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Professional Boundaries

Definition, managing boundaries, contemporary approaches, suggestions around email, texts, mobile phones and social networking

This page has three sections:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. A suggested Practice Approach

  3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Material

What are Professional Boundaries

Professional boundaries are a set of guidelines, expectations and rules which set the ethical and technical standards in the social care environment. They set limits for safe, acceptable and effective behaviour by workers. They are driven by many different factors: health and safety, therapeutic process, practical considerations, funding, client and worker safety. The result of this is that ‘boundaries’ is a catch-all term for a very varied collection of rules and guidelines (Cooper, 2012).

Social workers are in a powerful position in relation to clients. They are expected to:

  • Help and support clients to the best of their ability and ensure that what is done does not harm them.

  • Ensure that their actions are based around the needs of the clients wherever possible.

  • Act in a trustworthy and responsible manner in all their dealings with and for clients.

  • Be truthful and honest in their interactions with clients.

  • Respect the clients’ rights as individuals.

  • Ensure that all current and potential clients have an equal opportunity to access and benefit from their service.

  • Work for the good of their team and the organisation they work for.

This means that social worker boundaries are not only about managing work with clients but extend to how they manage themselves and their emotions (Cooper, 2012).

Managing Professional Boundaries

Marc, Dimeny and Bacter (2019) provide a synthesis of the reasons for professional boundaries and the difficulties social workers face, at times, in maintaining boundaries. They point out the importance of building a trusting relationship with the client but suggest there is a sensitive line between openness and going too far in the worker-client relationship. Establishing and maintaining boundaries in social work is essential and it aims to protect social workers, clients and the organization they work for and avoid emotional stress. Professional boundaries are in place to help facilitate a safe, open, stable, transparent relationship that is based on the client’s needs. Lack of experience and/or excessive involvement can lead to a violation of professional boundaries. Cooper (2012) refers to “high-risk situations” where social workers need to have a heightened sensitivity to overstepping limits:

  • the social worker identifies with clients' issues

  • strong feelings, emotions (caused to the social worker by the story of the client)

  • personal issues, fatigue/stress, overworked social worker

  • frustrated/difficult clients

  • likeable clients (if the social worker relaxes too much and assumes everything will be easy)

  • attractive clients

  • manipulative clients

  • accidental meeting with client, outside of work

  • non-standard work environment

  • signs of attachment/ dependence on the part of the client.

Marc, Dimeny and Bacter refer to the earlier work of Davidson (2005) as an approach for social workers to keep in mind as they negotiate professional boundaries. Davidson suggests professional boundaries can be placed on a continuum from ‘entangled’ to ‘rigid’. The mid-range of the continuum represents ‘balanced’ professional relationship boundaries.

Distinguishing between a boundary breach and a boundary violation can further define this continuum. A boundary breach is an action that transgresses a commonly accepted standard of behaviour for reasons that may be understandable given exceptional circumstances, e.g. giving a personal telephone number when no other resources are available. A boundary violation, conversely, is a serious action in which a professional uses the relationship with the client to meet their personal needs at the expense of the client.

O’Leary, Tsui and Ruch (2013) present a similar position to Davidson. They highlight the importance of relationships to effective social work while stressing social workers need to be conscious of their professional role, traditionally achieved by establishing professional boundaries. They suggest professional boundaries involve balancing three positions: (i) professional boundaries that reinforce power imbalances and undervalue the personal exchange required to engage with clients meaningfully versus (ii) slipping into professional misconduct and/or unhealthy dependence or close emotional attachment versus (iii) appropriate use of social worker expertise.

O’Leary et al. propose a model that puts the social worker and the client at the centre of a set of boundaries that promote the worker-client relationship rather than professional distance.They see the social worker as responsible for taking the lead in forming an effective, ethical relationship, but suggest the development of boundaries should include client participation.Boundaries thus become dynamic, both surrounding and connecting the social worker and client.Underlying this reconceptualisation is the belief that the social work relationship is unique: it has qualities in common with other associations such as friendships, but it is a distinct relationship that cannot be extended in the same realms as family or intimate relationships.Boundaries can expand or contract, depending on how the characteristics of the boundaries are configured in each unique instance.

