Unpacking the Ethics of Dual and Multiple Relationships Across the Student Affairs Profession

In student affairs it is not difficult to find college personnel navigating dual or multiple relationships: as faculty, professionals, and students in graduate preparation programs. These relationships are complex and require a higher level of moral reasoning to navigate and manage. Student affairs literature has offered general guidance regarding appropriate relationships. However, the field of counseling offers more depth in exploring these complex issues.  Although the student affairs literature delves into this issue on the surface, it lacks the depth found in the mental health fields.

Much of the literature for this column and the decision-making model used to frame the questions are grounded in the counseling literature. This column will explore the multiple relationships we find ourselves in depending on our role at our institution. I will focus on non-sexual relationships, as I feel that ethical and professional codes offer more clarity regarding the unethical nature of those relationships. I will explore dual relationships through an ethical lens and offer some ideas for resolution and management. The intent of the column is to develop strategies that identify when a relationship has crossed ethical boundaries and how to develop solutions to manage and renegotiate boundaries.

Make it Cool to Care – Relationships in Student Affairs

The role of education at the ground level is about building relationships to facilitate student success. These relationships are critical to the success of each student. As professionals we often need to consult with students or refer students to offices across campus. The relationships we have across our campuses are cultivated by establishing partnerships generated out of trust and respect. The professional responsibility that student affairs professionals have varies greatly depending on the role and position on campus, however few would argue against developing a collaborative campus culture where professionals trust one another and often consult across units to support students.

Complex Faculty Relationships

The number one role of faculty on campus is to execute the academic mission of the institution. Within student affairs and higher education programs, graduate students tend to be in direct contact with the faculty. The complexity of working primarily with adult learners changes the nature of the relationship from the onset. Students who are of similar age or older may feel more of a connection and lose sight of the power differential that is part of this dynamic. Faculty who work with both master and doctoral level students must set expectations and learn to negotiate boundaries early in the socialization process.

Working with master level students as a faculty member offers a bit more clarity in regards to setting the boundaries. In many student affairs and higher education programs, but not all, the master level students tend to be more traditionally aged, entering programs shortly after graduation from their undergraduate programs. Age difference is often cited as a major catalyst in unhealthy dual relationships (Kitchener, 1986). Working with students tends to be collaborative in nature and from time to time seems casual and is often misinterpreted.  In such referenced cases, oftentimes students view the relationship as a friendship and do not understand clear work-personal boundaries (Pope & Vasquez, 2011). It is important for faculty to set these boundaries and be clear about expectations and behavior.

The relationship faculty have with doctoral students is generally much more complex than at the master level. Doctoral students work very closely with faculty and developing a friendship outside a supervisory relationship is not uncommon. The complexity is grounded in the fact that doctoral students become colleagues and peers upon graduation.  The faculty member to doctoral student role is also complex because it transcends a supervisory role and is grounded in mentoring, teaching, and role modeling. There are inherent expectations when the roles change (Kitchener, 1986) and for some faculty it is difficult to move beyond the faculty student role, yet it is essentially important for the vitality and growth of the profession. Departments are often reluctant to hire doctoral graduates as faculty members because some faculty members can never elevate the professional to a peer: once a student, always a student.

Complex Student Affairs Professional Relationships

Student affairs professional relationships are also wrought with unclear boundaries and potentially harmful dual relationships. Examples often found on campuses are social friendships between supervisors and supervisees. This situation can exist with no issues. However, the friendship can become problematic if the supervisor ever shows any hint of favoritism as a result of the friendship. Even worse is if the supervisee begins to question the authority of the supervisor because of the friendship. This can become even more complex when roles change, as they often do, in this line of work. When individuals in student affairs positions are promoted into supervisory positions or are promoted to a management level, pre-existing dual relationships are difficult to navigate.  Student affairs professionals are often promoted within, creating even more multifaceted, dual relationships.  The existing relationship now needs to be renegotiated and boundaries made very clear.

