Monday, January 3, 2011

Dual Relationships in Counseling Supervision: Implications for Practice

(Note: Doctoral students in CED 781a Counseling Supervision during Fall 2010 completed abbreviated literature reviews on a topic of individual interest. They wrote both a research summary and a summary for practitioners. Here, we present the summaries for practitioners. Please let us know if you have questions or suggestions for future summaries. L. DiAnne Borders)

By Cristina Lima

The topic of dual relationships in supervision with counseling trainees has received the attention of the professional community for decades. Ability to determine potential for ethical problems is crucial, but the ethical codes of the helping professions do not always offer concrete guidelines. Supervisors often find themselves in dual role dilemmas. Some are easier to assess and determine a course of action, such as conflicts involving romantic relationships. However, there are ambiguous situations involving social interactions or multiple professional roles when supervisors face uncertainty.

Sexual Relationships

Historically, the first concern of helping professionals in regard to dual relationships in supervision was focused on sexual relationships. Pioneer studies were important to show the prevalence of such relationships and raise awareness among professionals (Pope, Levenson, & Schover, 1979). In 1981, the American Psychological Association (APA) revised its Ethical Standards and, for the first time, stated that sexual relationships with supervisees and students were unethical. A few years later, it was clear that romantic interactions in the supervisory relationship were harmful and that the main factor associated with the risk of exploitation was the power differential between supervisor and supervisee (Glaser & Thorpe, 1986).

Social Interactions

Once the issue of sexual intimacies was settled, interest turned to non-sexual relationships, especially social interactions. The main focus of attention was the potential of harm to the working supervisory relationship because of the risk of exploitation due to the power differential, and the potential of loss of objectivity consequent to the overlapping of roles. By that time, the framework used for dual relationship between clients and therapists was assumed to be equally valid for the supervisory relationship. However, this assumption was challenged by several researchers (e.g., Bowman & Hatley, 1995; Erwin, 2000), who suggested that not all dual-relationships are harmful. Furthermore, Burian and Slimp (2000) believed that not all types of dual relationships should be avoided because of possible benefits.

Multiple Professional Roles

Besides social interactions, supervisors also were concerned with multiple professional relationships (Lamb, Catanzaro, & Moorman, 2004). Multiple professional relationships in supervision occur when there is an overlap of roles such as teacher, advisor, clinical supervisor, and administrative supervisor. These type of dual relationship, according to studies (e.g.,Tromski-Klingshirn & Davis, 2007), seem to have the potential to bring more benefits than harm to the working relationship. The conclusion is that the quality of the relationship is more important than the dual relationship per se. Professional dual relationships carry the same potential risk for exploitation and loss of objectivity; however, the risk is minimized by the fact that the multiple professional roles often share the same evaluative nature.

Professional dual relationships are often difficult to avoid. Gottlieb, Robinson, and Younggren (2007) offered recommendations for administrators, supervisors, and supervisees when facing multiple relationships. The main recommendations were to focus on the best interest of the supervisees, acknowledge power differential and evaluative roles, maintain objectivity, assess potential for harm, keep clear boundaries, and discuss the issue openly with supervisees. It seems that awareness is an important component to avoid harm.


Considering the lack of more specific guidelines, the major implication of this review is to emphasize the relevance of awareness among supervisors. Furthermore, special attention should be given to training of supervisors, including a clear distinction among different types of dual roles and different strategies to determine and choose appropriate course of action. Also, it is important to foster opportunities for dialogue among supervisors to discuss the ethical implications of such relationships, what constitutes harm and benefit in non-sexual relationships, and what constitutes quality supervisory relationship.

For Further Reading

Burian, B. K., & Slimp, A. O. (2000). Social dual-relationships during internship: A decision- making model. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 31, 332-338.

Gottlieb, M. C., Robinson, K., & Younggren, J. N. (2007). Multiple relations in supervision: Guidance for administrators, supervisors, and students. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 38, 241-247.

Lamb, D. H., Catanzaro, S. J., & Moorman, A. S. (2004). A preliminary look at how psychologists identify, evaluate, and proceed when faced with possible multiple relationship dilemmas. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 35, 248-254.

Tromski-Klingshirn, D. M., & Davis, T. E. (2007). Supervisees’ perceptions of their clinical supervision: A study of the dual role of clinical and administrative supervisor. Counselor Education & Supervision, 46, 294-304.

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