You might have heard the phrase “social work ethics” but may be confused by what the term means and how it applies to the social work profession. This guide covers social work ethics, how ethics guide social workers’ behaviors and actions, and how professionals build their knowledge and skills around ethical dilemmas. In addition, state requirements for ethics training are covered, as is a discussion around how social work ethics apply to our now largely remote working world.
IN THIS GUIDE
- Where do social work ethics come from?
- How are social workers trained in ethics?
- State requirements for ethics training
- Ethics in a remote work world
What are social work ethics?
Ethics are a code of morals or a moral philosophy that governs an individual’s behaviors and actions. It is also considered a set of standards or code of conduct set forth by a company or profession. Social work ethics are guidelines that social workers must abide by when acting in their professional capacity. Ethics differentiate between right and wrong and describe actions that are permissible or forbidden.
Who develops social work ethics?
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) develops ethical guidelines for social workers. NASW is the largest membership organization of professional social workers around the world. The NASW establishes the principles, values, and standards that guide the profession. In addition, the organization strives to enhance the professional development and growth of its members and promote sound social policies.
The first NASW Code of Ethics was developed and approved in 1960. Revisions were made in 1967, 1979, 1990, 1993, 1996, 1999, and 2008. The latest revision occurred to the NASW Code of Ethics in August 2017.
A social worker does not need to be a member of NASW to be accountable to the professional ethical standards. However, NASW members are required to uphold the Code of Ethics. In addition, as will be discussed later in this guide, many states incorporate the Code of Ethics into their licensing requirements, so any licensed social worker in that state must also abide by the ethical guidelines set forth by NASW.
NASW states that the profession has overarching core values that guide the development of ethical principles. In turn, these create the format for social work ethical standards.
What are the social work ethical principles?
Social work ethics are based on the profession’s core values of social justice, service, dignity, and worth of each person, integrity, the importance of human relationships, and competence. These are the overarching ideals to which all social work professionals should aspire. These ethical principles lay the foundation for specific ethical standards that social workers need to follow.
Social work ethical principles include:
- Social justice: social workers are to challenge social injustice and seek social change on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people.
- Service: the primary goals of the profession are to address social problems and help people in need.
- Dignity and worth: social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of each person, being mindful of diversity, and interact with each individual in a caring and respectful manner.
- Integrity: social workers are trustworthy, understanding the profession’s ethical responsibilities and acting in ways that are consistent with those requirements.
- Importance of human relationships: social workers understand that relationships are a critical vehicle of change and work to include clients as partners in the helping process.
- Competency: social workers are constantly increasing their skills and knowledge to apply these improved skills in practice. Social workers also contribute to the professions’ knowledge base by conducting, reading, and promoting research.
What are the social work ethical standards?
According to the Code of Ethics, the ethical standards categories concern social workers’ ethical responsibilities:
- To clients
- To colleagues
- In practice settings
- As professionals
- To the social work profession
- To the broader society
Within each category are several standards that guide how a social worker is to act. Each standard also has a number of both enforceable and aspirational guidelines within it for social workers to follow.
Under Ethical Standard Category 1, Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities to Clients fall the following standards:
- Commitment to clients
- Informed consent
- Cultural awareness and diversity
- Conflicts of interest
- Privacy and confidentiality
- Access to records
- Sexual relationships
- Physical contact
- Sexual harassment
- Derogatory language
- Payment for services
- Clients who lack decision-making capacity
- Interruption of services
- Referral for services
- Termination of services
Standard Category 2, which is Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities to Colleagues includes:
- Interdisciplinary collaboration
- Disputes involving colleagues
- Sexual relationships
- Sexual harassment
- Impairment of colleagues
- Incompetence of colleagues
- Unethical conduct of colleagues
Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities in Practice Settings is Standard Category 3 and includes:
- Supervision and consultation
- Education and training
- Performance evaluation
- Client records
- Client transfer
- Continuing education and staff development
- Commitments to employers
- Labor-management disputes
Standard Category 4 is Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities as Professionals, which includes:
- Private conduct
- Dishonesty, fraud, and deception
- Acknowledging credit
Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities to the Social Work Profession is Standard Category 5 and encompasses:
- Integrity of the profession
- Evaluation and research
Standard Category 6 is Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities to the Broader Society and includes:
- Social welfare
- Public participation
- Public emergencies
- Social and Political action
How are social workers trained in ethics?
Social workers receive ethical training both while in school and after graduation via their workplace through professional development training or continuing education opportunities. Ethics training is a necessary component of the profession and requires ongoing knowledge and skills development, particularly as advances happen with technology, and changes occur in the social climate.
Most social work education programs are accredited through the Council for Social Work Education. This organization certifies that the bachelor’s or master’s degree program has met the standards set forth for professional social work education. To be accredited, the educational program must demonstrate its commitment to educating and assessing students in their adherence to following CSWE’s nine social work competencies.
