ArticlePDF Available

Professional Boundaries: Crossing a Line or Entering the Shadows?


Abstract and Figures

This article explores the professional boundaries guidance for social workers. It presents research findings from the formal literature, from agency codes of practice, from telephone interviews with regulatory and professional bodies and from an exercise using ‘snowballing techniques’ in which informants responded to brief scenarios illustrating boundary dilemmas. The findings suggest that formal research plays little part in the guidance that individuals use to help them determine professional boundaries. Similarly, only 10–15 per cent of informants made regular reference to regulatory and professional codes of practice, with an even smaller percentage quoting specific sections from these codes. A slightly larger group (15–20 per cent) made fairly regular reference to their agency's policy documents. However, a clear majority relied on their own sense of what is appropriate or inappropriate, and made their judgements with no reference to any formal guidance. Agency guidance tended to ignore the ambiguous areas of practice and seemed to act as an insurance policy, brought out and dusted off when something goes awry. The authors caution against ever-increasing bullet points of advice and prescription, and advance a notion of ethical engagement in which professionals exercise their ethical senses through regular discussion of professional boundary dilemmas.
Content may be subject to copyright.
Professional Boundaries: Crossing a Line
or Entering the Shadows?
Mark Doel, Peter Allmark, Paul Conway,
Malcolm Cowburn, Margaret Flynn, Pete Nelson,
and Angela Tod
Professor Mark Doel is Research Professor of Social Work in the Centre for Health and Social
Care Research (CHSCR) at Sheffield Hallam University and his research publications concern
social work practice education, social work in groups and international perspectives on social
work. Dr. Peter Allmark is Principal Lecturer in the Centre for Health and Social Care
Research (CHSCR) at Sheffield Hallam University and his research publications in health
care ethics and philosophy; his recent focus is ethics and public health. Paul Conway is the
Information Adviser for Social Work, Learning and Information Services. Dr. Malcolm
Cowburn is Principal Lecturer in Criminology at Sheffield Hallam University; his research
publications concern prisons, sex offenders, masculinities, diversity and the application of
ethics in research and practice. Dr. Margaret Flynn is the Independent Chair of Lancashire
County Council’s Adult Safeguarding Board, an editor of the Journal of Adult Protection and
a Senior Associate of CPEA Ltd. Pete Nelson is Principal Lecturer in the Department of
Social Work, Social Care and Community Studies at Sheffield Hallam University and his
teaching and research concern social work values and ethics, social work practice learning
and social work with children and families. Dr. Angela Tod is a Prinicipal Research Fellow in
the Centre for Health and Social Care Research at Sheffield Hallam University. Her research
publications concern nursing, public health, health inequalities and ethics.
Correspondence to Professor Mark Doel, Ph.D., MA (Oxon), CQSW, Research Professor
of Social Work, Centre for Health and Social Care Research, Sheffield Hallam
University, 32 Collegiate Crescent, Sheffield S10 2BJ, UK. E-mail: or
This article explores the professional boundaries guidance for social workers. It presents
research findings from the formal literature, from agency codes of practice, from tele-
phone interviews with regulatory and professional bodies and from an exercise using
‘snowballing techniques’ in which informants responded to brief scenarios illustrating
boundary dilemmas. The findings suggest that formal research plays little part in the
guidance that individuals use to help them determine professional boundaries. Similarly,
only 1015 per cent of informants made regular reference to regulatory and pro-
fessional codes of practice, with an even smaller percentage quoting specific sections
from these codes. A slightly larger group (15 20 per cent) made fairly regular reference
#The Author 2009. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of
The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.
British Journal of Social Work (2009) 1–24
British Journal of Social Work Advance Access published October 14, 2009
to their agency’s policy documents. However, a clear majority relied on their own sense
of what is appropriate or inappropriate, and made their judgements with no reference
to any formal guidance. Agency guidance tended to ignore the ambiguous areas of
practice and seemed to act as an insurance policy, brought out and dusted off when
something goes awry. The authors caution against ever-increasing bullet points of
advice and prescription, and advance a notion of ethical engagement in which pro-
fessionals exercise their ethical senses through regular discussion of professional bound-
ary dilemmas.
Keywords: Professional boundaries, professional ethics, code of practice, professional
relationship, practice dilemmas
The research on which this article is based was commissioned by the
General Social Care Council (GSCC, 2008) following the publication of
Raising Standards: Social Work Conduct in England 2003 2008. This pub-
lication constituted the GSCC’s first report covering the work undertaken
to uphold standards and protect people who use social care services. In
the light of findings revealing that 40 per cent of conduct cases involved
allegations of ‘inappropriate relations’, the GSCC committed itself to
developing professional boundaries guidance for social workers. This
article reports the findings from the research to assist this task (Doel
et al., 2009).
The research had two main purposes: first, to establish what professional
boundaries guidance currently exists for social workers in the UK and,
second, to identify and discuss a number of other examples of professional
boundaries guidance (from outside the UK and from other professions)
which would act as illuminative points of reference.
A note on terminology
‘Professional boundaries’ is used to describe the boundary between
what is acceptable and unacceptable for a professional to do, both at
work and outside it, and also the boundaries of a professional’s practice
(e.g. whether complementary therapies can be undertaken by the
professional as part of their work). It should not be confused with bound-
ary disputes between different professions, namely inter-professional
The research process
The research had four components.
Page 2 of 24 Mark Doel et al.
Literature review
A literature search was conducted using twenty-two databases in seven
related professional areas: social work, nursing, criminal justice/policing,
health and allied professionals, physiotherapy, counselling and teaching.
Keywords used were:
professional boundar* OR professional guid* OR professional conduct AND
social work*; nurs*; criminal justice OR law; police OR policing; counsel*;
physiotherapy OR health or therap*; teach*
professional standard* OR professional ethic* AND
social work*; nurs*; criminal justice OR law; police OR policing;
counsel*; physiotherapy OR health or therap*; teach*
GSCC or General Social Care Council AND
social work*; nurs*; criminal justice OR law; police OR policing;
counsel*; physiotherapy OR health or therap*; teach*.
The search was restricted to post-2000 results, except where an article title
seemed especially relevant. A first sift of titles was undertaken, leading to a
second sort of abstracts. One hundred and nine articles of core relevance
were selected and read for inclusion in the analysis.
Twelve very brief scenarios were developed to illustrate different kinds of
ambiguous boundary issues (see Appendix). They were designed to provide
a picture of actual responses to professional boundary issues, how these
conclusions are made and what actions are considered.
The scenarios were e-mailed, with an introductory and personalised
message, to a convenience sample of 142 informants across nine countries
(UK, Eire, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden
and, with translation, Germany) and to a convenience sample of six
related professions (social work, nursing, medicine, educational psychol-
ogy, probation and occupational therapy). The largest proportion of infor-
mants before and after snowballing was UK social work professionals in a
range of agencies in the statutory and voluntary sectors and in educational
settings and in a variety of different job roles. Each informant was asked to
forward the scenarios to further potential informants. There were forty-
nine responses within the deadline, of which 59 per cent were derived
from ‘snowballing’ (i.e. they were not direct informants). There was a
total of 504 separate scenario responses and these were analysed and
coded for themes. The nature of the sample meant that the survey gener-
ated illustrative rather than systematically representative responses.
Professional Boundaries Page 3 of 24
Policy documents
Informants were asked what codes of practice (e.g. BASW, 2002; GSCC,
2002; NASW, 2008; SSSC, 2005) and agency policies would be relevant to
each scenario and were requested to return electronic copies of these.
Seventeen policy documents were received from eight respondents (seven
UK, one Australian) amounting to 269 pages of information and represent-
ing a wide spread of agencies—statutory city and county, small local volun-
tary organisations and large national charities. The content, style and
purpose of these documents were analysed.
Telephone interviews
Telephone interviews were conducted with three types of professional body:
regulatory bodies (General Medical Council, GMC; General Teaching
Council, GTC; Health Professions Council, HPC; Nursing and Midwifery
Council, NMC);
overseeing regulator (Council for HealthcareRegulatoryExcellence, CHRE);
professional organisations (Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, CSP;
College of Occupational Therapists, COT; College of Radiographers, COR).
In all cases, the person interviewed was put forward by the organisation in
the light of e-mail and phone enquiry. The precise title and role of the inter-
viewee varied but, in all cases, it was someone senior who felt able to give an
organisational view on the topics.
Strengths and limitations of the research
The seven-strong research team comprised several professions and had a
strong background in ethics. Individual members were well connected so
that the snowballing technique had a wide and immediate reach. The
team included the specialist help of an Information Advisor to manage
the complex task of electronic literature searches.
