ASWB Exam Prep: Boundary Violations

By Heidi Tobe on September 14, 2020


Have you ever wondered what to do when you unintentionally cross a boundary with a client or if a boundary violation occurs? What steps need to be taken? What must we do to address this? Boundary crossings and violations are topics that could very well show up on your ASWB exam. Do you know how the ASWB expects you to answer these questions?

Boundary crossings vs. boundary violations

What is the difference between a boundary-crossing and boundary violation? While it is unlikely the test will get this nuanced, we do find it helpful to keep these differences in mind.

A boundary violation occurs when a social worker engages in a dual relationship with a client or colleague that is exploitive, manipulative, deceptive, or coercive. An example would be when a therapist engages in exploitative dual relationships with a client, such as sexual contact or exploitative business relationship that benefits the therapist. 

A boundary-crossing on the other hand is not necessarily harmful and can be engaged in intentionally and therapeutically. A way to distinguish between the two is that boundary violations generally break the code of ethics, while boundary crossings do not. While a boundary-crossing could be unethical, they are not necessarily or inherently against the code of ethics. An example of a boundary-crossing would be accepting a small termination gift from a client that is culturally significant, giving a supportive hug to a grieving client, or making a home visit to a home-bound client. 

How to deal with boundary violations

What happens when a boundary violation occurs? While we want to do everything we can to prevent boundary violations from occurring, if they do occur it is important we acknowledge this misstep and address the therapeutic issues it may have created for our client. While it may feel easier to ignore it or wait for the client to bring it up, it is our responsibility to bring these violations up and to create space to explore the impact that it has had.

ASWB practice question on boundary violations:

boundary violation

A social worker leaves a voicemail for a client reminding them of their upcoming appointment. In this voicemail, the social worker states their own name and the client’s first name, but does not disclose the nature of the appointment. After hanging up, the social worker realizes they called the wrong number. What is the PRIMARY responsibility of the social worker?

A. To call back the wrong number and inform them of the mistake

B. To inform the client of the incident and process their reaction

C. To report themselves to their licensing board

D. To not disclose the incident to the client, since no identifying information was shared

(scroll for answer and rationale)




The correct answer is (B), to inform the client of what occurred and process their reaction. While (A) is something that could be done, it is not the PRIMARY responsibility of the social worker. The primary responsibility of the social worker is to their client. Similarly, (C) is something that the social worker could choose to do, but is not their primary responsibility. (D) is incorrect because even though no identifying information was shared, it is still important for the social worker to inform the client of what happened and to create space for them to share their feelings surrounding this.

ASWB Masters and Clinical Exam Preparation

Did you answer this month’s question on boundary violations correctly? Whether you aced it or struggled to identify the correct answer, know that TDC is here to help get you ready to pass your exam. Our LMSW and LCSW ASWB exam prep courses give you everything you need to be successful on the exam, including both factual content and reasoning skills. One of the best parts of TDC is that you can email your coach anytime you have questions as you go through the program, so you’re never left alone in the studying process. We’ve helped THOUSANDS of social workers across the nation PASS their exams. Are you ready to pass with confidence?


Commenter Name
December 29, 2020

If a client sees a therapist, and the session goes on for 2.5hrs, is this considered a boundary crossing? Isn’t it a must to discuss how long therapy is going to be per session (are all 60 minutes?) or does it vary from intervention to intervention? If typically it is 60
min and the sessions goes to 2.5, what would that be called?

Commenter Name
December 30, 2020

Hi Juliette,
Typically sessions last from 50-60 minutes, but there are some instances or modalities that would go longer. It would be a boundary issue if it was scheduled for 50-60 minutes and went that long. If this was the case, the social worker would need to discuss and hold to better boundaries around time.

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