Actions speak louder than words : duality and professional boundaries in social work practice.


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Dual/multiple relationships may be impossible to avoid. Social workers are provided guidance by the NASW Code of Ethics concerning these types of relationships, but this guidance does not address practice settings in which duality is the norm rather than the exception. Research dedicated to exploring how social workers actually experience non-sexual dual/multiple relationships is lacking. This dissertation examines how ethical professional and personal relationships are negotiated in the helping relationship. Specifically, how do practice context and types of client encounters mediate the application of ethical guidelines intended to prescribe professional behavior in dual relationships with clients? The conceptual propositions of restrictive and universal definitions of professional boundaries and the task of balancing ethical decisions and practice judgements are employed in the formulation and implementation of this research. In particular, deontological and consequentialist/utilitarian ethical decision-making parameters frame the analysis of findings. Based on an electronic, cross-sectional survey, 165 social workers in the first article, “Social Workers’ Perceptions of Context in Navigating Duality,” reported on the likelihood of duality in three practice settings: rural, military, and congregational. Duality is perceived as most likely in congregational settings and least likely in military settings while duality patterns are perceived as more similar between rural and military settings. Based on findings from the same sample and data collection method, in the second article, “Social Workers’ Perceptions of Duality Domains,” the nature and types of inevitable duality encounters are examined. The findings support the salience of grouping encounters into four domains: financial encounters, faith encounters, dual professional encounters, and incidental/social encounters with each domain encompassing perceived intrinsic challenges to duality. The third article “Professional Boundary Settings and Duality: Civilian Social Workers in Military Settings,” provides 11 in-depth interviews with civilian social workers practicing in military settings overseas. These social workers describe their experiences of encountering duality on a daily basis, negotiating duality solutions that protect clients, and discovering situations in which duality is beneficial to the worker-client relationship. These three articles provide social work practitioners, researchers, and educators with new insights concerning how social workers perceive and navigate ethicality in situations wherein duality is unavoidable.