As indicated, there was a range of strategies in the research design and
this gives us some confidence that the findings are ‘triangulated’. The gath-
ering and analysis of policy documents actually in use, linked to the snap-
shots gained through the scenarios about their use, were unusual and
produced some interesting findings.
However, the convenience sample is both a strength and a limitation. It
does not provide a representative sample but it did generate considerable
illustrative material. With hindsight, it would have been useful to have
asked informants to rate the seriousness of each scenario, which would
have provided a quantitative measure by which to compare responses
(within each scenario from informant to informant, and across scenarios).
Page 4 of 24 Mark Doel et al.
Any comparisons between the scenarios—and any sense of the hierarchy of
principles that is discussed in some of the literature—had to be inferred
from the text of the responses.
Research ethics
Approval to pursue the research elements of the project was obtained from
the Chair of the Faculty Research Ethics Committee at Sheffield Hallam
University. Respondents were assured of anonymity and confidentiality
and no particular ethical issues were identified.
Findings from the review of the literature
Prevalence, kind and range
The prevalence of professional boundary issues is difficult to estimate, not
least because of the differing definitions as to what is considered to be a
crossing, a transgression or a violation (Austin et al., 2006). The number
of formal expulsions from professional bodies is one way to measure preva-
lence. The evidence from Stromm-Gottfried (2003) and Phelan (2007), both
in the USA, suggests that rates are steady or even in decline, but that they
vary across organisations. Our findings also suggest that very different
actions are likely to be taken in different agencies in the UK with no
obvious factors to explain this.
Sexual violations are the most commonly reported of boundary violations
(Halter et al., 2009; Stromm-Gottfried, 2000), but the focus of our research
was the grey areas rather than obvious violations. Examples of professional
boundary breaches in allied health professions varied from severe acts of
cruelty involving de-humanising patients and abuse and harassment
(Boon and Turner, 2004) to the less serious, such as accepting gifts
(Browne and Russell, 2005). Financial transgressions figure more promi-
nently in the US literature, where a distinction is made between pro-
fessional boundaries and other kinds of violation around issues such as
poor practice, competence, record keeping, honesty, confidentiality,
informed consent, collegial actions, reimbursement and conflicts of interest
(Stromm-Gottfried, 2000). Of course, any single reported incident might
result in a number of different violations.
A report of social work activity in England between 2003 and 2008 (GSCC,
2008) recorded that allegations were received about less than 1 per cent (n¼
503) of the registered workforce in 2007 08 and in 2006 08, only 0.04 per
cent (n¼36) of the total workforce of social workers and students have
appeared before a hearing. The largest source of complaint was the public
and people who use services (44 per cent), followed by the employer
(35 per cent). By far the largest category of complaint was poor professional
Professional Boundaries Page 5 of 24
practice (46 per cent). Only 9 per cent of complaints related to inappropriate
relationships. However, the pattern was for multiple and related transgres-
sions. The most common professional boundary breach was related to
‘behave in a way, in work or outside work, which would call into question
your suitability to work in social care services’ (GSCC, 2008, p. 18).
Recognition and reporting
Reporting of incidents is an important theme in the literature. A study of
students revealed a high level of willingness to act in situations viewed as
detrimental to service users, but this form of self-report is unreliable (Man-
sbach and Bachner, 2009). Asquith and Cheers (2001) examined the moral
issues that fifteen social workers faced over a one-month period and discov-
ered that the main source of influence to resolve these issues were the prac-
titioners’ personal moral perspectives. Tellingly, most of these resolutions
did not conform to accepted social work ethical practice principles. This
finding is reinforced by a study that suggested that professional socialisation
did not seem to affect the ethical judgement of the social workers and stu-
dents in the study; the only variable that significantly affected their ethical
judgements was religiosity (Landau, 1999).
Reamer (2000) suggests that social workers should perform a kind of
‘social work ethics’ audit regularly in order to facilitate confidence in
reporting. The Social Work Ethics Audit is described as an ‘easy-to-use
tool to [help practitioners] examine their ethics related practices, policies
and procedures’ (Kirkpatrick et al., 2006, p. 225), but the literature suggests
that making boundary decisions requires ethical competence rather than fol-
lowing a framework of instructions (Peternelj-Taylor and Yonge, 2003).
Integrating ethical codes more fully into professional training is seen as
one way of managing the tension between over-vague principles and over-
instructive diktats (Gastman, 2002). In an American study, Masters of
Social Work (MSW) students indicated that they did not feel adequately
prepared to handle sexual feelings towards or from a service user
(Berkman et al., 2000).
Dobrowolska et al. (2007) argue that norms are established according to
recurring situations, such as by publishing professional misconduct case
studies and considering these in the light of relevant clauses of the pro-
fessional code (see Castledine, 2003).
The importance of context is highlighted by research indicating that social
workers change their professional and personal ethical hierarchies depend-
ing on their professional situations (Landau and Osmo, 2003). Given social
Page 6 of 24 Mark Doel et al.
work’s holistic perspective, it is unsurprising that issues of relativism and
universalism are considered in the literature. Squaring the circle of respect-
ing culture while upholding professional ethics is difficult. Healy (2007) rec-
ommends a moderately universalist stance; that is, one in which certain
principles or rules of ethics are said to hold universally (e.g. not to abuse
children). Nevertheless, a comparative study of Cuban and Canadian pro-
fessionals found very different stories about the meaning of professional
ethics, reflecting the strength of collectivist and individualist societies,
respectively (Rossiter et al., 2002); prevailing ideologies clearly have an
impact on specific codes of practice.
Another significant contextual factor is the kind of work that the social
worker is undertaking. Du
¨vell and Jordan (2001) found that the boundary
issues for social workers with asylum seekers were exceptionally sharp,
given the workers’ acknowledgement that the prevailing standards in their
agencies were unacceptable, in terms of human rights, decency, efficiency
and social justice. The rural/urban context also emerges as significant, with
the likelihood of dual relationships (knowing service users in other guises)
more common in rural communities (Austin et al., 2006; Pugh, 2007).
Organisational contexts were strong in the scenario responses, less so in
the literature. Banks (2004, 2006) sees the increasing proceduralisation of
social work and other changes in role as a threat to the idea of a single
code of professional ethics, especially with the strengthening of a consumer-
ist approach to the social work profession. Dietz and Thompson (2004) con-
trast a patriarchal ‘distance’ model of social worker client relationships
and a feminist ‘relational’ model; they view the drive to proceduralise
social worker service user relationships as a strengthening of the patriar-
chal model. Indeed, the agency’s desire to protect itself can lead to a
failure to meet service user needs (Browne and Russell, 2005).
The local context can become a strong sub-culture. This was particularly
noted in the policing literature (Alain, 2004; Marc and Martin, 2008; West-
marland, 2001, 2005), with a focus on anti-corruption and ‘integrity’ policies
and strong leadership (Lamboo et al., 2008; Moran, 2002; Punch, 2000). Local
sub-cultures can introduce alternative ethical hierarchies, including a code of
silence (Ekenvall, 2002). Also of wider relevance is the notion of ethical
burnout; Catlin and Maupin (2002) found that new male police
recruits were predominantly ‘idealistic’, whilst their counterparts of one
year’s experience in the job were predominantly ‘relativist’. Similar
changes were identified in Alain and Gre
´goire’s (2008) study of Quebec
police recruits.
Professional identity
Meulenbergs et al.’s (2004) finding that codes of ethics are part of the pro-
fessionalisation of nursing as a means of self-assertion and an expression of
Professional Boundaries Page 7 of 24
identity is probably true of other professions. Similarly transferable is the
conclusion that if interpreted in a literal way, codes produce the opposite
effect from that intended, forcing nurses to disguise their errors and not
making accurate reports (Esterhuizen, 1996); the professional’s commit-
ment to act rightly according to moral standards is transferred to a focus
on compliance with the code (Pattison, 2001). Yoder (1998) sees ethical
expertise as inter-disciplinary and, therefore, wider than clinical expertise,
with codes unable to replace a professional’s ethical sensitivity and individ-
ual decision making.
The successful resolution of professional boundaries issues might depend
on achieving a balance between personal privacy, the safety of vulnerable
individuals and the protection of the wider public. Clark (2006) suggests
that there should be more focus on the collective common good to
balance current obsessions with defending individual interests.
Our understanding of professional boundaries should be balanced by
research into the views of service users, but these do not figure strongly in
the research. However, Lord Nelson et al. (2004) discovered that the families
in their study had a preference for practitioners who were flexible with bound-
aries, and who went beyond a strict interpretation of the professional’s role.