The other questionable relationships often found in student affairs work are classroom environments where supervisees are in class with supervisors. Many student affairs offices will employ graduate assistants that are pursuing degrees in student affairs or higher education. Additionally, there are professional staff members that are students in master or doctoral programs on the same campus where they are employed. It is not uncommon to have a supervisor and a supervisee in the same course together. As a faculty member, I once had a director level professional in a class as a doctoral student with four master’s level students who directly reported to her. I had to work on the front end to establish confidentiality, build rapport among the group, and ensure that what was spoken in the context of the class remained part of the class. I also checked in with the students periodically to make sure they felt safe and that they had a voice in the class discussions. From my perspective, establishing group rules early in the course mitigated the power differential and encouraged full participation.

Decision-Making Model

ACPA – College Student Educators International offers a Statement of Ethical Principles and Standards (2006) providing general guidelines about professional behavior related to appropriate relationships. Unfortunately these standards and many others are not adequate for practical decision-making. Most professionals understand and honor inappropriate sexual relationships when there is a power differential. What is most unclear to many professionals is when a dual relationship is unhealthy and crossing the ethical line.  Here, I offer a decision-making framework (Younggren, 2002) that could be used as a guide in determining when a dual relationship may cause more harm than benefit. The model is grounded in the counseling literature so it is based on a therapeutic relationship and does not fully fit all the situations faced in student affairs, but offers a great starting point for analysis. The language embedded in this model has been changed to reflect the field of student affairs and higher education as opposed to counseling and psychology.

The questions are complex and involve higher order moral and ethical scrutiny.

Is the Dual Relationship Necessary?

This is an important question to ask. It is difficult enough to be a good mentor. Adding other factors that challenge the power differential can be confusing and compromise the working relationship. For example, friendships that involve social settings where alcohol is involved can be difficult to manage. It is not uncommon for faculty and students to interact socially outside the work environment. Additionally, student affairs professionals oftentimes live where they work and work where they live. This can make having a social life difficult. It is important to weigh out the pros and cons of the dual relationship and make a judgment based on that. These relationships can be fraught with unnecessary risk to the healthy work relationship. The best interests of your students, peers, and supervisees need to be considered. Ultimately, is the relationship necessary?

Is the Dual Relationship Exploitative?

When faculty members collaborate with doctoral students and fail to give credit to the graduate student, the faculty member exploits the relationship.  In this case, this should be an easy question to answer. If in fact a faculty member fails to acknowledge significant work on the part of a graduate student, the relationship is unacceptable and needs to be ended. Avoiding exploitative dual relationships is an ethical principle that is non-negotiable for professionals.

Who Does the Dual Relationship Benefit?

This is often a more problematic dilemma for faculty and student affairs professionals at small institutions where individuals serve in multiple roles and relationships cross personal and professional boundaries. For example, having your graduate student take care of your children outside of their work at the institution is not unethical as a practice. This arrangement works if the student is being paid a fair wage and the work does not interfere with what the student does on campus. The arrangement could quickly become problematic if the faculty member begins to assume that the graduate assistant is always available to do childcare.  What needs to be discussed between the faculty member and the graduate assistant is that the care of the children is in addition to their role on campus and that it will not influence their work on campus. When identifying who is benefitting, it is important to ask: is one person benefitting more than the other? If the answer is yes, and the individual benefitting has more power in the relationship, you may want to consider terminating the relationship, or at least that part of the relationship. Renegotiating the terms of the relationship can be a proactive solution to avoid unhealthy dual relationships.

Is There a Risk That the Dual Relationship Could Cause Damage to One Member?

This can be a difficult question to address because it calls for an objective assessment of the relationship and oftentimes those involved lack that ability. In an aspirational world we would always avoid dual relationships; however, as stated before, many in higher education work where we live and live where we work. Separating work time from personal time can be quite challenging. Within this question, the dimensions that should be evaluated are risk of harm and how a power differential (if applicable) influences the relationship. These need to be minimized and every attempt to prevent risk needs to be taken. Where damage to one or more stakeholders is possible, terminating the relationship may be an appropriate option.

