Ethical Issues in Social Work

A social worker is an academically-trained professional who aims to enhance the well-being of individuals, groups and communities. To this end, social workers fight for equality of opportunity and social justice and seek to apply research and crisis intervention to elevate human rights and civil liberties.

Where to Look for Ethical Direction?

Although research in social work is entrenched in an eclectic range of disciplines, from public administration to psychotherapy, ethical quandaries can arise that call into question the limits of one’s training and responsibilities.

In these kinds of ethically dubious scenarios, the National Association of Social Worker’s Code of Ethics and a directive set of guidelines for navigating perhaps unprecedented ethical scenarios social workers face in the field may help to shed light on the ways in which social justice can be served in ambiguous situations.

NASW Code of Ethics

The National Association of Social Worker’s Code of Ethics aims to serve as a code of conduct for professional social workers in the field. The preamble of the code of ethics bluntly states that the goal of social work should be to enhance the well-being of vulnerable individuals and at risk communities.

More specifically, social workers have a responsibility to the communities that they serve to provide informed consent where professional relationships exist as well as promote self-determination in client populations.

Social workers, also, must not exceed their boundaries of educational qualification vis-a-vis the services they provide. In other words, a social worker untrained in jurisprudence would be ill-advised to dispense law advice.

Conflicts of Interest and Confidentiality

Social workers, according to the NASW’s Code of Ethics, should be alert to any potential conflict of interest between themselves and the client. Dual or multiple relationships across intimately related clients is also to be approached with caution and the professional’s discretion. For example, when more than one client is served, and the clients know one another, the social worker should outline the services to be rendered to each client from the outset of the worker-client relationship.

Confidentiality is also a critical issue with any therapist-client relationship, and the field of social work is no exception. Section 1.07 of NASW’s Code of Ethics clearly states that social workers should do their best to ensure the client’s privacy. Private or compromising information about the client should not be purposefully elicited by the social worker at any point in the therapist-client relationship.

The only exception to breaking confidentiality is when a “compelling professional reason” forces the social worker to carefully release some information to protect the client or an affiliated individual from imminent harm or severe duress.

Broad Guidelines for Thinking about Ethical Dilemmas

Karen Allen, an esteemed social worker holding a doctorate in the field, argues that social workers are routinely confronted with ethical quandaries in the field and that key texts can help navigate those ethical question marks. For instance, Dr. Allen points to the 2008 Council on Social Work Education, which argues for applying ethical principles to inform ethical decision making and tolerate some ambiguity in resolving ethically-entrenched conflicts.

So, what is an ethical dilemma? Dr. Allen contends three facets must all be present to form an ethical dilemma: an individual, or an agent, needs to come to a decision as to the best ethical outcome; there must be an array of outcomes to select from; and, thirdly, some ethical principle must ultimately be compromised. Although point three seems out of place, compromise and crisis management is the nature of an ethical dilemma. That said, social workers should keep in mind ethics, laws, values and principles when benevolently resolving conflict.