Findings from the scenarios
In the tradition of vignettes used for training (Bowman and Hughes, 2005),
twelve brief scenarioswere designed to act as a trigger for informants to con-
sider the actual response likely from their agency (see Appendix). A fewinfor-
mants responded as a pair or as a team. Some asked to use the scenarios in the
future for continuing professional development purposes. Every scenario
drew wide and varying opinions with little consensus and the sub-samples
were too small to draw any comparative conclusions. Even when there was
a consensus that action should or would be taken (such as 89 per cent of
those responding to Scenario 2, A social worker overclaims mileage allowance
in order to fund a group for services users), there was a wide range of opinion
about what the action should be (see later). No obvioussubgroups are evident,
though we will propose one possible explanation for these differences later.
Most informants explored a range of contextual factors for each scenario
and these frequently differed from one to another. They included: first
Page 8 of 24 Mark Doel et al.
time or recurrent; attitude of the professional to the discovery of the trans-
gression; medical condition; care plan; inside work, outside work.
There were frequent comments suggesting that no action would occur if the
breach was ‘out of sight, out of mind’. ‘We have a specific policy on this but
common-sense would prevail!’ (Scenario 5, Informant 7). Notions of scale
(‘is it just the price of a cup of tea that is borrowed?’—Scenario 8) and
‘common sense’ influenced whether action would be triggered. For two
respondents, it was not necessarily the nature of the action, but a pragmatic
view as to whether the worker undertaking the behaviour could be traced to
the specific agency (Scenario 12a).
Wide range of responses
There was a wide range of responses, not just concerning whether action
would or should be taken, but what the likely course of the investigation
would take and the different outcomes, frequently varying from a quiet
word in supervision through to dismissal.
Levels of (un)certainty
Levels of certainty anddoubt varied as widely as the decisions recorded. One
person was ‘stumped’ by virtually all the scenarios: ‘I don’t really know the
honest answer to 1– 10’ (Informant 39). Others felt able, even on the quite
limited information from the brief scenario, to make definitive judgements.
Local culture and possible subsets
The numbers were insufficient to generalise, but there was a hint of notable
differences in some subsets such as the responses of a group of five African
doctors and nurses. ‘Some of these questions do not fit our own context in
Nigeria .... The supervision of staff is not that close and stringent .... Same
sex marriages are not allowed and making wrong allowance claims is not
uncommon’ (Informant 45).
Roles and remits
Although there were disagreements about what the social work (or other
professional) role is, there was a more consistent view that professional
Professional Boundaries Page 9 of 24
boundaries were related to role and to ideas of good practice. Crossing
boundaries inappropriately is not, then, just a moral issue, but a question
of fitness to practise.
Frequently, the make-or-break position was whether there had been prior
agreement with the agency about the boundary crossed. In addition,
there was an onus on the agency to make it clear when they employed
new staff what was and was not considered to be acceptable. ‘Prospective
employees are reminded at interview that they cannot discriminate, so
they have had the opportunity to discuss these issues before (which
would make it worse if they now refused to do this work?)’ (Scenario 3,
Informant 32).
Reporting is uncommon
Even when there was considerable unanimity that a code has been
breached (as in §12) and when dismissal was being considered, only
in one case did one person consider informing the professional body
(Scenario 2, Informant 37). Informants were more likely to refer to
agency codes of conduct than professional codes of practice; but they
were even more likely to refer to neither of these, relying on an implicit per-
sonal code.
Power of individual manager
The employer seemed to be a stronger reference point than the profession,
and the individual manager appeared to have exceptional power in terms of
whether action would be taken, irrespective of the existence of the agency
code. Two managers in the same city, for example, were at odds in their
response to Scenario 12a (the lap dancer), starkly revealing the significance
of the operational manager in making decisions about whether action
would or would not be taken—and that this was dependent more on the
manager’s moral stance than on the employment code or professional
code of practice.
Service user rights
The reference points for informants tended to emphasise either the agency
(possible disrepute, etc.) or the service user (protection, power, safety, etc.).
Page 10 of 24 Mark Doel et al.
Some of the former responses placed service users at great distance, almost
as an out-caste. ‘The [former] service user [who became engaged to a social
worker] could not receive future services from the agency UNLESS the
social worker no longer works there’ (Scenario 1, Informant 7). Human
rights were not mentioned in any of the scenario responses, which suggests
that this part of the equation (balancing protection with notions of fellow
citizenship) was weak.
Findings from the policy documents
The seventeen policy documents elicited from the snowballing exercise
were reviewed for content, style and purpose. Their overarching purpose
seemed to be to set the parameters within which employees should
operate. Broadly, they described measures to reduce the likelihood of inap-
propriate behaviour and to improve management processes in preventing
and responding to allegations of professional boundary crossings. There
was an expectation that employees would read and be familiar with their
The documents stated principles and expectations that were considered
to be binding for professionals. Some codes implied a distinction between
misconduct (a failure to follow a workplace rule) and poor performance
(failure to work to an acceptable level). Typically, they made reference
to complementary and conduct-related policies.
The policies outlined courses of action that were intended to influence
and determine the decision making and behaviour of professionals.
While there were differences in emphases, the guidance outlined what
professionals should do by stating particular courses of action. Similarly,
the procedures and protocols specified particular steps to be followed.
They hinged on methods and ways of proceeding at micro and macro
The documents cited legislation, principles and values to different
degrees. Few, however, confirmed the existence of ‘grey areas’ or of the
complexity of dilemmas requiring judgements of value where there may
be grounds for misgivings about the possibilities for full resolution.
However, there were glimpses of a more reflective approach, with employ-
ers exploring competing understandings of professional boundaries:
Personal and professional boundaries need to be established by all members
of staff .... Service Z will strive to ensure that staff do not seek to control
clients or colleagues and will not tolerate abuse within the workplace ....
The need to establish, maintain or modify boundaries will be discussed as
part of induction .... Training in boundary issues is compulsory for staff
...staff requiring additional training relating to boundaries will be sup-
ported to do this as part of their individual training programme (from the
Boundaries Policy and Procedures of a National Voluntary Organisation).
Professional Boundaries Page 11 of 24
The documents were concerned with the reputation of employers. Thus,
statements included:
Please inform the communications department of any activity that could
positively (or negatively) impact upon our reputation ...(from a National
Organisation’s Media Contact Policy).
You are employed by X City Council and that means you are a local govern-
ment officer. You and the services you provide are paid for by public money
and therefore you are accountable to the public for your behaviour, actions
and decisions. You must not only behave properly, you should also be seen
to behave in a way that is beyond question (from a Code of Conduct for
Starkly expressed directives, duties and obligations were not consistently
accompanied by a rationale or explanatory framework and might be
described as pre-reflective. They acknowledged that professional boundary
violations existed and confirmed that employers would have no truck with
breaches of professional trust. They suggested a preparedness for the claim,
‘But no one said I couldn’t have a relationship with a client’ and a readiness
to take action when professional boundaries are violated. All made clear
the limits to individuals exercising their professional power and authority.
The tasks of the authors of these documents appeared similar to those of
software companies. The latter write codes to protect their software,
which expose flaws, and as more products are developed, more codes are
required. Similarly, service managers identify new boundary violation pro-
blems and describe them in up-dated and revised policies and codes of
Broadly, the documents conveyed a greater readiness to engage with the
boundary violations arising from sexual relationships with service users
than among staff themselves. The ‘Dealing with Complaints about
Service Delivery’ policy of a city acknowledged that this may be the
vehicle via which ‘alerts’ pertaining to professional boundary violations
may occur—perhaps confirming the reluctance to speak out about the
actions of colleagues or those who are in positions of trust.
Findings from the consultation interviews
Telephone interviews were conducted with representatives of a number of
professional organisations to understand how these organisations view pro-
fessional boundary issues. There were three types of professional organis-
ation represented. The first were regulatory bodies (n¼4). Their role is
to maintain a register of professionals. They do this in various ways: some
set the standards that determine who enters a register; all keep a register
of professionals; and all have some process for determining the fitness to
practise of practitioners in the light of complaints. The second group
Page 12 of 24 Mark Doel et al.
were overseeing regulators (n¼1). Only one such is represented here: the
Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence (CHRE). It oversees nine
regulatory bodies. This involves inter alia an annual performance review,
a scrutiny of all fitness to practise decisions (around 1,000 annually), and
referral of cases to the High Court if the CHRE believe the regulatory
bodies have been too lenient. The third group interviewed were the Pro-
fessional Bodies (n¼3). These work on behalf of professionals as a type
of Trade Union. However, they also provide advice on professional issues
and publish various documents and codes.
