Question: One of my colleagues has developed a friendship with a client that goes beyond a professional relationship and I don’t know what to do. Should I talk to my colleague directly, go through my manager, or report it to the General Social Care Council?
Answer: The issue you face is not unusual. A Community Care survey of practitioners in 2008 found that nearly half had witnessed inappropriate professional conduct including, among other things, inappropriate relationships and behaviour between workers and service users. One per cent had contacted the GSCC about it and 54% had told a manager, while 14% had done nothing
Why is it wrong for workers to develop relationships with service users that cross professional boundaries? The relationship between paid workers and service users is reciprocal but it is not an equal one; there is a power imbalance. Service users are dependent on the worker for advice, assistance and access to other resources. Often, they may be vulnerable to exploitation.
But non-exploitative relationships do sometimes develop. Think of those wartime romances between nurses and injured servicemen. Young people and others who have been seriously impaired as a result of a major accident or serious illness who establish and maintain close partnerships with their carers.
From your question, I assume your colleague and their client are having less formal contact together. Although this is considered acceptable within community work, it should always be flagged up by the practitioner to their managers.
It should always also be within a clear understanding of continuing professional roles and responsibilities.
In terms of what you should do, I suggest speaking to your colleague and advising them to tell their manager about the friendship. This may help to maintain your relationship with your colleague. You should follow this up by speaking to the manager yourself to check that they have all the information held by you.
If you are concerned that the relationship is potentially damaging and inappropriate and your manager takes no action, use your agency’s whistleblowing policy to take your concerns further within your organisation.
If you feel the response is still inadequate or do not trust your agency to address your concern, take it to the GSCC or the Care Quality Commission, depending on the service in which you work and the type of role held by your colleague.
Whatever happens, do not be put off from having your concern addressed; it is your personal and professional responsibility to ensure inappropriate actions and behaviour are dealt with.
Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, and was director of social services in Wiltshire
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This article is published in the 13 August 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “A relationship with a client that has gone well beyond the call of duty”