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Ethics in Social Work Back to Course Index

Ethics are the principles and moral guidelines that tell you how to behave in any given circumstance. If you enter the field of social work, it’s critical that you adhere to ethics that are beyond reproach. The people you encounter may be vulnerable, frightened, and distrustful. It’s up to you to earn their trust and assist them with empathy and compassion. A good place to start is with good ethics.


The Purpose of Ethics in Social Work

Ethics are at the heart of social work. They outline the professional standards necessary to protect the dignity and rights of others while also protecting you if you work in the field.  Ethics ensure that you represent your clients well and honor your colleagues, the profession, and society as a whole. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has developed a Code of Ethics to help social workers make morally sound professional decisions. The code extends to students who study social work as well as established employees in the field. The code includes these components:


Ethics Serve Social Work Ideas

There are six core values of the social work field:

  • Service
  • Social justice
  • Dignity and worth of the individual
  • Importance of human relationships
  • Competence
  • Integrity

 These are the ideals to which all social workers should aspire. The social work Code of Ethics was built around these core values.


Good Ethics Help Identify and Prevent Conflicts of Interest

The Code of Ethics helps you identify appropriate and inappropriate behaviors for you, your colleagues, and your clients and avoid conflicts of interest. For example, it would be a conflict of interest for you to get paid for a referral or accept lavish gifts from a client. Understanding right from wrong helps you understand that even the appearance of a conflict of interest could harm the trust you’ve built with your clients and in your profession.


Social Work Ethics Hold Members of the Profession Accountable

A standard set of ethics creates rules and a means to hold social workers accountable if they step out of bounds. Good ethics help you focus on your clients and the integrity of the profession. In the event of questionable ethical behavior, the NASW has a formalized process to handle complaints. When everyone understands expectations, it’s better for you and the people you serve.


It Encourages Self-Care

In 2021, the NASW updated the Code of Ethics to include provisions for self-care. Social work can be a challenging career path. The work can take a mental and emotional toll, especially when you deal with clients who have suffered serious trauma. The updated language in the Code of Ethics encourages workplaces to promote professional practices and policies that support employees’ personal health and well-being.

Every day, social workers stand up for human rights and justice and give a voice to unheard and marginalized populations. They contribute to bettering individuals’ lives, and by doing so, they improve society as a whole. Social workers are employed by nonprofits, the government, and private practices.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 713,200 social workers nationwide as of 2019, and that number is expected to increase by 13 percent between 2019 and 2029. Regardless of the setting in which they choose to provide services, each social worker must adhere to the professional code of ethics established in 1996 by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Delegate Assembly and revised in 2017.

The NASW Code of Ethics “is intended to serve as a guide to the everyday professional conduct of social workers,” according to the NASW website. It outlines six ethical principles that “set forth ideals all social workers should aspire to.” This article will explore the six social work core values, which comprise:

  1. Service
  2. Social justice
  3. Dignity and worth of the person
  4. Importance of human relationships
  5. Integrity
  6. Competence

Professionals working as social workers understand the importance of these values. Individuals who are interested in pursuing a career in social work can earn an advanced degree, such as Tulane University’s Online Master of Social Work, to prepare for the role, including learning more about social work values.


6 Ethical Principles of Social Work

Social workers devote themselves to serving their communities. They advocate for human rights through the following six social work core values:

1. Service

Empowering individuals, families, and communities is a primary goal of all social workers. Service is the value from which all other social work values stem. Social workers regularly elevate the needs of their communities above their own personal interests and use their skills and knowledge (from education and experience) to enhance the well-being of others. In addition, social workers often volunteer their time or expertise above and beyond their professional commitments.

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many social workers coordinated mutual aid, community meals, and PPE drives.

2. Social Justice

Social workers advocate on behalf of the oppressed, the marginalized, and anyone who needs their voice amplified. They often focus on issues such as poverty, homelessness, discrimination, harassment, and other forms of injustice. Social workers provide information, help, and other resources to people seeking equality, and they educate people who may not directly experience discrimination about the struggles of others who may not have the same level of privilege in our society.

Social workers’ efforts to address injustices include examining their own biases and encouraging others to do the same. They work to create more equitable support systems and identify structural conditions that contribute to disparities in the health and well-being of individuals and communities.

3. Dignity and Worth of the Person

Social workers are mindful of individual differences in thinking and behavior and cultural and ethnic diversity. Only by treating each person with dignity and respect can social workers promote their clients’ capacity and opportunity to address their own needs and improve their personal situations. Social workers must be cognizant of their duties to both individual clients and to society as a whole and seek solutions for their clients that also support society’s broader interests.

Social workers seek to eliminate factors that threaten the dignity and worth of individuals, but they do so with a decentered approach that respects differences and honors self-determination. Rather than imposing their own values, social workers leverage the values of their clients and the communities they serve.

4. Importance of Human Relationships

Social workers connect people who need assistance with organizations and individuals who can provide the appropriate help. Social workers recognize that facilitating human relationships can be a useful vehicle for creating change, and they excel at engaging potential partners who can create, maintain, and enhance the well-being of families, neighborhoods, and whole communities.

