Peeling the Slices of Corruption: Insights into Violations of Professional Boundaries

By Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
January 4, 2007


As the Liberian government is seeking to enact new public policies to address bureaucratic corruption, there is one important topic that has not featured heavily in the public conversations about this subject. It is dual relationships and the associated violation of professional boundaries. Dual relationship occurs when a professional engages in an overlapping or multiple relationships with their client. For example, if a doctor engages in a sexual relationship with their patient; a teacher with their student; and a tax collector becomes the business partner of a firm owner whom he/she is responsible to collect tax from in their role as a civil servant.

Dual relationships can occur “before, during or after” the existing professional relationship. Violators often argue that their involvement with the client is solely to the benefit of the client, and they are not accruing any personal benefit from the relationship. However, the exploitative nature of dual relationships; the fact that it weakens or compromises professional judgment; and eventually undermines ethical principles embedded in professional codes of conduct, provides reasons to be concerned that it is a channel for fueling corruption.

Linking Dual Relationship and Corruption
Dual relationships violate professional boundaries, and provide pathways through which bureaucratic corruption and graft can occur. In the absence of licensing and regulatory boards or professional associations that can discipline offenders of ethical norms or organizational codes of ethics, it is difficult to curb the incentives for dual relationships and violations of professional boundaries. Essentially, the government cannot administer comprehensive corruption reform, if the issue of dual relationships and violations of professional boundaries are not integral parts of its strategy. How would it sanction offenders? What infrastructure exists that can facilitate inquiry into ethical lapses and violations? If malpractice or negligence is determined through the courts, professionals lack insurance coverage to mitigate the harm caused or expenses incurred by the client.

A few Liberians would argue that relationships that compromise professional judgment are not the norm in our society. But unfortunately, when we begin to discuss corruption, the emphasis is often placed on money or property changing hands. Personal relationships between supervisor and supervisee are also common in our society. We often neglect the tendency it has to jeopardize service delivery or undermine an employee’s capacity to deliver optimal professional outcomes.

Under the rubric of dual relationships, one can include the misuse of power, which is also a condition embedded in our society. Many professionals have been known to often blame the victim or we have witnessed an enormous amount of institutional denial of responsibility for the actions of their employees. Given that our judicial institutions are elite-based, many victims, including vulnerable populations like children, women, and elderly people often face difficulties initiating legal action when they are violated. Ethical complaints are nonexistent in many professions because the infrastructure for such a process is nonexistent. In a society where illiteracy is so high, it is also not surprising that many victims do not come forward because they are ill-informed about how to proceed with complaints. There are others who live in cultural settings where violations of many kinds, including abuse and neglect of children and related violations have been construed as culturally acceptable.

In therapeutic or psychosocial relationships, a burgeoning field in Liberian society, one can see how it would be easy for vulnerable people to be manipulated into believing that certain actions by professionals are acceptable. Blackmail may also be possible, where clients initiate relationships and later use them for exploitative purposes. Nonetheless, the burden of proof falls on professionals to draw the line of demarcation. This is because in dual relationships, it is the influence that the professional has over the client, and the client’s vulnerability that serve as measures of ethical or legal breach of conduct.

Exchange of Goods and Services between Professional and Client
There are many instances in which professionals exchange goods for services with a client, and in so doing, violate professional and even legal boundaries. Anytime goods and/or services exchange hands, there is ample risk for exploiting the client or the person with lesser amount of power. The potential to harm a client has to be a standard for gauging if there is a need for the professional to resist being lured into any conduct that would warrant investigations for ethical breach.

Breach of Client Confidence
Another area in which there has been tremendous violation is in protecting the client’s confidence. It is easy to assert that in the maturation of our institutions and professional practices, we have yet to grow in how to protect confidential information that clients provide to professionals. The professional-client relationship is one that leads clients to open themselves up to their caregiver. When clients reveal important information to a professional, including healthcare providers, accountants, bankers, etc, sharing such information with a person who does not have the client’s permission to receive that information is no less than stealing their assets. Informational assets are just as crucial to the day-to-day functioning of a people as material or monetary assets.

Failure to Pay Attention to Shifts in Relationships
I believe that once a professional relationship acquires a second relational component, the rules that define the roles are then blurred and thus easy to violate. Individuals cannot always pay attention to such shifts in their relationships. That is why it is so critical that licensing and regulatory bodies be established alongside professional associations like the Press Union of Liberia, the Liberian Medical Association, etc to serve as independent brokers of professional conduct. Perhaps, the government is aware that the potential exists for its good intentions to be reasons for suspicion since the past governments have served both as the prosecutor and the judge in these kinds of cases.


There is just too little that the government can do on addressing dual relationships and professional violations. Academics and existing professional associations need to invest in doing studies that examine the many sources of dual relationships and boundary violations within their respective institutions. Such data should be made available to the public and their members and their members should also build enforcement mechanisms. The more we incorporate this topic into our curriculum at all levels and in all professions, it is likely that the seed of change will be planted.
People placed in management responsibilities should be expected to use their supervision as a way of assessing for dual relationships and professional boundary violations. Similarly, supervisees should hold their supervisors to these standards. Equally, outlets should be established to acquire client feedback, and information gleaned should be utilized for training and even investigations and reprimand where necessary.
Citizens’ rights and responsibilities should be made accessible in all institutions and distributed widely. State licensing and regulatory bodies should not only be administered by professionals who have knowledge and expertise in the specific field that they are responsible to regulate, but also in matters of ethics and best practices in their respective fields.
Professionals are found to have engaged in proven violations should be sanctioned and in the appropriate cases barred from practicing in those fields. Those deemed to be at-risk of professional violations should be encouraged to seek help on their own, and if not, be mandated to do so or face expulsion from practicing in their field.
In a bid to develop comprehensive anti-corruption legislations, it is critical to consult professionals and academics who have demonstrated expertise in ethics and related subjects to explore aspects of rent-seeking reform that have not been considered in the Liberian context.


There are several ways in which a professional can cross the line between their professional relationships with a client by transgressing into their private life. The inadvertent consequences can produce conditions that are conducive for rent-seeking activities or corruption. Anytime we blur the roles between being a professional and the personal, we abuse our power.

Hopefully, as the Unity Party government seeks to establish or strengthen its anti-corruption regimes, it would consider the many ways in which the liberties of citizens are being violated by public servants, which are indistinguishable from the effects of corruption. Furthermore, it should be noted that one of biggest drivers of anti-corruption regimes are the personal and professional commitments of the leadership of any institution or society to the effort. Anti-corruption regimes cannot be applied piecemeal, they have to be infused into a larger plan to bring about holistic change in the institutional culture, including strategies to “prevent, detect, and enforce regulations.” Unless we do so, our country will continue to linger in anarchy and strife.

© 2006 by The Perspective

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