Social workers have an ethical mandate to act in the best interest of their clients, which means being alert to and avoiding potential conflicts of interest that may arise when working with clients. A conflict of interest is a situation in which the interests of the two parties involved, in this case, the social worker and the client, are incompatible. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics, “Social workers should be alert to and avoid conflicts of interest that interfere with the exercise of professional discretion and impartial judgment” (1.06 – Conflicts of Interest).

While there are many different situations that can constitute a conflict of interest, the Code of Ethics explicitly includes “dual relationships” as a conflict of interest for social workers and clients, and provides specific guidance regarding them, stating: “Social workers should not engage in dual or multiple relationships with clients or former clients in which there is a risk of exploitation or potential harm to the client” (1.06 – Conflicts of Interest, c).

What is a Dual Relationship?

Knowing that dual relationships are an ethical challenge you should seek to mitigate, you might be wondering what exactly is a dual relationship? And what should a social worker do to avoid them?

A dual or multiple relationship is said to occur when a social worker relates to a particular client in more than one way, such as a business relationship or a social relationship. If the social worker and the client already know each other from some other context at the beginning of social work services, this is likely to be considered a dual relationship. For example, imagine that you are a social worker at a community agency, and a client is referred to you. You don’t recognize the client’s name, but when they walk into your office, you realize that you recently met this potential new client at a friend’s dinner party – thus, you share some mutual friends, and might be expected to socialize in the same circles. While you and this potential client do not know each other well, this would be considered a dual relationship.

Not all dual relationship occur simultaneously, however, as in the example above. A dual relationship can also occur consecutively, meaning, you relate to the person in a context other than treatment either before or after they enter treatment with you. For example, imagine you treated a client for 6 months, and sometime after treatment ends, the two of you find yourselves serving on the same Board of Directors. Or, you attended graduate school with someone who later becomes your client. Both of these examples would be considered dual relationships occurring consecutively.

How to Handle a Dual Relationship

Now that you’re aware of the different possibilities of dual relationships between social workers and clients, it is important to understand how to ethically handle such relationships if presented with such a situation.

Your first step for any ethical dilemma should be to consult the NASW Code of Ethics. As stated above, the Code of Ethics advises social workers not to engage in dual relationships if doing so would pose a risk of harm or exploitation to the client or former client. Thus, the first step is to be alert to dual relationships if they occur. Social workers should not pretend not to recognize the person, ignore the situation, or otherwise let it go unaddressed.

Once a dual relationship is acknowledged, it is a good idea to consult your supervisor or another appropriate consultant and document the situation. The supervisor or consultant can hopefully provide some guidance that will help you to determine if the dual relationship poses a risk to the client, and/or if the dual relationship is avoidable. When dual relationships do pose a risk to the client, a good way to avoid engaging in the dual relationship, while still ensuring the client receives needed services, is to refer them to another social worker. This referral should also be documented, and the social worker should follow up on the referral as they would with any other client to ensure the client is able to access services successfully.

In some instances, however, a dual relationship is unavoidable. This is more likely to occur in rural areas and small communities where limited social work services are available, but may also occur due to other factors. When a dual relationship with a client cannot be avoided, the Code of Ethics instructs social workers to ” take steps to protect clients” by setting “clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive boundaries” (1.06 – Conflicts of Interest, c). Establishing such boundaries is the responsibility of the social worker, not the client, and should be done as early as possible in the treatment process to ensure that the client is able to receive services without facing harm or exploitation.

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