Professional Boundaries and Contemporary Practice

After conducting a meta-analysis of relevant literature pertaining to professional boundaries in the context of social work, Wilson (2020) concludes that the boundaries of professionalism in the context of social work can contradict the values and principles of contemporary practice, can be too rigid and unsuited to the situation or context, or can be too blurred and thus generate confusion and discomfort among social workers. Chan (2016) supports Wilson’s position, suggesting that professional boundaries have been influenced by the medical model of care (the doctor-patient relationship), a model that no longer fits with the contexts in which social workers now find themselves. Chan highlights the work by Doel (2010) who found a majority of social workers actually rely on their own sense of what is appropriate in a given situation.

Wilson suggests that current boundaries, such as those outlined by Social Work Associations, undervalue the strength of the social worker/service user relationship. As the quality of this relationship is fundamental to effective social work provision, and recent social work practices advocate a collaborative approach between service user and social worker, Wilson maintains formal practices advocated by Associations do not support such an approach. Wilson uses examples to illustrate this position: dual relationships in small, rural communities where people know each other socially, adopting suitable cultural practices in certain minority communities (including Indigenous communities), as a palliative care social worker, and when working with someone with development disability. Wilson suggests current professional boundaries are not flexible enough to accommodate what is necessary, at times, to enable a strong social worker/service user relationship to form. That is, the standards of professionalism required are, in practice, unattainable in some situations.

While Jidiuc (2017) argues that professional boundaries are important for safeguarding both social workers and clients from becoming either over-involved or under-involved, the author suggests that only a small number of social workers find the guidance from Associations more useful than their own judgement. Jidiuc suggests a more malleable approach to setting boundaries should be developed in which a greater range of factors are taken into consideration. One factor to be considered is how clients’ life events impact on boundaries, e.g. the use of physical contact, although frowned upon, may be appropriate in some circumstances. Another factor is how advancements in technology should be incorporated into practice.

Email, Text Messages, Mobile Phone Use, Social Networking

Voshel & Wesala (2015) suggest the social work profession needs to expand the way it considers online social media. Social media requires that social workers reframe how they think about privacy, confidentiality, professional boundaries, and has challenged social workers to create an atmosphere where vulnerable clients are protected, and where practitioners strive to maintain professional and personal boundaries so that some sense of normalcy can be maintained in their individual lives. Social media will continue to present challenges as new technologies evolve.

The AASW (2016c) suggests that social workers who wish to use social media as a way of engaging clients, ensure such sites are separate and clearly distinct from a social worker’s personal social media websites and are associated/named in accordance with the organisation rather than the individual users. This is essential to protect social worker’s personal life, which is becoming easier to discover with internet searches.

Voshel and Wesala (2015) and the AASW (2016c) suggest recommendations around use of social media. The AASW reference includes case examples to illustrate some of the following points. They are listed in the reference in the Supporting Material below.

  • Practitioners should discuss online privacy issues openly with their clients and suggest more appropriate means of communication (e.g. telephone) indicating that it benefits both clinician and client to respect professional boundaries.

  • Practitioners should examine the content of their online identity and then consider taking appropriate security precautions with their own personal information and identity. General caution is advised when posting anything.

  • Practitioners are advised to conduct a personal internet search to gain awareness of what anyone, including a client, might find out about them. If inaccurate or clinically inappropriate information is found on a website, the practitioner should submit a request to the site’s manager to have the information removed, if possible.

  • One way to help control the information a client might find is to create a professional website with relevant links, and to possibly purchase a domain name, both of which would help to reduce misrepresentation online, while also providing an avenue through which to bring in potential clients.

  • Practitioners should become familiar with the privacy settings on their personally controlled social medial sites and adjust them to limit undesired access by clients to personal information. Practitioners might also want to disguise themselves online using pseudonyms.

