Code of Ethics Review: Dating Colleagues and the Social Work Exam

social work colleague relationshipWe're working our way through the second section of the NASW Code of Ethics, a question at a time. For complete, 170-question exams covering ethics and much, much more, go here and build the exam bundle that best suits your study plan. Meanwhile, here's some free practice:

Working together at a residential facility, a therapist and case manager develop a strong attraction to each other. Both are social workers and want to be mindful of ethical guidelines as they begin to explore a relationship outside of work. Which of the following BEST describes NASW guidelines for relationships between social work colleagues?

A. The social workers can be in a romantic relationship as long as it's not sexual.

B. The social workers can be in a romantic relationship as long as they don't share clients.

C. The social workers can be in a romantic relationship as long as one isn't supervising the other.

D. The social workers can be in a romantic relationship as long as one transfers responsibilities to avoid making clients uncomfortable.

What do you say?

Let's take a look at the relevant section of the code, 2.07, Sexual Relationships. It says:

(a) Social workers who function as supervisors or educators should not engage in sexual activities or contact with supervisees, students, trainees, or other colleagues over whom they exercise professional authority.

(b) Social workers should avoid engaging in sexual relationships with colleagues when there is potential for a conflict of interest. Social workers who become involved in, or anticipate becoming involved in, a sexual relationship with a colleague have a duty to transfer professional responsibilities, when necessary, to avoid a conflict of interest.

After reading that, have you changed your answer?

The answer we like best is....C, the supervision one. You may be able to make an argument for some of the others, but that one's the strongest of the bunch. Let's take them one at a time:

A. This is a letter-of-the-code vs. spirit-of-the-code reading of 2.07. The code specifies a problem with "sexual relationships." Yes, okay. You could defend the answer in court. But you're not in court, you're preparing for the social work licensing exam. You want to choose the BEST of the offered answers, even when another answer seems acceptable. In this case, the answer that leaves no room open to interpretation is C, regarding supervision.

B. Sharing clients isn't mentioned in the code and, though that may get tricky between a therapist and case manager, it's not as tricky and ethically murky as answer C.

D. Avoiding client discomfort isn't mentioned in this section of the code. It's a nice thing to do. It's not as important here as avoiding the misuse of professional leverage.

Answer C is right from the code. And from most HR rule books. The key issue here is the exercise of professional authority. That may or may not be present in a therapist-case manager relationship, but it is certainly present in a supervisor-supervisee relationship. No sexual relationships between supervisors and supervisees. Simple as that.

You have your answer! You have your exam prep! If you encounter a question about this on the exam, you're ready for it. Good luck!

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