Is There a Risk That the Dual Relationship Could Disrupt the Working Relationship?

This question should be seriously considered prior to entering into the secondary dual relationship. If you have an existing relationship with an individual and the roles are changing where it cannot be managed, serious consideration should be taken to avoid the change. An example that addresses this dimension is, you are a supervisor and find that you are developing romantic feelings for one of your supervisees. You are contemplating asking this individual out for coffee.  You need to seriously weigh out the consequences of that question, along with the costs to the working relationship. Failing to take a proactive approach to working collaboratively with someone where romantic feelings could develop jeopardizes more than the two individuals involved in the relationship, but could impact the chemistry across several departments.  Do not do it!

Am I Being Objective in my Evaluation of this Matter?

This question is extremely difficult to answer as we could argue that no one is really objective. The most ethical course of action in determining objectivity in evaluating a dual relationship is consulting with a trusted colleague. It is difficult to assess objectively personal needs versus professional needs. Yet it is important in assessing the risk of the relationship and potentially unintended consequences. If you need to ask the trusted colleague, you are likely struggling internally with an unhealthy dual relationship.

Have I Adequately Documented the Decision-Making Process in my Notes?

Documentation is an extremely important task.  This task is more challenging for student affairs professionals because they are not required to keep case notes, as is the case in a therapeutic relationship. However, it is a good professional practice to keep documentation regarding performance and evaluation as a supervisor. Additionally, it is important as a faculty supervisor to keep documentation regarding student performance as part of the mentoring relationship.  Without good notes the past can be manipulated and could meld into a case where harmful distortions of a minor issue could surface.

Was the Risk of the Dual Relationship Fully Discussed?

This is an important conversation to have prior to entering into the relationship. Some relationships develop slowly over time and it is important that the individual with more power be aware of the changes in the relationship. The most important way to manage dual relationships is through open discussions. It is also the responsibility of the individual with more power to recognize and renegotiate the terms and boundaries of the relationship.


Dual relationships are a normal part of professional relationships. A dual relationship exists when an individual simultaneously participates in two role categories (Kitchener, 1986). It is important to critically explore the risks and unintended consequences to participants. The decision-making framework offered here is a good place to begin exploring the relationship and impact of risk, if any.  Keep in mind that open communication and a willingness to renegotiate the terms of the relationship are critical.

Discussion Questions

1. Identify two or three dual relationships that you are involved in. Are there power differences in the relationships? Do any of the relationships pose a risk to those involved? If so, how can you renegotiate the boundaries?

2.  Discuss and define strategies to manage dual relationships in your work. Identify whose responsibility it is for management and care of these relationships.

3. How do you develop strategies to avoid dual relationships? Is that realistic in your work?


ACPA. (2006). Statement of ethical principles and standards. Retrieved May 15, 2014 from http://www.acpa.nche.edu/ethics

Kitchener, K. S. (1986), Teaching applied ethics in counselor education: An integration of psychological processes and philosophical analysis. Journal of Counseling & Development, 64, 306–310.

Pope K. S., & Vasquez, M. J. T. (2011). Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling: A Practical Guide. (4th Ed.). New York, NY: John Wiley.

Younggren, J. N. (2002). Ethical decision-making and dual relationships. Retrieved May 15, 2014 from http://kspope.com/dual/younggren.php#copy

About the Author

Anne M. Hornak is an Associate Professor and Chairperson of Educational Leadership at Central Michigan University. She teaches courses in student affairs and higher education administration, ethics, and social justice. Her research interests include ethical decision-making, transformational learning and international education, and community college students. She has been involved with ACPA as a Directorate member of the Professional Preparation Commission, where she coordinated with the ethics committee. Her most recent book is entitled, “A Day in the Life of a Student Affairs Educator: Competencies and Case Studies for Early Career Professionals” [Stylus, 2014] co-authored with Sarah Marshall.

Please e-mail inquiries to Anne M. Hornak


The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members, Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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