Identifying and Managing Conflicts of Interests or Dual Relationships as a Social Worker

Identifying and Managing Conflicts of Interests or Dual Relationships as a Social Worker

Maintaining professional boundaries and avoiding conflicts of interest or dual relationships is essential to ensure the ethical and effective provision of services to clients as a Social Worker. Navigating these complex situations can be challenging, and understanding how to identify and manage them is a crucial skill for Social Workers. This topic is an important part of the ASWB Bachelors, Masters, and Clinical licensing exams.

In this blog post, we will explore the key concepts surrounding conflicts of interest and dual relationships, providing you with the tools to identify and manage these situations effectively in your practice. By gaining a solid understanding of these concepts and ethical guidelines, you will be better prepared to handle these challenging scenarios, both on the ASWB exam and in your professional career as a social worker. So, let’s dive in and learn how to navigate these critical aspects of professional ethics and boundary-setting!

What is a Conflict of Interest or a Dual Relationship?

Conflict of Interest

At the highest level, a conflict of interest is a situation in which the interests, incentives, or aims of two different parties are incompatible. For example, imagine if a government banking regulator is paid a salary by the bank they regulate. That would be a conflict of interest!

A conflict of interest in Social Work occurs when a Social Worker’s personal, professional, or financial interests interfere or have the potential to interfere with their professional judgment, objectivity, or ability to act in the best interests of their clients. Conflicts of interest can compromise the quality of care provided to clients, damage the client-social worker relationship, and may lead to ethical or legal issues.

Conflicts of interest can take various forms, such as:

  1. Dual relationships: Engaging in a relationship with a client outside of the professional context, such as being friends, family members, or having a romantic or sexual relationship.
  2. Financial conflicts: Having financial ties with a client or service provider, such as accepting gifts, favors, or engaging in business transactions that could influence the Social Worker’s professional judgment.
  3. Personal biases: Allowing personal beliefs, values, or prejudices to affect the treatment or recommendations provided to a client.
  4. Multiple clients: Representing or providing services to clients who have conflicting interests, which could impact the social worker’s ability to maintain impartiality and confidentiality.

Social workers must be aware of potential conflicts of interest and take appropriate steps to prevent or manage them. This involves adhering to the ethical guidelines outlined by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics, maintaining professional boundaries, and seeking supervision or consultation when faced with potential conflicts of interest.

Dual Relationship

A dual relationship in Social Work occurs when a Social Worker engages in a secondary relationship with a client outside of their professional therapeutic relationship.

These secondary relationships can be of various types, including personal, social, financial, or business relationships. Dual relationships can create conflicts of interest, compromise the quality of care provided, and blur the boundaries between the professional and personal realms.

Dual relationships can lead to a loss of objectivity, impaired professional judgment, and potential harm to the client. Social workers are ethically obligated to maintain clear professional boundaries and avoid dual relationships whenever possible.

If a dual relationship is unavoidable, it is essential for the Social Worker to seek supervision, consultation, and guidance to manage the situation ethically and minimize potential harm to the client.

Code of Ethics Definitions – Conflicts of Interest

Section 1.06 of the NASW Code of Ethics – Conflicts of Interest

(a) Social workers should be alert to and avoid conflicts of interest that interfere with the exercise of professional discretion and impartial judgment. Social workers should inform clients when a real or potential conflict of interest arises and take reasonable steps to resolve the issue in a manner that makes the clients’ interests primary and protects clients’ interests to the greatest extent possible. In some cases, protecting clients’ interests may require termination of the professional relationship with proper referral of the client.

(b) Social workers should not take unfair advantage of any professional relationship or exploit others to further their personal, religious, political, or business interests.

(c) 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. In instances when dual or multiple relationships are unavoidable, social workers should take steps to protect clients and are responsible for setting clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive boundaries. (Dual or multiple relationships occur when social workers relate to clients in more than one relationship, whether professional, social, or business. Dual or multiple relationships can occur simultaneously or consecutively.)

