Social workers: Confused on professional boundaries?

In our exclusive survey, social workers reveal themselves to be unsure about professional boundaries. conduct stories small for slots
Derren Hayes reports

In June and July, Community Care surveyed nearly 300 social workers to try and understand the full extent of the confusion surrounding professional boundaries. The findings, while reassuring in some instances, highlight the different opinions social workers have on relationships with clients, and underlines the need for the GSCC to provide greater clarity on what is and isn’t acceptable.


Of the 293 Community Care readers surveyed nearly three quarters – 215 – had worked with someone who they believed had behaved inappropriately with a client. The most prevalent form encountered was inappropriate professional conduct, 41%, but a worryingly high 12% of respondents had also witnessed inappropriate sexual behaviour by a colleague towards a service user. Unspecified inappropriate behaviour accounted for a further 20% of answers.

acceptable to have relationship with client

There was wide variation in the actions social workers who had witnessed the inappropriate behaviour took in response to this. Most – 54% – reported what they’d seen to their manager, 46% felt it was best to talk to the person concerned directly, while 8% used whistleblowing protocols. Worryingly, 14% decided to do nothing and just 1% thought it appropriate to tell the GSCC, calling into question how much faith rank and file social workers have in the ability and willingness of employer-led and external systems to tackle such behaviour.


In response, the GSCC says: “We are concerned very few respondents would report inappropriate behaviour to us. We know many complaints come to us from employers, often after the organisation’s disciplinary procedure has been followed.”

what would you do if a colleague behaved inappropriately

Reassuringly, 98% of the surveyed group thought it never acceptable to have a sexual relationship with one of their clients or go on a “date” with them (97%). However, when it comes to relationships with former clients, the waters become murkier. While the overwhelming majority (69%) said sexual relationships with this group were still off limits, 14% said it was okay, while a further 16% were unsure. Despite these findings, 87% said there is a need for a code of conduct on sexual boundaries specific to social care.



The GSCC says: “What is key is that there is always openness and transparency. If such a relationship develops, it’s vital that this is discussed with the line manager as early as possible. Decisions can then be made about what action needs to be taken, if any.”

Other areas that can cause problems and stretch the professional boundaries are friendships with clients – 7% (21) of the 293 respondents admitted developing a friendship with a client that went beyond a professional relationship. There is also disagreement over whether what social workers do in their spare time should be subject to the conduct process: 53% say it should be but a quarter think not and 15% are undecided.



The GSCC says: “If a social worker was to bump into a client in their spare time, they must act professionally – as if they were at work. It is important such interactions are recorded on the office file.”

There are also significant differences of opinion on the punishments meted out to those social workers that have transgressed. While 45% said the current GSCC approach to poor conduct and practice was about right, 14% believed the council was too tough while 23% said it was too lenient.

action against ssw who has consensual rel with client

Automatic removal

There was a general consensus among those surveyed (73%) that professionals who had sexual relations with a client should be automatically removed from the social care register, however, the age of the service user did influence some people’s response. For example, if a client aged 18 had a consensual relationship with a social worker 20 years’ their senior, two-thirds said they should be removed from the register with 7% feeling they should be admonished. In contrast, if the client and social worker were the same age half of respondents thought removal from the register was appropriate while 12% backed admonishment.

The GSCC says: “Regardless of the age of the person, clients may still be vulnerable and there is a power imbalance between them and the professional.”

views of how gscc deals with poor practice

As was highlighted earlier, most social workers don’t think the GSCC has found the right balance in how it handles conduct cases. There are also question marks over its ability to police the system. This is further highlighted by the fact that one in five social workers don’t think the threat of appearing before a conduct committee is a deterrent to those who might be tempted to embark on a sexual relationship with a client.


Full breakdown of the survey findings

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