Top tips on managing professional boundaries in social work

How to understand and act within key boundaries and maintain a professional relationship with clients

Photo: AnthonyJess/Adobe Stock

This article presents a few key pieces of advice from a Community Care Inform Adults and Community Care Inform Children’s guide on managing professional boundaries in social work, last updated in August 2021. The full guide covers the boundaries social workers observe, how to manage them, and how to deal with situations when boundaries have been crossed. Inform Children subscribers can access the full content here. Inform Adults subscribers can access the full content here. The guide is written by Frank Cooper, a social worker working with clients with substance misuse issues in the criminal justice sector.

As with all professions, social workers are expected to uphold key boundaries to protect themselves, their clients and the organisation they work for. These boundaries are meant to ensure that relationships between social workers and clients remain professional, even when working on very personal and difficult issues.

What are the boundaries?

These are a few of the major boundaries that may have implications for your practice and behaviour.

  1. Client focus. You are expected to place the needs of service users on your caseload at the centre of any decisions that you make about them and their lives.
  2. Self-disclosure. Information about yourself and your personal life should not be disclosed to clients.
  3. Dual relationships. You should not hold more than one type of relationship with a client, for example, they cannot work for you, be a family member or receive extra private support from you, as well as be one of your clients.
  4. Working within your competence. It is important that you understand the limitations of your role and of your personal capabilities, and when to refer to other professionals or to seek further support and advice for yourself and your clients.
  5. Looking after self. It is your responsibility to ensure that you are in a fit state to do the job that you are required to do. This covers not only your behaviour outside work but also how you manage your stress and emotions within work and caused by your work.

Crossing or breaking boundaries

The reality of work in the social care sector is that boundaries will get crossed at various points for a variety of reasons, whether it is simple human error, tiredness, stress, manipulation by clients, difficult situations, bad luck or just a bad day at the office. It is your job to spot potential and actual boundary crossings and to take appropriate action.

A boundary crossing is usually part of a pattern or a build up of behaviour between you and your client. Much of the build up may be internal for one, or both, of you. It is not practical for us to challenge everything that a client says or does that might be a crossed boundary and so we have to work in a world where we are essentially doing an ongoing dynamic risk assessment of the situation, intervening where necessary.

Personal versus professional

The key to managing many of these boundaries is understanding the difference between a professional and a personal relationship and ensuring that your behaviour always remains on the right side of the line. Professional relationships are time bound; have a distinct role and purpose; have some structure; one participant holds the power and is specifically trained and supported for the role; there is a power imbalance in favour of the professional; the professional has a responsibility for the welfare of the non-professional and there are rules and boundaries that guide the relationship.

Once you have allowed a relationship to stray into some personal areas, it is much harder for you to maintain other professional boundaries. You will also find that when you do behave in a professional manner, clients will be surprised, unhappy and resentful as they may have been expecting a personal response. You will also find that it may be much harder for you to make the decisions that your role or your service requires you to make if they are detrimental to the client.

You and your client need to be clear that you are not literally, potentially or figuratively their friend, parent, partner or child, and it is your responsibility to ensure that this is not the case.

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13 Responses to Top tips on managing professional boundaries in social work

  1. londonboy June 19, 2017 at 12:23 pm #

    I’m surprised the words ‘transparent and honest’ or sim. were not mentioned. Surely there is a responsibility to let clients know where the SWs boundaries are. This may sound self-evident but if SWs have difficulties around boundaries then it stands to reason that clients will – if these are not made clear ( surely that is a form of respect?) then there is a risk many clients will feel manipulated by SW’s?

  2. Amanda June 19, 2017 at 1:21 pm #

    “one participant holds the power and is specifically trained and supported for the role; there is a power imbalance in favour of the professional” – surely this is completely unprofessional? We are allowed into people’s lives to empower them and if the relationship is one of power over another it has failed. A confident professional does not need to hold on to power to do the job. Managing boundaries and supporting another person to improve their welfare and wellbeing may be part of the job -it is not a reason to hold power over that person

  3. Jackie June 19, 2017 at 7:31 pm #

    Sometimes giving very guided personal information develops relationships and gains trust for the person you are working with to open up. But it has to be carefully considered. I have been caught out and learnt the hard way.

