Multiple Relationships, Real World Ethical Dilemmas

Alfredo E. Crespo, Ph.D.


Psychologists are confronted with an ethical dilemma when a person with whom they have a personal relationship requests their professional services.    In many cases the situation can be easily resolved by providing a social acquaintance with a referral to another psychologist.  At times, however, the desire to be helpful may lead to further ethical complications.   Consider the following hypothetical example:


A psychologist’s employee in his personal world is seeking a green card.  The employee was advised to obtain a psychological evaluation to mitigate records of a domestic violence incident that did not occur but nevertheless threaten to undermine the employee’s immigration efforts.  The same employee asks the psychologist to perform the evaluation, possibly bartering the psychologist’s fee.  How is an ethical psychologist to proceed?


A psychologist predisposed to help someone with whom s/he has a non-professional relationship may either enter an ethical slippery slope (easily prevented) or make a referral and give a sensitive explanation to the employee for such action.   However, in either case, the use of Positive Ethics in ethical decision making (Knapp & VandeCreek, 2006) may prevent an ethical pitfall.  Performing – or not performing – the evaluation requested may be best resolved through a “Positive Ethics” approach.  First, the psychologist reviews the Ethical Principles (APA, 2010).  Per Principle A (Beneficence and Nonmaleficence) “psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm.”


An employee seeking a psychological evaluation from his/her employer is an obvious “Multiple Relationships” (3.05) scenario to avoid if upon review of “Conflict of Interest” (3.06) and “Exploitive Relationships” (3.08) it is apparent that “entering into a multiple relationship… could reasonably be expected to impair the psychologist’s objectivity, competence, or effectiveness in performing his or her functions as a psychologist, or otherwise risks exploitation or harm to the person with whom the professional relationship exists.”  Per 3.05(a), however, “[m]ultiple relationships that would not reasonably be expected to cause impairment or risk exploitation or harm are not unethical.”  Further, per (6.05) Barter with Clients/Patients, psychologists can enter into such arrangements provided that doing so “(1) it is not clinically contraindicated, and (2) the resulting arrangement is not exploitative.”


References are available on request from the LACPA office, [email protected]