Frontline Initiative Complex Needs

Relationships in the Workplace


Zana Marie Lutfiyya is an associate professor at the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba

Pam Walker is a research associate for the Center on Human Policy, the National Resource Center on Supported Living and Choice, at Syracuse University, New York

Relatively little thought has been given to the development of friendships between DSPs and the people for whom they provide supports. It is often assumed that “paid relationships” between staff and individuals depend on professional distance and by definition are not friendships. It is true that such relationships shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for other relationships. At the same time, there are occasions when close, mutual friendships do form between DSPs and the people they support. More recently, however, some agencies have begun encouraging those personal ties, and many have determined that the best way to support people is within the context of social relationships. As the field puts increasing emphasis on social relationships and community building, DSPs are being called upon to play new roles beyond meeting traditional planning objectives. One natural extension of this is the enhancement of friendships between the DSP and the people they support.

Three of the most critical issues related to these friendships are (1) the consequences of when a DSP transfers, or the person receiving supports moves, (2) the conflict of interest DSPs find themselves in when they must be a friend and an employee, and (3) when the agency relies exclusively on staff as friends versus assisting the person to establish other friendships.

The high turnover of DSPs within human service programs has reduced the possibility that friendships and other personal relationships can develop. Also, some agencies transfer DSPs if a close relationship seems to be developing. When a friendship has been established, a physical relocation of one of the friends may be enough to end the friendship. However, sometimes such a relocation strengthens their relationship. Friendships with former DSPs are recognized and supported by some agencies through a variety of means, including invitations to the former DSP to visit or attend planning meetings as a friend, and providing assistance, if needed, to the person receiving supports to maintain the relationship (e.g., sending cards, making phone calls, initiating visits). When the relationship is not supported, this may constitute a formidable barrier to the continuation of the friendship.

A relationship between a DSP and the individual he or she supports sometimes results in a conflict of interest. The DSP is both an employee of the agency and a friend of someone who receives supports from that agency. Tensions and difficulties in the relationship can result. The DSP may need to advocate for his or her friend, questioning the agency’s policies and regulations. The agency may view the DSP’s actions as insubordination and beyond the job’s responsibilities. The nature and extent of the friendship is shaped and defined through such tests, interest, and loyalty. In addition, agencies may learn more about the individual needs of those they support if they allow these natural tensions and conflicts to inform their policy.

Finally, the process of assisting some people with disabilities who have been previously isolated from the community to establish friendships can be challenging and time-consuming. Some agencies may put much effort into the development of close friendships among staff and the people they support, though devote less energy toward creating other connections and relationships. It is important that the agency channels its resources in both directions to maximize the person’s options for friendships.

People receiving supports and DSPs can establish and enjoy genuine friendships with each other that are deeply significant for both involved. Such relationships should not be a substitute for the possibility of other types of relationships. However, it is important to recognize and value these relationships, because they can enhance the lives of both the DSP and those receiving supports.