  • When posting social workers should consider whether they would be happy for a stranger to know or see the posted information.

  • Social workers should be mindful of who they become “friends” with on social networking sites. Social workers should also check whether “friends of their friends” can access their sites. There could be a case where a “friend of a friend” is a client or a colleague. Information/photographs on a friend’s site may be accessible to others (possibly a client) because of the friend’s privacy settings.

  • Social workers may want to regularly check their privacy settings to ensure that there have not been any changes made which could compromise their privacy or allow unwanted access to their site.

  • Social workers may also wish to consider having an ambiguous or de-identifying username themselves on Twitter, so as it is more difficult for clients and others to find them.

The AASW (2016b) suggests it is important that the social worker set very clear and specific boundaries around the use of email, text message and mobile phone at the outset of the client relationship. For example, email and text messages have created the perception that people are available at any time—is this an appropriate situation for a social worker? The AASW suggests social workers might like to consider:

  • The type of information that can be exchanged or discussed in an email.

  • The methods by which appointments can be changed or cancelled, and the amount of notice required.

  • The type of information to be exchanged in a text message.

  • The time at which text messages will be answered.

  • It would also be important to discuss with clients, and ensure that they fully understand, that if any records are subpoenaed, this could include records of communication via email or text message as they would form part of the client’s case record.

  • The cost to clients of sending text messages.

  • The need for appropriate firewalls, passwords and backup data storage systems are installed on computers and work mobile phones.

Case examples are included to illustrate these points. The examples are listed with the reference in the Supporting Material below.

Practice Approach

Even though there is discussion in the literature around the potential inflexibility of various social work association’s suggestions around professional boundaries, it would seem appropriate for beginning social workers to use these as a guide and only depart from them under supervision. For example, the following are a precis of the Australian Association of Social Workers section on maintaining professional boundaries (AASW, 2020, pp.21-22).

  • Sexualised conduct prohibited up to two years after professional relationship finishes.

  • Maintain clear and appropriate professional boundaries in all forms of communication (includes all online forms).

  • Avoid physical contact that may violate professional boundaries—sensitivity to how it will be interpreted is important (considering cultural and gender differences).

  • Self-disclosure could be used but only where it will benefit the service user, and then with circumspection.

  • Do not engage in private conduct (including online) that might compromise professional responsibilities.

  • Distinguish between personal and professional views when making statements (both in public and in private).

  • Where dual relationships exist enforce appropriate boundaries to minimise the risk of conflict of interest, exploitation or harm. (The AASW (2016a) provides guidance on managing dual relationships, via discussing several social work dilemmas. A list of these dilemmas is included in the Supporting Material below.)

  • Social workers may need to work in situations with conflicts of interest (e.g. small or rural communities). These should be declared to the person(s) involved, appropriate action should be taken to minimise the conflict, and an appropriate professional colleague or the AASW Ethics Consultation Service should be informed.

  • When providing services to couples or family members, clarify the professional obligations to those receiving services.

These boundaries are similar to those in the equivalent 2010 publication, but with the addition of prompts around maintaining online boundaries. The section immediately above on ‘Email, Text Messages, Mobile Phone Use, Social Networking’ is targeted specifically at this ever-changing area and is worth consideration by beginning social workers. ‘Telepractice’ is emerging as a valid form of social work practice and is covered in a separate section on this website.

Davidson’s ‘continuum’ model (outlined above) appeals as a starting point for beginning social workers. Davidson explains the three terms in a little more detail:

‘Entangled’ refers to consistent over-involvement, where a worker may be investing more of their time, emotional energy or favour in this relationship than in others to meet their own emotional, social or physical needs at the expense of the client.

Workers with ‘rigid’ professional boundaries barrel ahead with their own agenda inflexibly, condescendingly, and without attending to the unique and multifaceted needs of the client. Responding rigidly exploits the client’s vulnerabilities and is an abuse of the professional’s position of power.

