The Social Work Code of Ethics

Ethical principles are standards of a group, organization, or profession that direct courses of action on behalf of the profession’s agents – in this case, social workers. In social work code of ethics, an ethical dilemma is a situation requiring action on part of the social worker wherein there is no clean success – that is, two or more ethical principles are in conflict with one another. In an ethical dilemma, any of the possible actions or responses the social worker can make inevitably requires the breaching or compromise of a least one ethical principle.

The most important thing for social workers to remember when dealing with ethical dilemmas is to use the supports they have in place to keep themselves from having to act alone!

Social workers can seek guidance and support in navigating ethical dilemmas by:

  • Reviewing agency policies
  • Seeking supervision
  • Consulting the NASW Code of Ethics, to which all social workers are expected to adhere and frame the core tenets and guidelines of our profession. All social work students should familiarize themselves with this document, and practitioners should revisit it periodically.
  • Reviewing state and federal laws
  • Contacting the NASW

What are Common Ethical Dilemmas/Examples?

  • You are providing relationship counseling for a couple who are working on trust and communication issues and are considering marriage. For several weeks they have been engaging in communication and mindfulness skills and seem to be making progress.  One day, one of the partners calls you a few hours before the couple’s scheduled session and reports that they have a secret: before starting counseling with you, they had an impulsive one-time affair several weeks ago, when they had more doubts about the relationship. They tell you they do not plan to disclose this to their partner “because things are going so well, and what my partner doesn’t know won’t hurt them…. I just had to get it off my chest.”
  • Involuntary commitment/petitioning someone for psychiatric hospitalization
  • Decisions about whether to endorse a client’s appeal to live in more independent housing
  • Receiving gifts from clients
  • Confidentiality with minor clients (parents or legal guardians have access to information about the content and progress of the minor’s therapy)
  • Commission of Illegal Acts (a client reports they have beeninvolved in criminal behavior  – not related to child or elder abuse, or plans to harm self or others, which require social workers to act through the Duty to Warn and Mandated Reporter clauses)
  • In administration, decisions about which programs receive budget cuts due to fiscal stressors
  • Running into clients out in public – protecting confidentiality and maintaining boundaries while treating the person with dignity and worth.
  • Social media boundaries with clients – what if they “friend request” you?
  • Working for private or religious agencies that have discriminatory policies – adhering to agency policy or refusing to engage in discriminatory behavior?

Highly recommended articles:

The Social Work Code of Ethics and Ethical Dilemma Overview
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The Social Work Code of Ethics and Ethical Dilemma Overview
This is a great read for social workers! Learn everything you need to know about ethical dilemmas and the social work code of ethics.
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