    • Herschell June 20, 2017 at 3:58 pm #

      I made the mistake of working with a client of whose family I had known from my school years; it did not end happily. Initially, past history were interred and I made the fatal mistake of disclosing information about myself that impacted on the client and their extended family. It was a painful lesson in how to be a friendly social worker as opposed to a befriending social worker. It’s ok to talk about shared interest, when establishing boundaries but these are geared around the interests that the client raises and are not about our life history. Basically, working with homo sapiens isn’t easy and you have to be alert to how our actions affect our clients and vice versa.

  4. David June 20, 2017 at 1:24 pm #

    In my experience, these are simply aspirations that all good social workers should aspire to. I recently had the misfortune to report a manager, who not only supervised the case of a client (who lacked capacity), but did so against her best friends (clients partner) express wishes.

    Said best friend of my manager, also held court appointed deputy over health and welfare. My managers views also differed from her friends wishes – and clients wishes when able to express these. This was in terms of future care needs, and how these could be met.

    The carer herself – and family, were able to recognise and state the potential conflict of interest.

    Importantly – and simplistically, the deputy didn’t want her best friend managing her husbands care – is that an unreasonable request?

    Needless to say the CQC, HCPC, OPG, NMC did nothing – risks not high enough?. Senior management stated they didn’t even see a potential (actual) conflict – funny if it wan’t so scary.

    What about simple social work/ health professional values, like the client being the focus, confidentiality, respect, trust, dignity, choice, and minimising any potential/actual power imbalance?

    In my view the above was a breach of everything I believed in, and left me – as a very experienced practitioner, considering whether social work is now for me?

    I question whether clients – or workers, are adequately protected by their professional bodies, managers, or those agencies meant to protect vulnerable adults and children. #worstpracticeever

    • Nick Andrews July 17, 2017 at 4:24 pm #

      I have recently come across a case where a kind and wise social worker may be subject to disciplinary proceedings because he temporarily took in the dog of a care experienced young person (he used to be her social worker, but she is now no longer supported by social services) whilst she was in temporary accommodation, where dogs were not allowed. The dog meant the world to this young person, and he did it to save the dog being taken away. Where is the justice in that?

  5. julian spurr June 21, 2017 at 10:24 pm #

    Well clearly all service users are the same – placing us all at risk!

    If you start empathising with an abusive parent that is very bad. If you are working with a lonely older person at the end of their life then perhaps you could be a little less rigorous about personal boundaries.
    Perhaps you could adapt your social work to the prevailing situation using professional judgement.!!
    I think that my hero Bob Holman probably crossed a few boundaries by actually living amongst the people he cared for. HCPC would probably have suspended him or worse.

    • Nick Andrews July 17, 2017 at 4:17 pm #

      If you cannot empathise with an abusing parent it is very unlikely that you will get to the bottom of why they do so, or help them to change.Donald Forrester has done some interesting research in this area. From my experience of working with people over many years I do believe that most people are more hurt than hurtful.

  6. Nick Andrews June 25, 2017 at 7:06 pm #

    I think this is a dreadful article, that fails to acknowledge and address the nature of meaningful relationships and the complexity of how these are best managed within complex social work and social care. I have recently co-ordinated a Joseph Rowntree Foundation funded project under their programme A Better Life, which illustrated how poorly designed and simplistic professional boundary guidance undermines wise and humane practice, which always takes into account the specific context, rather than set rules. As for the statement:

    ‘The reality of work in the social care sector is that boundaries will get crossed at various points for a variety of reasons, whether it is simple human error, tiredness, stress, manipulation by clients, difficult situations, bad luck or just a bad day at the office’.

    This sentence completely rules out the idea that professional boundaries can be crossed for good reasons as well as bed ones – I can point to academic papers that illustrate this as well as Barry Schwartz’s lovely work on practical wisdom.

    I would be happy to share further information on our work and the work of other erudite and wise people who have explored this subject in more depth.

    • Katy Smith July 17, 2017 at 12:44 pm #

      Well said, I would be interested to find out more about your work

      • Nick Andrews July 17, 2017 at 4:13 pm #

        Thanks Katy – if you e-mail me, I will send some information. There is a guy in Scotland called Phil Coady who has been doing similar work. I am hoping to talk with him this week. Regards, Nick

  7. With hope in our hearts June 26, 2017 at 3:53 pm #

    We now live in a DUP Submarine!

  8. John Smith June 27, 2017 at 7:05 am #

    Why doesn’t this site publish the names of social workers when fitness to practise proceedings have concluded and a sanction has been imposed? The names are freely available on the regulatory websites.

    What have you got to hide by concealing the names of those whose practise has been found to be wanting?

    I fully expect this comment will not be published, in which case I will be sharing my concerns more widely.