Ethical Considerations: Dual Relationships

I build in discussions about ethics into most of the courses I design. Within our Career Management Professional Program and also the various Master of Counselling programs that I teach in, there are whole courses devoted to the topic. Each professional association that I belong to has a Code of Ethics; however, outside of those contexts, most people (if asked) consider themselves to be “ethical.” That begs the question, “Why do we need to study and codify ethical practice?”

Ethics has been defined as “a set of moral principles” or “the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular . . . group, culture, etc.” It’s the particularity of ethical conduct – the fact that ethical principles and conduct are known to vary across context and culture – that makes creating a shared understanding of ethics so challenging. It’s also the reason that we periodically encounter ethical dilemmas.

In recent weeks, the topic of “dual relationships” has come up in a variety of conversations – with my students and also with several of my professional colleagues. Dual relationships (also referred to as “Multiple Relationships”) occur when a helping professional (e.g., counsellor, coach, teacher) has multiple roles with a student or client (e.g., a counselling client may also be a student, friend, member of the family, employee, or doing business in another capacity with the counsellor). We are usually encouraged to avoid such multiple roles; one rationale for that is to protect the client or student from potential exploitation due to an unequal distribution of power (e.g., the teacher/instructor is in a position to grade the student; a counsellor typically has more personal information about the client than the client has about the counsellor).

However, there are times when avoiding such relationships might harm the client or student more than by engaging in the relationship. This situation may occur in small communities (whether geographically small, as in the case of rural and remote regions, or small in terms of the size of a specific sub-group within a community such as being members of the same church, the LGBTQ+ community, or an immigrant population). Sometimes the only service provider or instructor is an individual with whom the client or student has a pre-existing relationship (e.g., when an individual gets laid-off and is eligible for government-funded supports that his/her partner administers or when a student, eligible for tuition waiver at the institution employing his/her parent requires a specific course that only his/her parent teaches).

In cases where dual relationships can’t reasonably be avoided, it’s important to manage them strategically and effectively. This can be facilitated through regular consultation and/or supervision with an objective 3rd party (perhaps by phone or via the Internet if there is nobody suitable onsite). Exploring the pros and cons of working together can be a key component of the informed consent process with the client or student; truly informed consent is an ongoing process, so building in regular check-ins about how the dual relationships are working out will be essential.

There are many other examples of unavoidable dual relationships and other ethical dilemmas. A very effective way to increase awareness of ethical grey areas is through discussion with colleagues. Many professional designations require candidates to have completed an ethics course and the career development practitioner certification process is no exception. If you’d like to engage in thought-provoking discussions with other career development practitioners, consider joining us in person for our “Ethical Practice in the Gig Economy” session at the Career Development Conference in Vancouver on March 6 or online in our 2-week Ethics for Career Practitioners course in the Career Management Professional program, beginning March 7.

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