The phone interviews lasted thirty-five to forty minutes and took the
form of fairly informal discussion during which the researcher made
notes that were sent to the interviewee to check over. In most cases, the
report was sent back with some changes and clarifications. The interviews
were structured around general questions concerning the definition of a
professional boundary issue and the types seen by the organisation. The
interview then turned to some specific examples of professional boundary
Themes from the interviews
In deciding what actions are acceptable both at and outside work, two key
factors were commonly cited. The first was fitness to practise: the pro-
fessional organisations would ask to what extent lack of such fitness was
represented by the action. Broadly, this seemed to translate into whether
the professional was able to do his or her job reasonably well and without
undue risk of harm to the service user. This covered bare competency, as
in the requirement that those taking on additional roles or treatments
must be suitably qualified, but it also covered normative behaviour. A pro-
fessional’s membership of a racist political party might indicate an inability
to work with ethnic minorities and, therefore, to work at all in the pro-
fession. Similarly, a professional who makes lewd or suggestive comments
to some service users would be of concern. Hence, behaviour both at
work and outside was relevant in indicating fitness to practise. One of the
most important reasons for enforcing professional boundaries was to
protect people.
The second factor commonly cited as relevant in decisions about pro-
fessional boundary violations was public confidence in the profession or
the professional. This was sometimes described in consequentialist form:
for example, behaviour X is unacceptable because the public would not
have confidence in the professional who did that sort of thing. There is
no necessary suggestion here that the behaviour itself is wrong, only that
it undermines confidence. Sometimes, the behaviour was described more
deontologically: for example, behaviour X is unacceptable because it
shows lack of integrity; professionals should have integrity and this shows
Professional Boundaries Page 13 of 24
that he or she does not. This might lie behind some difference in emphasis
in some of the replies. Those who were more inclined to be concerned by
legal but disapproved-of behaviour sometimes cited public concern.
However, the thought that, for example, being a member of a private Swin-
gers’ club could be of concern might also reflect idea that this reveals some-
thing unacceptable about the professional himself or herself. It could be
argued that if the public’s confidence is undermined, then so what? They
should not expect professionals to be superhuman or saintly.
Overall, the interviews suggested that it might be useful to think of pro-
fessional boundaries as a circle of two, as shown in Figure 1. The inner
circle of boundaries concerns fitness to practise; someone who violates this
circle is harming or likely to harm people. Someone who is racist at work
or a rapist outside would clearly be in this category. So also would be the pro-
fessional with serious drink or drug problems. The outer circle concerns the
public confidence in the professional or the profession. Someone who vio-
lates this circle is undermining confidence, displaying a lack of integrity
and so forth; but they are not necessarily displaying lack of fitness to practise.
The professional who gossips on Facebook, or who takes Ecstasy tablets
occasionally at parties, might be an example of this. Perhaps it is this outer
circle that represents the grey area for which it is difficult to be prescriptive.
Various key themes emerged from the findings, which are discussed in turn.
Crossing the line or entering the shadows?
The very word ‘boundary’ is full of ambiguities. For some, a boundary is a
clear demarcation between x and y. This is consistent with strong views that
Figure 1 Competence and confidence.
Page 14 of 24 Mark Doel et al.
there are right and wrong, and universal moral principles that can prescribe
correct and incorrect behaviours (Figure 2).
For others, the idea of ‘boundary’ is not so clearcut. Boundaries are more
like a no-man’s land, or a disputed piece of territory that is capable of being
claimed by many sides. Moreover, the rules that are used to determine who
might claim what part of the territory are also changing and negotiable.
From this perspective, crossing a boundary is not necessarily a violation
or a transgression, since the boundary areas are fluid (Austin et al., 2006).
Indeed, many practitioners might cross these boundaries trying to be
helpful; they could drift incrementally into one of the indeterminate
areas. From this perspective, boundaries are shadow areas where two or
more systems overlap (Figure 3).
Those individuals or agencies that see boundaries as lines—and therefore
every crossing as a violation—are more likely to see the need for a highly
prescribed code of conduct. Those who view boundaries as shifting areas
of shadow, where flexibility can become transgression, will be more inclined
to a set of guidance based on general principles that require interpretation
in the light of the particular circumstances. Of course, these different para-
digms can have serious consequences: a social worker who came from one
agency where gift acceptance was the norm and part of the agency’s thera-
peutic approach to mutual help would be exceptionally vulnerable moving
Figure 2 Crossing the line.
Figure 3 Entering the shadows.
Professional Boundaries Page 15 of 24
to an agency where gift acceptance was viewed as tantamount to grooming.
Perhaps the existence of these sharply at-odds paradigms explains the wide
differences noted in the scenarios about the action that different informants
would take.
Reference points
Two contrasting reference points are evident. For some, the key question
was ‘how does this affect the service user?’ (Figure 4). That, in turn, can
be from an empowering point of view or a paternalistic, protective one of
a ‘vulnerable person’. Those on the other side of the line ask themselves,
‘how does this affect the agency?’ The two are not mutually exclusive,
nor are they necessarily always compatible.
These reference points are linked to notions of social distance, with some
scenario informants clearly seeing service users as a different caste, ‘others’
from whom professionals must be resolutely separate. This might be seen as
defensive self-preservation from a hostile public or as a failure to see people
who use services as fellow citizens. The patriarchal distance model of social
workerclient relationships identified by Dietz and Thompson (2004)
emerged as perhaps dominant over the feminist ‘relational’ model they
describe. It seems clear that service users are not routinely involved in
developing codes of practice or in discussions about professional bound-
aries, though what evidence we have suggests they prefer professionals
who are able to be flexible and ‘human’ (Browne and Russell, 2005; Doel
and Best, 2008; Lord Nelson et al., 2004).
Only occasionally was the possibility that professionals and service users
might be one and the same person considered:
The [scenario] implies that service users and staff are completely separate
rather than overlapping groups. Any policy or approach to managing
these issues needs to address the possibility that staff may also use services
(Scenario 6, Informant 18).
Contextual issues
We have highlighted the significance of case-specific contexts, but it is clear
that there are wider socio-political influences. Differences in the ways that
Figure 4 Reference points.
Page 16 of 24 Mark Doel et al.
professional boundaries are drawn and conceived are probably at their most
pronounced if one considers the contrasts between collectivist and individu-
alist societies (Rossiter et al., 2002) and societies that have strong religious
beliefs (Dobrowolska et al., 2007).
Figure 5 attempts to capture the wider influences and to illustrate the
many potential ‘pinch-points’ for boundary quandaries (the intersections
between the circles).
Personal and professional moralities
Because personal moral codes are developed incrementally throughout our
lives and drawn from personal experiences, it should not surprise us that
these codes seem more likely to influence us than professional standards
(Asquith and Cheers, 2001), though religiosity has also been found to
have a strong influence (Landau, 1999). This must lead us to the conclusion
that a professional or regulatory code of ethics is unlikely to have as strong
an impact on the behaviour of the individual professional as the creators of
the code might hope.
Sliding scales and hierarchies of principles
‘Slippery slope’ is a term mentioned in two of the scenarios’ responses and
present in the literature. For some, even a penny overclaimed (Scenario 2)
Figure 5 Boundary zones.
Professional Boundaries Page 17 of 24
was a dismissible offence because, once crossed, this breach could lead to
much more serious transgressions, namely larger sums of money.
Lowenberg and Dolgoff (1996) propose a hierarchy of principles in which
financial probity sits below, for example, distributive justice. However, the
response to the mileage over-claim (Scenario 2) suggests that financial
probity is rated highly and far outweighs any support for redistributive
justice implied by the motivation for the over-claim. In contrast, a commit-
ment to anti-discriminatory practice, which relates to one of the highest of
Lowenberg and Dolgoff’’s principles, was evident in only some of the
responses to Scenario 3, in which a social worker refuses to work with a
same-sex couple. Whilst not viewing it as right per se, a significant minority
of informants were prepared to accommodate this discriminatory behaviour
and would favour transferring the case quietly to another worker. The refer-
ence to ‘religious beliefs’ seemed to be important to many informants.
Identification and investigation
As we noted in the literature review, the prevalence of boundary transgres-
sions is difficult to estimate, not least because of the discrepancies in what is
considered to be a transgression (Pope and Vettner, 1992). What evidence
we have suggests that boundary violations, certainly as reported to pro-
fessional bodies, are steady (Phelan, 2007; Stromm-Gottfried, 2003). Preva-
lence is important because it relates to the ways in which codes of practice
are developed: do they arise because there are recurring patterns of miscon-
duct or do they arise from highly unusual one-off situations?
