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Mixing Business with Pleasure: Dual Relationships

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If you have a client or patient that you connect with on a personal level, is it okay to have a social as well as a professional relationship?  It depends on your profession and what type of personal relationship.  Most professions prohibit a sexual or romantic relationship with a current patient/client.  The rules differ significantly among the professions, however, for non-romantic relationships with current or even former clients/patients.

For example, attorneys are generally permitted to have business and non-sexual relationships with current clients, as long as any dealings are fair and the relationship does not interfere with the attorney’s representation or independent judgment.  Like most professions, lawyers cannot have a sexual relationship with a current client, unless it pre-dated the representation.[1]  However, as soon as the representation ends, counselors at law may begin a romantic relationship with a former client.

In contrast, other types of counselors, such as psychologists, clinical social workers, and other therapists, are generally prohibited from having personal or social relationships with current clients and with prior clients, at least for a period of time.   Also, to avoid any potential undue influence from the professional counseling relationships, ethics rules for some therapists effectively have a permanent ban on sexual relationships with past clients, while most rules prohibit romantic involvement for at least a couple years.[2]

Social media has blurred some of the personal/professional lines, especially as it relates to social but non-sexual relationships with current patients/clients.  For example, is it okay to friend or send/accept an invitation to connect on social media with a current client?  The answer varies depending upon the type of social media connection, even within a profession.  Most professional ethics rules have a difficult time keeping pace with rapidly expanding and changing technology and don’t provide clear guidance on these types of issues.  The best course is to check your professional rules, with your licensing board or call someone with experience in these areas before you mix business with pleasure concerning current or past clients.

[1] NC Rule of Professional Conduct 1.19.

[2] See, e.g., for Psychologists: 21 NCAC 54 .1608 and APA Code of Ethics, Standard 3: Human Relations, 3.05 Multiple Relationships; for LCSWs: 21 NCAC 63 .0504 Responsibilities in Professional Relationships; for LPCs: Rule 21 NCAC 53 .0102 and ACA Code A.5. Prohibited Non-counseling Roles and Relationships and A.6. Managing and Maintaining Boundaries and Professional Relationships; and for LMFTs: 21 NCAC 31 .0609 and AAMFT Code of Ethical Principles for Marriage and Family Therapists, Standard I, 1.3 through 1.5.