Each competency ties back into various portions of the NASW Code of Ethics. Educators must weave ethical discussions, simulations, lectures, and readings into their courses and provide students opportunities to consider or role play ethical dilemmas and scenarios that might arise in their work.
As a component of continued accreditation, instructors review students at the end of the course on how well each student met the course’s social work competency or competencies. This task also helps instructors review their own work and make adjustments as necessary to improve future students’ knowledge and skills in recognizing and adhering to the NASW Code of Ethics.
Graduates of social work programs interested in obtaining social work licensure must complete a licensure examination. Professionals studying to take the exam often learn or refresh their knowledge about ethical responsibilities and requirements through exam study guides or study groups, as the exam contains questions about ethical standards and hypothetical ethical scenarios.
Agencies also further a social workers’ knowledge and skills via informal staff supervision and professional development training. Supervisors should work with new professionals to discuss concerning situations and talk about how the social worker should handle ethical dilemmas. Continuing education is also a method for ongoing training in the field of ethics. Conferences, webinars, and online courses are all methods by which someone can complete ethics training. These training programs often provide continuing education credits necessary to maintain employment or professional certifications or licensure.
In addition, NASW offers free online training on the latest changes to the Code of Ethics. Members can also earn two continuing education credits for free by completing this training module. Non-NASW members can earn continuing education credits with a nominal fee.
State requirements for ethics training
As previously mentioned, states require specific numbers of ethics continuing education hours or credits for social work certification or licensure. These hours are part of more extensive credit requirements that the professional must complete within a specific timeframe. Most states require a social worker to complete three hours of ethics training every two years. Below are some other examples from states that have different requirements:
- Idaho mandates an hour of ethics training annually
- Virginia insists on 1.5 hours of training every two years
- Two hours of ethics training every two years is required by Minnesota and North Dakota
- in Maine, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Wisconsin mandate four hours of training every two years.
- Georgia and New Jersey require five hours every two years
- California, New Hampshire, Oregon, Texas, and Washington mandate six hours of training every two years
- Michigan requires 5 hours of ethics training every three years
- Connecticut and West Virginia do not specifically mandate ethics training in their annual training hour requirements but rather recommend ethics training to social work professionals
Be sure to check the websites of each states’ licensing board for the most up-to-date requirements.
How do social work ethics apply in a remote work world?
Now that more people, both social work professionals, and their clients, are working remotely, adaptations were needed to accommodate these changes. Telehealth, which provides health and mental health services virtually either by phone or via computer, has quickly become the norm in the time of social distancing. Despite services not being provided face to face with clients, social workers must still follow the Code of Ethics.
Thankfully, several standards already address technology and social work, including:
Standard 1.03 – Informed Consent:
(e) Social workers should discuss with clients the social workers’ policies concerning the use of technology in the provision of professional services.
(g) Social workers who use technology to provide social work services should assess the clients’ suitability and capacity for electronic and remote services. Social workers should consider the clients’ intellectual, emotional, and physical ability to use technology to receive services and the clients’ ability to understand the potential benefits, risks, and limitations of such services. If clients do not wish to use services provided through technology, social workers should help them identify alternate methods of service.
Standard 1.04 – Competence:
(d) Social workers who use technology in the provision of social work services should ensure that they have the necessary knowledge and skills to provide such services in a competent manner. This includes understanding the special communication challenges when using technology and the ability to implement strategies to address these challenges.
Standard 1.05 – Cultural Awareness and Social Diversity:
(d) Social workers who provide electronic social work services should be aware of cultural and socioeconomic differences among clients and how they may use electronic technology. Social workers should assess cultural, environmental, economic, mental or physical ability, linguistic, and other issues that may affect the delivery or use of these services.
Standard 1.07 – Privacy and Confidentiality:
(m) Social workers should take reasonable steps to protect the confidentiality of electronic communications, including information provided to clients or third parties. Social workers should use applicable safeguards (such as encryption,firewalls, and passwords) when using electronic communications such as e-mail, online posts, online chat sessions, mobile communication, and text messages.
The committee that helped develop the latest round of revisions to the Code of Ethics in 2017 could not have predicted the reasons for remote service provision that we face today. Thankfully, however, the committee considered technology and how it could and might be used to serve clients as they drafted revisions. These standards have and continue to serve the profession well.
Social work ethics are guidelines that social workers must abide by when acting in their professional capacity. Ethics differentiate between right and wrong and describe actions that are permissible or forbidden. Social workers have ethical responsibilities to clients, colleagues, practice settings, professionals, the social work profession, and the broader society. The National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics is the guidebook on how social workers can meet those essential ethical responsibilities.
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McCarthy, L.P., Imboden, R., Shdaimah, C.S., & Forrester, P. (2020). ‘Ethics are messy’: Supervision as a tool to help social workers manage ethical challenges. Ethics and Social Welfare, 14(1):118-134.
National Association of Social Workers. (2017). Code of Ethics. https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics.
Reamer, F.G. (2018). Social Work Values and Ethics. Columbia University Press.