The question of prevalence begs those of detection and reporting. The
most likely people to be aware of boundary issues are colleagues but
what likelihood is there of whistle-blowing? Of course, it is difficult to
research what is not reported, but the responses to the scenarios elicited
only two instances of the informant declaring that they knew of a similar
instance happening; and there were a number of ‘sympathy’ responses:
‘Action would probably be taken against the social worker by the council
[for publicising a client’s plight, scenario §6] but again as people may
have sympathy with the situation who would report the social worker?’
(Scenario 6, Informant 38).
One informant recognised that the manner in which a possible transgres-
sion is detected has an impact on the subsequent investigation: ‘The type of
action [taken] depends on whether this formed a part of a complaint or
came to light in a different way’ (Scenario 7, Informant 31). When there
was concern about a possible transgression, who would decide whether
further action was taken? ‘It would be down to the agency to interpret
[the code of practice]’ (Scenario 1, Informant 13); and how wide would
the investigation go? ‘[We] would want to know a lot more about the
Page 18 of 24 Mark Doel et al.
member of staff and service user’s possible use of cannabis’ (Scenario 7,
Informant 28).
Positive boundary crossing
Because complaints come to light in the way that compliments do not, it is
very difficult to estimate how much good and effective practice is taking
place in the shadow areas, where some social workers are prepared to
cross hard and fast lines and to ‘go the extra mile’, but there is evidence
that boundary crossing can be something to celebrate rather than suppress
(Boland-Prom and Anderson, 2005; Turbett, 2009) and more research into
service users’ opinions about professional boundaries is needed.
The relative absence of grey areas, the shadows, in agency policy documen-
tation about professional conduct is in stark contrast to the reality of every-
day practice (as exposed by the responses to the scenarios). Furthermore,
the task of providing bullet-point lists to steer professionals away from
the shadows, or through them, is near impossible. It is highly unlikely
that a breach of professional boundary was caused by the absence of a
bullet point in a code of practice.
Our research suggests that the best way to help professionals avoid trans-
gressions is to provide them with opportunities for regular ethical exercise.
Informants commented how invigorating they found the ‘ethical hill climb’
of considering the scenarios, and how this could aid team-building. At
present, agency codes of conduct seem to be rather like insurance policies
that are only brought out from the bottom drawer when the front-room
carpet has been spoiled to see whether a claim can be made or not.
Ethical engagement is more than that, and much more than an occasional
audit; it is an active and regular engagement with ethical issues in order
to inform everyday practice and to remain ethically alert (Khele et al.,
Codes of practice should be developed by an ethically engaged workforce
in concert with service users, bottom-up rather than top-down. The first
step is a recognition that a code of practice, whilst a useful starting point,
can never fill every contingency and is not an algorithm of conduct in a
morally difficult situation. A more strategic approach should embed pro-
fessional boundary issues in the daily reality of good practice. Concrete
scenarios can engage with these realities and tease out the personal moral
codes and belief systems that are so much more significant than objective
codes. It is important to ensure that agencies are open to learning and
that boundary issues are not forced underground. Workers and supervisors
Professional Boundaries Page 19 of 24
need to be able to recognise ‘red flags’ of potential misconduct or proble-
matic behaviours. If codes are seen as hostile rules that must be
managed, they are likely to fail in their intent. Moreover, boundaries
should not always be seen as problematic; some service users appreciate
professionals who can cross boundaries, but this must be in a transparent
and considered manner.
A long list of principles or standards risks losing sight of the wood for the
trees. For example, NASW (the National Association of Social Workers in
the USA) upped its list from eighty to 155 in 1999. Would it not be better to
learn how to navigate through the wood rather than to count, map and
identify all 155 trees? Is it at all likely that a 156th principle or standard
would actually have prevented this professional from breaching that bound-
ary? Though we need more research to know why individuals breach pro-
fessional boundaries, the findings from this research suggest that a broad
strategy that develops the ethical engagement of the professional workforce
is likely to be the most effective way forward.
Accepted: August 2009
We would like to acknowledge the General Social Care Council, who com-
missioned the research on which this article is based and, in particular, the
GSCC team, Rachel Newman, Yvonne Rogan and Kerrin Clapton for their
support and encouragement. Our thanks, too, to the many people who
responded to the scenarios and to those who gave their time for the tele-
phone interviews.
Alain, M. (2004) ‘A measure of the propensity of Quebec police officers to denounce
deviant behaviour, elements of police and organizational cultures’, Deviance et
Societe,28(1), pp. 331.
Alain, M. and Gre
´goire, M. (2008) ‘Can ethics survive the shock of the job? Quebec’s
police recruits confront reality’, Policing & Society,18(2), pp. 169 89.
Asquith, M. and Cheers, B. (2001) ‘Morals, ethics and practice—in search of social
justice’, Australian Social Work,54(2), pp. 1526.
Austin, W., Bergum, V., Nuttgens, S. and Peternelj-Taylor, C. (2006) ‘A re-visioning of
boundaries, professional helping relationships: Exploring other metaphors’, Ethics &
Behavior,16(2), pp. 7794.
Banks, S. (2004) ‘Professional integrity, social work and the ethics of distrust’, Social
Work and Social Sciences Review,11(2), pp. 2035.
Banks, S. (2006) Ethics and Values in Social Work, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Palgrave
Page 20 of 24 Mark Doel et al.
BASW (2002) ‘The Code of Ethics for Social Work’, British Association of Social Workers,
available online at (accessed 27 March 2009).
Berkman, C. S., Turner, S. G., Cooper, M., Polnerow, D. and Swartz, M. (2000) ‘Sexual
contact with clients: Assessment of social workers’ attitudes and educational prep-
aration’, Social Work,45(3), pp. 22335.
Boland-Prom, K. and Anderson, S. C. (2005) ‘Teaching ethical decision making using
dual relationship principles as a case example’, Journal of Social Work Education
(Special Issue): Innovations in Gerontological Social Work Education,41(3), pp.
Boon, K. and Turner, J. (2004) ‘Ethical and professional conduct of medical students:
Review of current assessment measures and controversies’, Journal of Medical
Ethics,30, pp. 2216.
Bowman, D. and Hughes, P. (2005) ‘Emotional responses of tutors and students in
problem-based learning: Lessons for staff development’, Medical Education,39,pp.
Browne, J. and Russell, S. (2005) ‘My home, your workplace: People with physical dis-
ability negotiate their sexual health without crossing professional boundaries’, Dis-
ability & Society,20(4), pp. 37588.
Castledine, G. (2003) ‘Professional misconduct case studies: Case 93: Triage nursing:
Triage nurse who did not follow the protocols and forged her references’, British
Journal of Nursing,12(10), 589.
Catlin, D. W. and Maupin, J. R. (2002) ‘Ethical orientations of state police recruits and
one-year experienced officers’, Journal of Criminal Justice,30(6), pp. 491 8.
Clark, C. (2006) ‘Against confidentiality? Privacy, safety and the public good in pro-
fessional communications’, Journal of Social Work,6(2), pp. 11736.
Dietz, C. and Thompson, J. (2004) ‘Rethinking boundaries: Ethical dilemmas in the
social workerclient relationship’, Journal of Progressive Human Services,15(2),
pp. 124.
Dobrowolska, B., Wronska, I., Fidecki, W. and Wysokinski, M. (2007) ‘Moral obligations
of nurses based on the ICN, UK, Irish and Polish codes of ethics for nurses’, Nursing
Ethics,14(2), pp. 17180.
Doel, M. and Best, L. (2008) Experiencing Social Work: Learning from Service Users,
London, Sage.
Doel, M., Allmark, P., Conway, P., Cowburn, M., Flynn, M., Nelson, P. and Tod, A.
(2009) ‘Professional boundaries’, research report, London, General Social Care
Council, available online at
¨vell, F. and Jordan, B. (2001) ‘“How low can you go?” Dilemmas of social work with
asylum seekers in London’, Journal of Social Work Research and Evaluation,2(2), pp.
Ekenvall, B. (2002) ‘Police attitudes towards fellow officers’ misconduct: The Swedish
case and a comparison with the USA and Croatia’, Journal of Scandinavian Studies
in Criminology and Crime Prevention,3(2), pp. 210 32.
Esterhuizen, P. (1996) ‘Is the professional code still the cornerstone of clinical nursing
practice?’, Journal of Advanced Nursing,23, pp. 2531.
Gastman, C. (2002) ‘A fundamental ethical approach to nursing: Some proposals for
ethics education’, Nursing Ethics,9(5), pp. 494505.