(d) When social workers provide services to two or more people who have a relationship with each other (for example, couples, family members), social workers should clarify with all parties which individuals will be considered clients and the nature of social workers’ professional obligations to the various individuals who are receiving services. Social workers who anticipate a conflict of interest among the individuals receiving services or who anticipate having to perform in potentially conflicting roles (for example, when a social worker is asked to testify in a child custody dispute or divorce proceedings involving clients) should clarify their role with the parties involved and take appropriate action to minimize any conflict of interest.

(e) Social workers should avoid communication with clients using technology (such as social networking sites, online chat, e-mail, text messages, telephone, and video) for personal or non-work-related purposes.

(f) Social workers should be aware that posting personal information on professional Web sites or other media might cause boundary confusion, inappropriate dual relationships, or harm to clients.

(g) Social workers should be aware that personal affiliations may increase the likelihood that clients may discover the social worker’s presence on Web sites, social media, and other forms of technology. Social workers should be aware that involvement in electronic communication with groups based on race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, mental or physical ability, religion, immigration status, and other personal affiliations may affect their ability to work effectively with particular clients.

(h) Social workers should avoid accepting requests from or engaging in personal relationships with clients on social networking sites or other electronic media to prevent boundary confusion, inappropriate dual relationships, or harm to clients.

Practice ASWB Exam Questions on Conflicts of Interest / Dual Relationships

Question 1: A Social Worker at a community mental health agency has been providing therapy to a client for several months. The client invites the Social Worker to their upcoming birthday party. What is the most appropriate response for the Social Worker in this situation?

A) Accept the invitation, but refrain from discussing therapeutic issues during the party.
B) Decline the invitation and discuss the importance of maintaining professional boundaries.
C) Attend the party, but leave early to minimize any boundary concerns.
D) Accept the invitation and use the opportunity to observe the client’s social interactions.

Answer: B

Rationale: Declining the invitation and discussing the importance of maintaining professional boundaries (option B) is the correct response because it helps the social worker maintain the necessary boundaries between their professional and personal relationships. Accepting the invitation (options A, C, and D) can blur these boundaries, create a dual relationship, and potentially harm the therapeutic relationship.

Question 2: A Social Worker in private practice learns that a new client is the owner of a local bakery. The Social Worker loves their products and wants to ask the client for a discount on a large order for an upcoming family event. What is the best course of action for the Social Worker?

A) Ask the client for a discount during the next therapy session.
B) Request a discount but offer to provide an extra therapy session in exchange.
C) Avoid asking the client for a discount and maintain a professional relationship.
D) Wait until the end of the therapeutic relationship to ask for a discount.

Answer: C

Rationale: Avoiding asking the client for a discount and maintaining the professional relationship (option C) is the correct response, as it helps the Social Worker maintain professional boundaries and avoid any conflicts of interest. Asking the client for a discount (options A, B, and D) can create a dual relationship and potentially compromise the Social Worker’s objectivity and the quality of care provided to the client.

Master Conflicts of Interest and Dual Relationships

Understanding the topics of conflicts of interest and dual relationships is crucial for Social Workers preparing for the ASWB licensing exams. By familiarizing yourself with the ethical guidelines and best practices in identifying and managing these complex situations, you’ll be better equipped to navigate the challenges that arise in your professional career.

Additionally, mastering this topic will help you provide the highest quality of care to your clients and maintain the integrity of the Social Work profession.

For more content, resources, and practice questions like the ones discussed in this blog post, be sure to visit With our comprehensive materials and expert guidance, you’ll be well-prepared for the ASWB exam and ready to excel in your social work practice!


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About the Instructor, Meagan Mitchell: Meagan is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and has been providing individualized and group test prep for the ASWB for over five years. From all of this experience helping others pass their exams, she created the Agents of Change course to help you prepare for and pass the ASWB exam!

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Disclaimer: This content has been made available for informational and educational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical or clinical advice, diagnosis, or treatment


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