanga connections. It is important that you recognise any dual relationships. If there are any, identify these in a transparent way with clients and your supervisor, so that your different roles are clear.
Principle 5: Protect the rights and promote the interests of clients.
- Maintaining personal and professional boundaries and not forming inappropriate relationships with clients or those close to them.
- Abstaining from sexual relationships or any form of sexual interaction with clients or with those close to them – including any behaviours or comments which might reasonably be interpreted as being a sexual advance or sexually demeaning.
- Not forming a sexual relationship or having any form of sexual interaction with former clients or those close to them, where you have (or it could appear that you have), intentionally or unintentionally, used any power imbalance, knowledge, or influence obtained while you were their social worker to exploit, coerce, or manipulate.
There is always a power imbalance between a social worker and a client. Keep in mind that this means there is potential to abuse your position which could harm the client.
Occasionally, you may be attracted to clients. The intimate nature of the work you undertake with a client may heighten this attraction. One characteristic of ethical practice is your ability to identify and properly manage these feelings. Your supervisor or manager will be able to assist you. This may include ending the professional relationship.
Principle 10: Keep accurate records and use technology effectively and safely.
This includes setting and maintaining clear and appropriate personal and professional boundaries in all forms of communication, including face-to-face contact, written, telephone, and online communications.
Be clear in your communication with clients. Emails and texts are often informal and can result in accidental boundary violations. Using slang and more casual ways of communicating may confuse clients about the boundaries in the professional relationship. Use texting sparingly, as mistakes can easily be made and messages misunderstood. Use more formal language. Using email and text messages can also create a perception that social workers are contactable and available at any time. It is your responsibility to set clear boundaries around this. For example, you may want to agree with your client when text messages and emails can be sent and when they will be answered.
Never request a personal connection to a client on a non-work-related social media site. It is strongly advised that you politely decline any requests from clients and former clients if they wish to be ‘friends’ on a personal, non-work-related site. You can manage your privacy settings to stop clients asking to connect with you on social media.
Below are some questions you could use in supervision to reflect on the topic of maintaining professional boundaries:
- How am I identifying and properly managing any attraction I feel towards clients, especially considering the intimate nature of the work we are undertaking together?
- Have I considered the feelings that my client might have about me? How am I maintaining a professional relationship with them at all times?
- How am I being mindful of power imbalances within the professional relationship and avoiding inappropriate dual relationships?
- How am I ensuring that my own personal needs are not influencing interactions between myself and the client?
- Am I aware of and avoiding any conflicts of interest that mean I cannot be totally professional and impartial?
- If I have to end a relationship with a client, for either personal or professional reasons, how can I best protect their interests and needs?
Maintaining appropriate professional boundaries is an important discipline, skill and professional obligation for all social workers. The overwhelming majority of social workers maintain clear and professional boundaries with clients. However, like all professionals, you need to be vigilant in your efforts to avoid inappropriate dual relationships. The failure to maintain appropriate professional boundaries can lead to complicated relationships which are likely to be confusing and damaging to the client. This could result in serious misconduct and impact public trust in the social work profession.