GSCC (2002) Codes of Practice for Social Care Workers and Employers, London,
General Social Care Council, available online at
27 March 2009).
Professional Boundaries Page 21 of 24
GSCC (2008) Raising Standards: Social Work Conduct in England, General Social Care
Council, available online at
Halter, M., Brown, H. and Stone, J. (2009) ‘Sexual boundary violations by health pro-
fessional: An overview of the published empirical literature’, Council for Healthcare
Regulatory Excellence, London.
Healy, L. M. (2007) ‘Universalism and cultural relativism in social work ethics’, Inter-
national Social Work,50(1), pp. 1126.
Khele, S., Symons, C. and Wheeler, S. (2008) ‘An analysis of complaints to the British
association for counselling and psychotherapy, 1996– 2006’, Counselling and Psy-
chotherapy Research,8(2), pp. 12432.
Kirkpatrick, W. J., Reamer, F. G. and Sykulski, M. (2006) ‘Social work ethics audits in
health care settings: A case study’, Health Social Work,31(3), pp. 2258.
Lamboo, T., Lasthuizen, K. and Huberts, L. W. J. C. (2008) ‘How to encourage ethical
behaviour’, in Huberts, L. W. J. C., Maesschalck, J. and Jurkiewicz, C. L. (eds),
Ethics and Integrity of Governance, Northampton, MA, Edward Elgar Publishing.
Landau, R. (1999) ‘Professional socialization, ethical judgment and decision making
orientation in social work’, Journal of Social Service Research,125(4), pp. 5775.
Landau, R. and Osmo, R. (2003) ‘Professional and personal hierarchies of ethical prin-
ciples’, International Journal of Social Welfare,12(1), pp. 429.
Lord Nelson, L. G., Summers, J. A. and Turnbull, A. P. (2004) ‘Boundaries in family–
professional relationships: Implications for special education’, Remedial and Special
Education,25(3), pp. 15365.
Lowenberg, F. M. and Dolgoff, R. (1996) Ethical Decisions for Social Work Practice,
Itasca, IL, F. E. Peacock.
Mansbach, A. and Bachner, Y. G. (2009) ‘Self-reported likelihood of whistleblowing by
social work students’, Social Work Education,28(1), pp. 1828.
Marc, A. and Martin, G. (2008) ‘Can ethics survive the shock of the job? Quebec’s police
recruits confront reality’, Policing and Society,18(2), pp. 16989.
Meulenbergs, T., Verpeet, E., Schotsmans, P. and Gastmans, C. (2004) ‘Professional
codes in a changing nursing context: Literature review’, Journal of Advanced
Nursing,46(3), pp. 3316.
Moran, J. (2002) ‘Anti-corruption reforms in the police: Current strategies and issues’,
Police Journal,75(2), pp. 13759.
NASW (2008) ‘Code of Ethics’ (revised), National Association of Social Workers, avail-
able online at (accessed 27 March 2009).
Pattison, S. (2001) ‘Are nursing codes of practice ethical?’, Nursing Ethics,8(1), pp. 5 –18.
Peternelj-Taylor, C. A. and Yonge, O. (2003) ‘Exploring boundaries in the nurse client
relationship: Professional roles and responsibilities’, Perspectives in Psychiatric Care,
39(2), pp. 5566.
Phelan, J. E. (2007) ‘Membership expulsions for ethical violations from major counseling,
psychology, and social work organizations in the United States: A 10-year study’,
Psychological Reports,101(1), pp. 14552.
Pope, K. S. and Vettner, V. A. (1992) ‘Ethical dilemmas encountered by members of the
American Psychological Association: A material survey’, The American Psychologist,
47(1), pp. 397411.
Pugh, R. (2007) ‘Dual relationships: Personal and professional boundaries in rural social
work’, British Journal of Social Work,37(8), pp. 140623.
Punch, M. (2000) ‘Police corruption and its prevention’, European Journal on Criminal
Policy and Research,8(3), pp. 30124.
Page 22 of 24 Mark Doel et al.
Reamer, G. (2000) ‘The social work ethics audit: A risk-management strategy’, Social
Work,45(4), pp. 35566.
Rossiter, A., Walsh-Bowers, R. and Prilleltensky, I. (2002) ‘Ethics as a located story: A
comparison of North American and Cuban clinical ethics’, Theory & Psychology,
12(4), pp. 53356.
SSSC (2005) Codes of Practice, Dundee, Scottish Social Services Council.
Stromm-Gottfried, K. (2000) ‘Ensuring ethical practice: An examination of NASW Code
violations, 198697’, Social Work,45(3), pp. 251 61.
Stromm-Gottfried, K. (2003) ‘Understanding adjudication: Origins, targets, and out-
comes of ethics complaints’, Social Work,48(1), pp. 85– 94.
Turbett, C. (2009) ‘Tensions in the delivery of services in rural and remote Scotland’,
British Journal of Social Work,39, pp. 50621.
Westmarland, L. (2001) Gender and Policing: Sex Power and Police Culture, Cullompton,
Willan Publishing.
Westmarland, L. (2005) ‘Police ethics and integrity: Breaking the blue code of silence’,
Policing & Society,15(2), pp. 14565.
Yoder, S. D. (1998) ‘Experts in ethics? The nature of ethical expertise’, Hastings Center
Report,28, pp. 1119, quoted in Meulenbergs et al., 2004.
Appendix: The scenarios
Would your agency take action if the following information came to light?
What policies and procedures would come into play?
If it is likely that action would be taken, what would the action be?
(If you are answering this as a social work educator please consider how
your course might address each of these scenarios with students).
Do please attach electronic copies of any agency policies and procedures
that you feel are relevant to any of the scenarios below.
These same trigger questions were asked of each scenario:
Action would be taken: NO /YES
If ‘IT DEPENDS’ what might it depend on?
If YES, what codes of practice or agency policies would be relevant?
How are they likely to be used?
The term ‘social worker’ was replaced by the appropriate profession depend-
ing on the informant’s own profession.
§1 A social worker becomes engaged to a person who until two months ago
was a user of the agency that employs the social worker.
§2 A social worker overclaims mileage allowance in order to fund a group for
services users.
§3 A social worker refuses to work with a same-sex couple because it contra-
venes his/her religious beliefs.
Professional Boundaries Page 23 of 24
§4 A social worker invites a service user to pray with him/her.
§5 A social worker masturbates a 25 year old man who has lost use of his arms.
§6 A social worker appears on local television with a service user to publicise
the service user’s plight.
§7 A social worker gives advice about where a service user can purchase
§8 A social worker becomes aware that a colleague has borrowed money from
a service user
§9 A social worker uses hypnosis with a service user
§10 A social worker invites a homeless service user back to his/her home to
§11 A social worker discusses the details of a service user (without using their
name), to complain about their boss to other friends on Facebook.
§12 A social worker constantly fails to attend in-house and external training
and makes it know that they do not need any further training and have
no interest in professional development.
in a few snowballs, the twelfth scenario above was replaced by this one:
§12a A social worker is working as a dancer in a lap dancing club in their own
Page 24 of 24 Mark Doel et al.
... This dichotomy is an ongoing source of tension within social work, both ethically and practically. Previous research has highlighted the difficulties for social workers in enacting the dichotomy, and its potential to undermine relationships between service users and social workers, as well as Indigenous and feminist ways of relating (Beresford et al., 2008;Alexander and Charles, 2009;Doel et al., 2010;O'Leary et al., 2013;Grant and Mandell, 2016;Shevellar and Barringham, 2016). This work predominantly uses social workers' experiences and perspectives. ...
... Enacting the personal/professional dichotomy Working from the assumption that the personal/professional are intimately intertwined, enacting the dichotomy involves concealment, suppressing worker vulnerabilities or experiences of suffering and obscuring evidence of workers being effected by and through socio-material relations, including service users. Previous social work research suggests that this is enacted through codes of ethics, legal regulations, medical and positivist discourses, accrediting bodies, neoliberal market values and managerial approaches to care, worker desires and emotions such as fear and insecurity (Doel et al., 2010;Banks, 2011;Grant and Mandell, 2016;Shevellar and Barringham, 2016). Within mental health settings, our mapping suggests additional relations are involved, including forms, iPads, KPIs, clinical spaces, 'recovery' and 'fit-to work' discourses, temporal rhythms and worker practices such as 'go(ing) off to the toilets (to) have a cry', 'learning the mask thing' and wearing the 'I've got my shit together fac¸ade'. ...
