Journal Article

Professional Boundaries: Crossing a Line or Entering the Shadows?

Mark Doel, Peter Allmark, Paul Conway, Malcolm Cowburn, Margaret Flynn, Pete Nelson and Angela Tod

in The British Journal of Social Work

Published on behalf of British Association of Social Workers

Volume 40, issue 6, pages 1866-1889
Published in print September 2010 | ISSN: 0045-3102
Published online October 2009 | e-ISSN: 1468-263X | DOI:
Professional Boundaries: Crossing a Line or Entering the Shadows?

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This article explores the professional boundaries guidance for social workers. It presents research findings from the formal literature, from agency codes of practice, from telephone interviews with regulatory and professional bodies and from an exercise using ‘snowballing techniques’ in which informants responded to brief scenarios illustrating boundary dilemmas. The findings suggest that formal research plays little part in the guidance that individuals use to help them determine professional boundaries. Similarly, only 10–15 per cent of informants made regular reference to regulatory and professional codes of practice, with an even smaller percentage quoting specific sections from these codes. A slightly larger group (15–20 per cent) made fairly regular reference to their agency's policy documents. However, a clear majority relied on their own sense of what is appropriate or inappropriate, and made their judgements with no reference to any formal guidance. Agency guidance tended to ignore the ambiguous areas of practice and seemed to act as an insurance policy, brought out and dusted off when something goes awry. The authors caution against ever-increasing bullet points of advice and prescription, and advance a notion of ethical engagement in which professionals exercise their ethical senses through regular discussion of professional boundary dilemmas.

Keywords: Professional boundaries; professional ethics; code of practice; professional relationship; practice dilemmas

Journal Article.  7752 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Social Work

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