Workers with ‘balanced’ boundaries are authentic and caring, while maintaining clear boundaries. They use their authority appropriately: remaining aware of their position of power, they take care to neither exploit their clients’ vulnerabilities nor infringe on their rights. They use professional judgment and self-reflection skills in their assessments and make decisions that are professionally responsible and accountable to other professionals. Note that every professional has some susceptibility to behaving outside of the ideal ‘balanced’ range, depending on her/his situation.

Davidson offers clues to when social workers may be adopting either an entangled or rigid approach. These are included under the reference to Davidson in the Supporting Material section below.

As one grows in confidence (under supervision), O’Leary et al. provide a more flexible model that may be adopted (refer to the above material). This approach sees the social worker as responsible for taking the lead in forming an effective, ethical relationship, but suggests the development of boundaries should include client participation. Boundaries thus become dynamic, both surrounding and connecting the social worker and client.

Supporting Material

AASW: Australian Association of Social Workers. (2010). Code of Ethics. Melbourne: AASW.

AASW: Australian Association of Social Workers. (2020). Code of Ethics 2020. Melbourne: AASW. Retrieved from

AASW. (2016a). Professional boundaries and dual relationships. Retrieved from

This reference considers several dilemmas that social workers could face.

  • What type of conduct may be considered ‘sexualised conduct’?

  • Do the ethical guidelines of the Code apply only to professional boundaries and dual relationships with clients, or does this include others?

  • A client has developed feelings for me and I'm unsure how to manage this. What should I do?

  • I have developed feelings for a client and am unsure how to manage this. What should I do?

  • A former client and I recently bumped into each other and have commenced a friendship. We would both like the relationship to become more intimate. He says he is not worried about the fact he used to be my client. Is it okay to pursue an intimate relationship?

  • A former client has invited me to be friends on a social networking site. Is it breaching professional boundaries if I accept?

  • I am a social worker in a rural community health centre and have recently received a referral for a woman in the community for issues with depression and suicidal ideation. The woman is the mother of a child who attends school with my daughter and we are both on the parents’ committee at the local school. I am the only counsellor in the region. What should I do?

  • I have been working with a particular client for a long time and we have never had any physical contact. Today our professional relationship ended and he asked if he could give me a hug to say thank you. Is this okay

  • Is it okay to share personal information with a client?

  • I have been working for an organization for several years and am planning to move into private practice. Can I let my current clients know about my private practice?

AASW. (2016b). Email, text message and mobile phone use: Blurring the boundaries. Retrieved from

Case examples are discussed:

  • I have a client who is going through a particularly difficult situation at present. I have contracted with her that she can only contact me between the hours of 9am and 6pm Monday to Friday. I was on another phone conversation at 5.45pm and received call waiting. When I hung up there was a voice message from my client in distress asking me to call her. The message was left at 5.50pm, it was now 6.05pm. Should I have returned the call?

  • I am a social worker and I urgently need to call my client to cancel an appointment we have scheduled. My client has not answered. Can I send a text message with the information?

  • I am a social worker, and I am about to finish my therapeutic relationship with a client. During the professional relationship, I communicated with this client via email to schedule and confirm our appointment times. Part of my contract with the client involved writing an assessment report. In our last session, I arranged the time and day that the client could come and collect the report. The client has, today, emailed me and stated that they are unable to come in to collect the report and can I email it to them. Should I do this?

AASW. (2016c). Social networking. Retrieved from

Case examples are discussed:

  1. A former client has invited me to be friends on a social networking site. Is it breaching professional boundaries if I accept?

  2. I have an agreement in place with all of my clients that they will not search for me on social media sites and vice versa. I am currently working with a single mother and her children where there are some welfare concerns. I have recently had some suspicion, based on some comments the children have made, that the mother has been allowing her ex-partner back into the house with the children - when there is a court order in place for supervised access only. I searched for the mother on a social media website, and found photos of the partner at the house with the children dating back to last weekend. What do I do?

Chan, C. (2016). A scoping review of social media use in social work practice. Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work, 13(3), 263-276.