... social work. For example, previous social work research shows that social work practices and processes enact the dichotomy, producing social workers as 'detached' (Beresford et al., 2008), service users as 'a different caste' (Doel et al., 2010(Doel et al., , p. 1881, and affects such as disconnection and dehumanisation (Alexander and Charles, 2009). Similarly, social work practices unsettle the dichotomy, recognising emotions and self as a 'dynamic resource' (O'Connor, 2020). ...
Full-text available
The personal/professional dichotomy, present within dominant notions of professional boundaries, is an ongoing source of tension within social work. Peer workers, given their positioning as both service users and workers, are uniquely placed to contribute to pre-existing efforts in unsettling this dichotomy. Our analysis, informed by dialogic sharing and theorising with fifteen peer support workers, alongside post-humanist and critical mental health approaches, considers the oppressive effects of enacting a personal/professional dichotomy within mental health settings, and conversely, the emancipatory potential of unsettling the dichotomy. Rather than conceptualising such events as boundary ‘crossings’, ‘incursions’ or ‘transgressions’, we suggest (re)imagining professional boundaries as multiple, enacted through ever-shifting socio-material relations. Our analysis supports pre-existing calls for a relational ethic of social work and highlights how lived experience and post-humanism can support the discipline’s commitment to anti-oppressive practices. We recommend further research, informed by lived experience, to explore the complex relations that constitute boundary practices and their effects for both social workers and service users.
... Definitions of social work such as those of the International Federation of Social Work (2014) emphasise a model of social work, which is similar to a broad approach identified in the findings. A number of studies have explored the importance of theory and ethical values in social work (Banks, 2005;Clarke, 2005;Singh and Cowden, 2009;Doel et al., 2010;Baldwin, 2011). ...
... Difficulties in whistleblowing for students are only one example of the conflict of expectations between those of the ideals of social work and the reality of contemporary practice. When students become qualified, it may be argued that their idealism is tempered by a more relativistic approach as they become more experienced (Doel et al., 2010). Employed social workers should adjust to the culture of their organisations (Landau, 1999;Doel et al., 2010). ...
... When students become qualified, it may be argued that their idealism is tempered by a more relativistic approach as they become more experienced (Doel et al., 2010). Employed social workers should adjust to the culture of their organisations (Landau, 1999;Doel et al., 2010). Perhaps they become less concerned about the ideals of social work and deem it prudent to avoid challenging bad practice (Preston-Shoot, 2012). ...
The social work degree was established in 2002 to improve the status and competency of social workers. However, since then social work education continues to be subject to a series of significant changes. The aim of this study is to identify how the degree can illuminate the dilemmas of contemporary social work practice. A qualitative case study of a social work degree programme in England was undertaken after obtaining ethical approval. Data were collected at two different points in time by means of interviews and focus groups. Interviews were conducted with academics (10), practice educators (8) and academics involved in practice learning (2). Two focus groups were undertaken with service users (11) and three focus groups with students (17). A total of 48 participants were involved in the data collection. A thematic analysis approach using versus coding was adopted. The findings indicated that the social work degree contained inherent contradictions which were reflected in social work practice. The contribution of this study lies in the identification of dichotomies in social work education and practice. Any successful and lasting reform of social work education would have to adopt a critical framework able to address contemporary dilemmas.Keywords: social work degree; social work education; reform; dilemmas
... Syme (2006) took an opposite stance in questioning why the extent to which non-clinical professionals who serve clients with less of a mental health medical need are provided greater flexibility in taking on dual roles. An example provided by Duvall & Jordan (2001) that detailed how an agency required services be provided to asylum seekers by social workers to avoid the possibility of dual relationships were opposed by the social workers who participated in the study on the grounds of lacking the dignity deserved by the clients if dual relationships were not formed (Doel et al., 2010). Forming a common understanding of what to expect in the role between the client and clinician should start at the beginning of the therapeutic process to avoid unrealistic expectations for the relationship (Guthmann, 2019). ...
... School social workers employed by a public-school district may serve as the only social worker for the entire district with no colleague consultations available and work under a policy manual that does not treat the relationship a teacher develops with a student different than the clinical role of a social worker. In situations where the employment contract with the agency is a determining factor for what is a boundary crossing and not all boundary crossings being reported, the standard for a dual relationship between a school social worker could be less clear despite public agencies being known to hold higher standards for identification and reporting of boundary crossings than private practice (Doel, 2010;Ringstad, 2008). ...
... A common understanding of professional boundaries is that they specify the ethical and technical standards for professional practice through guidelines, expectations and rules (Cooper 2012); however, there are many different conceptualisations of what professional boundaries are, and even more ideas about how they should be ethically used and interacted with, from a practitioner's viewpoint (e.g. Bates, Lymbery, and Emerson 2013;Cooper 2012;Davidson 2005;Doel et al. 2010;Reamer 2019). Discussions within the literature often indicate a tension between distance-based and relationship-based boundary practice (Blundell in press; Reamer 2019). ...
... Discussions within the literature often indicate a tension between distance-based and relationship-based boundary practice (Blundell in press; Reamer 2019). There is often a failure to sufficiently illuminate the complex and multifaceted nature of professional boundaries within social work praxis (Bates, Lymbery, and Emerson 2013;Davidson 2005), particularly the pragmatic decisions that social workers often need to make when solutions to ethical issues are unclear, or within 'grey areas' (Bates, Lymbery, and Emerson 2013;Clapton 2013;Doel et al. 2010; ...
Full-text available
Professional boundaries are an important aspect of social work theory and praxis – yet it is an underexplored topic within the research literature. Research often explores specific types of professional boundary issue rather than exploring social workers’ boundary stories or boundary narratives. In contrast, this qualitative study explored UK social workers’ broader understanding and experience of professional boundaries. This paper will examine one of the research themes – Humour as a boundary breaker. By using humour, social workers were able to break down the boundaries that often impede effective practice. Participants also used humour to build connections with service users, colleagues and other professionals. Nonetheless, there were various aspects of this practice that raised serious issues related to power, prejudice and discrimination. This theme is important to explore because of how relevant it was for participants’ practice and because humour is also an underexplored topic within the social work literature.
... So I think I would be worried about the way social work is going. (A6 L416-423) There seemed to be an absence of an ethical engagement (Doel et al, 2010), or, worse, a contradiction between the values taught at university and encouraged in practice. One student related how he tried to calm an irate service user by informing him of his right to complain. ...
... One study used vignettes to explore professionals' reaction to violation of professional boundaries. There was no discussion of human rights and limited reference to regulatory or professional codes of practice (Doel et al., 2010). There is a dichotomy (Delaney, 2007) between the education of social workers and the realities of practice. ...
Debates exist about the separation of the academy and the practicum. The purpose of this study is to explore how its findings may contribute to this discussion. The unique pedagogies of the university and practice are explored and consideration is given to whether practice educators hold an intermediary role. A qualitative study of an undergraduate programme in England using thematic analysis was undertaken once ethical approval was given. Individual interviews and focus groups were used. A total of 48 participants were interviewed at two different points in time (2008 and 2011-2012). Although this is a limited small scale study not susceptible to generalisation it may be able to provide an analytic generalisation, which may be replicable with further studies.The findings indicated practice educators struggled to act as a bridge because the academy and the practicum have conflicting and competing signature pedagogies. The contribution of this study is to the contemporary discussion on the SWRB changes and models such as Frontline.
... This highlights a fourth issue with imbalances in power: safeguarding the parent/ teacher relationship. If parental participation is important, but egalitarian relationships are difficult to build, typical professional/client relationships use boundaries and codes of practice to protect those with less power (Doel et al. 2010;Hart 2016). There is little evidence that schools or teachers have considered this. ...
... There is little evidence that schools or teachers have considered this. If building relationships with families is an aim, then some greater thought needs to go into defining the aims of that relationship, what is appropriate behaviour and values, and how power differentials can be articulated rather than hidden (Doel et al. 2010;Cooper 2012). Popular discourses on boundaries place the power of boundary setting with the professional. ...
Full-text available
This conceptual study seeks to understand parent and teacher perceptions of “effective” home-school partnerships across three secondary schools in England, before problematising these normative understandings. Currently there is little research into home-school partnerships at a secondary level in the UK, and the policy environment is anaemic. To aid the possible direction of future research, six themes are reported from in depth case studies with three schools chosen due to a reputation of good practice. These findings create four principles of perceived effective home-school partnerships: relationships, community, pastoral support, and supporting learning at home. We then problematise these principles and suggest key areas for future research and practice, particularly around the ethics of the relationship with parents, and constructing parents as “co-educators”.
... Setting clear boundaries is another aspect of the peer ethical code. The definition of a boundary varies, but generally a boundary relates to the behavior that acceptable for a professional to do (Aravind et al., 2011;Doel et al., 2009). Boundary crossings involve an unacceptable act counter to one's professional or personal codes, such as giving a community member money or sharing their personal phone number. ...
