Professional Ethics, Friendly vs. Friends

by Hawke Robinson published 2018/04/06 19:30:00 GMT-7, last modified 2022-11-12T09:26:07-07:00
This came up in an Alignable social network thread, and I thought others might enjoy it being shared here. "What do you think is an appropriate relationship with a client/customer? " This also addresses some of the topics of RPG Professionals / Paid Game Masters, etc.

Original thread:

April 6th, 2018, their question: "What do you think is an appropriate relationship with a client/customer? Do you think that it is ok to be "friends" with the people that purchase your product or service? I know that I have a tendency to get emotionally invested in my customers, which causes me to sometimes go way past the spectrum of the services that we offer."


My answer on the fly: "This is a complex topic, and this format is not well suited for the level of complexity, but I will try to summarize.

It depends on your audience and discipline. Some people feel more respect and pay better attention to someone with a more professional mien, while others find better connection with a friendlier more accessible persona.

1. ​In our therapeutic settings, while "friendly" may help facilitate a more effective process, a "friendly relationship" within the scope of the client/therapist relationship is very different from "being friends". There are serious ethical (and potential legal) issues if going beyond just friendly professionalism. One should generally avoid doing so. If a potential client is already a friend, it is probably better to refer them to another professional you trust, even if it is a coworking therapist or employee, rather than trying to be your friend's therapist. Many disciplines have strict ethical codes definining and limiting relationship boundaries, and failure to stay within those limitations could lead to significant professional and/or legal consequences.

2. ​In our educational settings, there is still the prospect of an authority figure and significant power inequality of the relationship. Compound that with payment transactions, and especially if working with minors (or anyone significantly younger than yourself), or any protected populations, one must be very careful about this relationship. While friendly can greatly facilitate the learning process, you still want to keep clear lines of separation. There are fewer ethical issues with teaching with an adult peer friend wants to take your courses, than in a therapeutic setting,  but still wise to keep a professional boundary, and try to treat all the students equally while within the classroom. It is probably not necessary to refer the existing friend to another instructor in most cases.

​3. In other disciplines, such as our entertainment services, this is even less of an issue, though still separating your professional persona and style of interaction when "on the clock" ​with the customer, versus how you behave off the clock, should have some sort of clear delineation. You don't want to be sidetracked shooting the breeze with a friend that is paying you for a specific service. That could build resentment in not getting as good a quality of service as other customers, and may lead to them going elsewhere for a "more professional" service."

And my addendum here speific to role-playing gaming services.

This gets even more complicated with role-playing games, especially tabletop and live-action (LARP), and potentially computer-based.

I provide paid RPG services in all of the following contexts:

  • Therapeutic settings
  • Educational settings
  • Entertainment/recreation settings

As well as unpaid RPG sessions.

In therapeutic settings I follow #1 strictly. Period.

In educational settings, I am more flexible as listed, but I took take on the "instructor mantel" clearly during the course times. It can take me a few minutes to switch gears into friend mode. I try very hard not to have bias when friends are in the classroom.

In paid entertainment/recreation settings, they may or may not be friends, but either way, they are paying for my professional best, so I need to be taking on the full role of the professional recreational facilitator and/or entertainer. This is trickier with RPGs with friends, since it is such a collaborative effort. I won't turn an existing free group with friends into a billable group. But if a friedn or others in my free groups want to join my professional paid sessions, I do the best i can to treat them as other paying players, and it is a different experience and persona than when running my casual at-home games with friends or gamer-friends. I generally won't eat during paid sessions (only during established breaks), other than initial ice breaking conversations and activities, I tend to keep the conversations and energy focused as closely on the game with as few tangents as possible. I have a more reserved though friendly professional persona, and do not share my personal life, or enquire about their personal lives in such settings. I am on the clock and want to provide them with the maximum, most efficient, deepest immersive experience (shooting for as much flow state for them), as possible. I try to keep us to a clearly defined and followed start, breaks, and stop schedule, etc. I will not go hang out with the customers/clients after the session, etc.

This is of course just a tiny portion of the tip of the iceberg of professional ethics issues. By no means all inclusive. I try to address these issues (and many others) in depth in some of my 77 courses on RPGs that I am (slowly) migrating all online at

The non-paid game sessions, I tend to be more myself. There are more tangents and jokes between all of us. It is more laid back, and may often talk about divergent topics during breaks, etc.  We may be eating during the game, etc. Our start, break, and stop times my be more flexible, etc. We may often go hang out and do other activities after the session, etc.

In general, I try to override the human biases that are often inadvertent and unavoidable if unaware of them, of in-group (friends) versus out-group (others/not-friends), in all but the "friends having fun free gaming/recreation" setting, knowing that such efforts are not by any means foolproof, but awareness, training, and practice, assessment, feedback, and iteration can help reduce those inherent biases. With permission, I generally video & audio record all game sessions, professional and friendly. This mostly helps me have something to go back and reference in preparation for the next session (since I juggle so many sessions). It also makes it possible to go back, and either personally (or have others), try to more objectively review the dynamics in the session, and then through discussion try to modify behavior in my future sessions.

Others may take many other approaches, but these are the parameters I use as guidelines, and encourage staff and others to take into consideration.

-Hawke Robinson

Founder & President, RPG Research & RPG Therapeutics LLC.

Washington State Department of Health Registered Recreational Therapist.

About Hawke Robinson:

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