Cooper, F. (2012). Professional boundaries in social work and social care: A practical guide to understanding, maintaining and managing your professional boundaries. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Retrieved from

This book contains the following that may be of use to social workers:

  • Self-assessment questionnaire (pp.17ff)

  • Why we have boundaries (pp.29ff)

  • Generic boundaries (pp.42ff)

  • Reasons for boundary crossings (pp.106ff)

  • Assessing boundary crossings (pp.108ff)

  • Consequences of boundary crossings (pp.131ff)

  • Maintaining boundaries (pp.140)

Davidson, J. C. (2007). Professional relationship boundaries: A social work teaching module. Social Work Education: The International Journal, 24(5), 511-533.

Indicators of Blurring Boundaries

Entanglement Cues

  • Your neutrality is progressively diminishing.

  • You reveal information about other clients to this client.

  • You reveal information about yourself unrestrainedly.

  • You are extraordinarily angered or saddened with this particular client’s choices.

  • You have intruding thoughts about this client when you are not at work.

  • You are unusually invested in changing a client’s behaviour.

  • You promote a client’s dependence on you.

  • You encourage a client to separate her/himself from healthy support systems.

  • You spend more time with a particular client than usual, in person or on the telephone.

  • You meet with a client at the end of day to enable you to extend your time with her/him.

  • You meet in uncommon places, or in a client’s home when it is not necessary to be there.

  • You are over-permissive with fees.

  • You exchange gifts.

  • You contrast the satisfying qualities of a client with your spouse/partner’s less satisfying qualities.

  • You daydream about a client.

  • You long for this client’s next visit.

  • You plan your attire based on your appointment with this client today.

  • You direct a client in their particular day-to-day details of life.

  • You present yourself as the expert on a client’s life choices.

  • You disapprove of a client’s assertive behaviour.

  • You act or feel jealous about a client.

  • You are defensive when probed.

  • Physical contact begins.

Rigid Cues

  • Your neutrality is progressively diminishing.

  • You reveal information about other clients to this client.

  • You reveal nothing about yourself to a client.

  • You feel detached from or do not care about a client.

  • You are unjustifiably pessimistic at work.

  • You continue to employ strategies that have been clearly ineffective.

  • You are loath to go to work.

  • You are overly intellectual about a client’s problems.

  • You present yourself as the expert on a client’s life choices.

  • You are punishing, callous, prejudiced or critical toward a client.

  • You use patronizing or derogatory terminology when referring to a client.

  • You terminate a visit/conversation in the midst of a client’s expression of unresolved emotions because the original time set for the meeting is about to lapse.

  • You minimize the degree of pain a client has experienced.

  • You are disinclined to exhibit any type of emotion.

  • You feel impatient, irritated, or emotionally absent with a client.

  • You refuse to offer help to meet a client’s needs.

Doel, M. (2009). Professional boundaries: Crossing a line or entering the shadows? British Journal of Social Work, Advance Access, 1-24. Retrieved from doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcp106

Jidiuc, N. L. (2017). Professional boundaries in disability care. Thesis for B.A. Degree. International Studies in Education. University of Iceland – School of Education. Retrieved from

Marc, C., Dimeny, J. M., & Bacter, C. (2019). The social worker-client relationship: Difficulties and solutions. Bulletin of the Transilvania University of Braşov • Series VII • Vol. 12(61) No. 2, 377-386.

O’Leary, P., Tsui, M-S., & Ruch, G. (2013). The boundaries of the social work relationship revisited: Towards a connected, inclusive and dynamic conceptualisation. British Journal of Social Work, 43, 135-153. Retreived from doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcr181

Voshel, E. H., &Wesala, A. (2015). Social media and social work ethics: Determining best practices in an ambiguous reality. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 12(1), 67- 76. Retrieved from

Wilson, C. (2020). Conventional boundaries of professionalism in contemporary social work: A theory-to-practice gap. Masters research project submitted to the School of Social Work at the University of Ottawa. Retrieved from


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