Peer support workers are people living with a mental illness and/or substance use disorder who use their lived experience and training to support people in recovery. Setting boundaries when faced with an ethical scenario is an important skill that peer support workers must acquire. This report from the field examined the effects of group-based behavioral skills training (BST) to teach peer support workers to set boundaries by restating their needs, saying they cannot engage in the requested behavior, and redirecting them to an appropriate resource or response. Four of five participants met the mastery criterion after BST plus supplemental experimenter feedback. Moreover, participants found the training acceptable. These results suggest BST may be useful to teach ethical skills to peer support workers within the context of a public health workforce development program.
Background: A standard of practice in psychiatric nursing pertains to the ability to maintain professional boundaries within a nurse-patient relationship. Nursing students are inexperienced in maintaining nurse-patient relationships and are at risk of crossing professional boundaries. Research regarding boundary instruction and available resources is needed to guide educators. Method: Psychiatric nurse educators (n = 11) and psychiatric nurses (n = 9) were interviewed to determine what resources psychiatric nursing educators use to teach professional boundaries to undergraduate students. Following the interviews and preliminary analysis, eight participants also attended a focus group. Results: Participants reported resources such as textbooks were useful for defining professional boundaries. Participants also described case studies as a resource available to help operationalize boundaries in psychiatric nursing practice. Conclusion: Resources should be developed to address changes in care provision and technology to include cultural competence and guidelines for the use of social media. [J Nurs Educ. 2023;62(2):97-100.].
The concept of ‘professional boundaries’ – widely used in sectors where professional relationships between adults are regulated – has not commonly been drawn on in higher education (HE) to understand and denote appropriate relationships between faculty or staff and students. Nevertheless, in recent years the question of how to regulate sexual and romantic relationships between faculty/staff and students has been a developing policy concern within HE institutions internationally. In order to contribute to empirically-informed policy development in this area, this article explores students’ levels of comfort with different sexualised and non-sexualised behaviours from staff/faculty, drawing on data from 1492 students from a national survey carried out in the United Kingdom, initially published in the National Union of Students’ report Power in the Academy (2018). New analysis on this data is introduced, outlining scales of ‘personal’ and ‘sexualised’ interactions, which reveal the patterns of comfort and discomfort across different demographic groups of students, most notably women, LGBTQ+ students, and Black and Asian students. The analysis identifies areas of interaction with staff/faculty that are of concern to different groups of students, calling into question existing policy frameworks such as conflict of interest policies and varying levels of regulation for undergraduate and postgraduate students. In light of these findings, the article makes two recommendations: first, that training on professional boundaries should be included in higher education teaching qualifications, and second, for the development of shared norms around professional boundaries within academic departments and professional societies.
Field educators and social work students use technology in various realms of practice, including provision of services to clients and provision of supervision for students. This article identifies how professional boundary issues may arise when social workers, field educators, or students use technology. This article also explores four ways that field educators can educate and support students in relation to pre-empting and managing technology-related boundary issues: policy clarification, role modeling through interactions with clients and others, role modeling within supervisory relationship, and advocacy.
Full-text available
Previous research has shown how skills acquired in different settings are gradually transformed into work strategies (McNamara 1967, Van Maanen 1973, 1974, 1977, Fielding 1988, Chan 2003). Other research has looked at the complex question of ethics and policing (Kappeler et al. 1998, Klokars et al. 2004). However, very few attempts have been made to understand how these two aspects, professional skills and ethical standpoints, gradually merge. We look at one particular aspect in the professional socialisation processes of young police officers – how new police officers deal with the ethical dilemmas they encounter. This paper presents the results obtained from a follow-up cohort study of 316 police recruits after their third year as newly sworn officers throughout Quebec's police forces.
Full-text available
This article presents a first study on the professional–ethical dilemma of whistleblowing in social work, and suggests some lines for further research on this topic as well as ways for integrating it in the social work curriculum. The study examines the self‐reported readiness of social work students to blow the whistle, whether internally or externally. Internal disclosure entails reporting the wrongdoing to an authority within the organization. External disclosure entails reporting the offense to an outside agency, such as the police, professional organization, or press. The findings indicate that the students view the acts that are detrimental or cause injustice to the client in a very serious light. In dilemma situations such as these, the students reported a willingness to act. The students also report considerably greater likelihood of whistleblowing internally than externally.
Full-text available
There are many ethical issues arising for practitioners in what are termed the boundaries of professional helping relationships. In this article, the authors argue that the boundary metaphor is not sufficient for conceptualizing these ethical issues and propose that alternative metaphors be considered. The use of a different metaphor might allow practitioners to re-vision the relationship issues in a more realistic, richer, and holistic way. Those explored here include highway, bridge, and territory. For the authors, it is territory that seems to hold the greatest promise.
During the 1990s a number of high-profile corruption cases, involving police officers engaging in serious criminal activity, merged with wider debates on police integrity. This article examines the anti-corruption strategies employed by the Metropolitan Police and Merseyside Police. Some current risk areas of corruption are examined and then the roles of dedicated anti-corruption units, preventive measures and other techniques are discussed. What appears qualitatively different about the current approach of these two services is the internal commitment which is reflected in the operations of a dedicated anti-corruption unit, the development of preventive measures and the recognition that a successful anti-corruption unit should operate in a developing system of overall ‘professional standards’. The latter includes the development of a series of managerial, organisational and procedural systems extending throughout the organisation.
This paper reports a study of sources of influence on moral and ethical decision-making in social work practice. Practitioners from ten government and five non government agencies kept journals about the main moral issues they faced over a one-month period and were then interviewed about the nature of those issues, their resolution and the influences that shaped those resolutions. Practitioners' personal moral perspectives were found to be the main sources of influence on resolutions to a wide range of dilemmas and most of those resolutions did not conform to accepted social wok ethical practice principles. Even though the results of this study are drawn from a small sample, some implications are suggested for practitioner development, professional ethics and social work education.
This cross-sectional study, which collects data at three points of time in the course of social workers' professional socialization, aims to shed more light on the impact of professional socialization on ethical judgment and decision making orientation. Utilizing both a standard measure of ethical judgment and six vignettes to identify changes in ethical decision making orientation in social work, the findings provide no support for the hypothesis that professional socialization significantly affects the ethical judgment of either social work students or social workers. The only background variable that significantly affects the respondents' ethical judgment is religiosity. However, the data indicating greater client orientation and, to a lesser extent, nonintervention orientation among third year than first year students suggests that social work education does have an important role in conveying central social work values.
English Given globalization and increasing multiculturalism, growing numbers of social workers face the challenges of respecting culture while upholding professional ethics. This article examines the perspectives of universalism and cultural relativism as applied to ethical decision-making in social work. A moderately universalist stance is recommended for social work, as valuing both diversity and human rights. French Face à la mondialisation et à l'augmentation du multiculturalisme, un nombre croissant de travailleurs sociaux font face à des défis dans un contexte qui demande de tenir compte à la fois du respect culturel et de l'éthique professionnelle. Cet article examine l'application de prises de décisions éthiques dans des perspectives universalistes et de relativisme culturel en travail social. Une position universaliste modérée est recommandée pour le travail social, valorisant à la fois la diversité culturelle et les droits humains. Spanish Dada la globalización y el multiculturalismo creciente, los trabajadores sociales se encuentran con el reto de respetar tanto la cultura como la ética profesional. Se examina la aplicación de las perspectivas universalistas y del relativismo cultural al proceso de decisión ética en trabajo social. Se recomienda una postura universalista moderada que respete tanto la diversidad como los derechos humanos.
This paper presents a critique of the ethic of confidentiality in the personal service professions. Drawing on research in social work, medicine, psychiatry and related fields, on philosophical professional ethics and on current thinking in law, it argues that the idea of ‘confidentiality’ conflates a number of ends that are frequently in tension or incompatible. These comprise personal privacy, the safety of vulnerable individuals and the wider third party or public interest. Findings: Professionals and the interested public should not be misled by the traditional idea of confidentiality as constituting in itself a cardinal principle of professional ethics. Nevertheless, difficult conflicts of interests will still arise. It is suggested that liberal rights theory, the source of standard professional ethical codes, is inadequate to resolve these conflicts. Professional ethics needs to be complemented by a more communitarian view of private and public interests. Applications: Good practice should focus on achieving the best balance of personal privacy, the safety of vulnerable individuals and the protection of the wider public in the context of a view of society devoted to the realization of the communal good as much as to the defence of individual interests.