Challenging social conditions, such as those created by the COVID-19 pandemic, highlight the essential role of human relationships in supporting health and healing. Social workers not only build and maintain strong relationships with individuals and communities, but they also help their clients identify relationships that are helpful to them and let go of relationships that are not

5. Integrity

To facilitate these relationships and empower others to improve their lives, social workers must act in a way that engenders trust. Each social worker must be continually aware of the profession’s mission, values, and ethical principles and standards and set a good example of these components for their clients. By behaving honestly and demonstrating personal integrity, social workers can promote the organizations with which they are affiliated while also creating the most value for the populations they serve.

One relevant trend in social work is the profession’s use of and interest in social media. A study published by Social Sciences & Humanities Open in 2020 reports that the social work profession seeks to “regard data privacy protection as a human and civil rights issue” and “support inclusion of social media information in social work.”

6. Competence

Professional social workers often hold undergraduate or graduate degrees in social work, but a fair amount of their knowledge comes from gaining on-the-job experience. As part of the social work values outlined in the NASW Code of Ethics, each social worker must practice within their scope of competence and avoid misrepresenting skills or experience to potential clients.

Social workers must constantly strive to expand their knowledge base and competence in order to make meaningful contributions to the profession and those they serve. Social work is a lifelong learning commitment, and continuing education can take the form of any activity that expands a social worker’s knowledge and skill set: conducting personal study and research, attending webinars and conferences, or pursuing additional licenses or degrees.


NASW Ethical Responsibilities:

Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities to the Social Work Profession

NASW Code of Ethics: Ethical Standards

5.01 Integrity of the Profession

(a) Social workers should work toward the maintenance and promotion of high standards of practice.

(b) Social workers should uphold and advance the values, ethics, knowledge, and mission of the profession. Social workers should protect, enhance, and improve the integrity of the profession through appropriate study and research, active discussion, and responsible criticism of the profession.

(c) Social workers should contribute time and professional expertise to activities that promote respect for the value, integrity, and competence of the social work profession. These activities may include teaching, research, consultation, service, legislative testimony, presentations in the community, and participation in their professional organizations.

(d) Social workers should contribute to the knowledge base of social work and share with colleagues their knowledge related to practice, research, and ethics. Social workers should seek to contribute to the profession’s literature and to share their knowledge at professional meetings and conferences.

(e) Social workers should act to prevent the unauthorized and unqualified practice of social work.

5.02 Evaluation and Research

(a) Social workers should monitor and evaluate policies, the implementation of programs, and practice interventions.

(b) Social workers should promote and facilitate evaluation and research to contribute to the development of knowledge.

(c) Social workers should critically examine and keep current with emerging knowledge relevant to social work and fully use evaluation and research evidence in their professional practice.

(d) Social workers engaged in evaluation or research should carefully consider possible consequences and should follow guidelines developed for the protection of evaluation and research participants. Appropriate institutional review boards should be consulted.

(e) Social workers engaged in evaluation or research should obtain voluntary and written informed consent from participants, when appropriate, without any implied or actual deprivation or penalty for refusal to participate; without undue inducement to participate; and with due regard for participants’ well-being, privacy, and dignity. Informed consent should include information about the nature, extent, and duration of the participation requested and disclosure of the risks and benefits of participation in the research.

(f) When using electronic technology to facilitate evaluation or research, social workers should ensure that participants provide informed consent for the use of such technology. Social workers should assess whether participants are able to use the technology and, when appropriate, offer reasonable alternatives to participate in the evaluation or research.

(g) When evaluation or research participants are incapable of giving informed consent, social workers should provide an appropriate explanation to the participants, obtain the participants’ assent to the extent they are able, and obtain written consent from an appropriate proxy.

(h) Social workers should never design or conduct evaluation or research that does not use consent procedures, such as certain forms of naturalistic observation and archival research, unless rigorous and responsible review of the research has found it to be justified because of its prospective scientific, educational, or applied value and unless equally effective alternative procedures that do not involve waiver of consent are not feasible.

(i) Social workers should inform participants of their right to withdraw from evaluation and research at any time without penalty.

(j) Social workers should take appropriate steps to ensure that participants in evaluation and research have access to appropriate supportive services.

(k) Social workers engaged in evaluation or research should protect participants from unwarranted physical or mental distress, harm, danger, or deprivation.

(l) Social workers engaged in the evaluation of services should discuss collected information only for professional purposes and only with people professionally concerned with this information.

(m) Social workers engaged in evaluation or research should ensure the anonymity or confidentiality of participants and of the data obtained from them. Social workers should inform participants of any limits of confidentiality, the measures that will be taken to ensure confidentiality, and when any records containing research data will be destroyed.

(n) Social workers who report evaluation and research results should protect participants’ confidentiality by omitting identifying information unless proper consent has been obtained authorizing disclosure.

(o) Social workers should report evaluation and research findings accurately. They should not fabricate or falsify results and should take steps to correct any errors later found in published data using standard publication methods.

(p) Social workers engaged in evaluation or research should be alert to and avoid conflicts of interest and dual relationships with participants, should inform participants when a real or potential conflict of interest arises, and should take steps to resolve the issue in a manner that makes participants’ interests primary.

(q) Social workers should educate themselves, their students, and their colleagues about responsible research practices.