How to Deal with Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work

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A social worker meets with a client.Because of the nature of what social workers do, ethical considerations are of utmost importance. Social workers work with individuals and families who are experiencing challenges including mental, physical and emotional suffering. Their clients’ vulnerability and the highly confidential nature of the counseling that is provided require social workers to follow an ethical code. They must deliver the care their clients need without overstepping boundaries or causing harm.

An online MSW degree with coursework in ethics is a solid foundation for understanding ethical dilemmas in social work and how to avoid them.

What Is the Social Worker Code of Ethics?

The code of ethics from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) covers six areas of ethical standards. Ethical dilemmas can be found in each of these areas of responsibility, along with guidance in how to steer clear of pitfalls.

  • Responsibilities to clients: Social workers are responsible for their clients’ well-being, respecting their self-determination and cultural background and avoiding conflicts of interest.
  • Relationships with colleagues: Social workers should respect and collaborate with colleagues, avoid inappropriate relationships and strive to resolve issues ethically and through proper channels.
  • Practice settings: Social workers who manage a practice must ensure a working environment that is safe, respectful and well-administered.
  • Professional responsibilities: Social workers have a responsibility to act professionally and mindfully, without discrimination, fraud, dishonesty or misrepresentation.
  • Responsibilities to the profession of social work: Social workers should strive to maintain high standards, keep up with current research and protect the reputation of the field.
  • Responsibilities to broader society: Social workers should advocate for the social good of everyone in society.

What Are Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work?

Ethical considerations can be found throughout a social worker’s professional life, and depending on the situation, in their private life as well. The following are some ethical dilemmas that a social worker might face.

Client Refuses Care

In this scenario, a client refuses mental health treatment, but is a danger to themself or others. The social worker must be guided by the code of ethics that supports client self-determination and informed consent. However, social workers also have an obligation to protect the client’s health and the health of others, and to use their training and educational background for the good of the client.

Incarcerated Clients

Social workers who provide services in prisons often face difficult scenarios. Prisoners may need mental health services that the prison setting cannot or will not offer. Social workers must walk a fine line between accepting an institution’s rules on mental health treatment and providing what care they can in an unsupportive environment.

Physical Contact and Sexual Relationships with a Client

Because of clients’ vulnerability and the dynamic of the counseling relationship, social workers may not have physical contact with their clients, let alone a sexual relationship. However, incidents of transference, in which a client transfers emotions to the social worker, and countertransference on the social worker’s side, can arise in the field.

Sexual Relationship with a Colleague

The code of ethics bars sexual relations with colleagues, especially in a supervisor-employee relationship. Even among peers, social workers should avoid sexual relationships to prevent a conflict of interest or an uncomfortable work environment.

Political and Social Unrest

The NASW code of ethics calls for social workers to strive for an equitable, just society. In times of political and social unrest, social workers must adhere to the code of ethics while also possibly working for institutions that do not support these values. They may also work with colleagues who hold different views. Social workers may find themselves balancing clients’ needs with their work environment and their ability to promote social justice.

Telehealth, Technology and Client Privacy

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, social workers had to use technology that met the requirements of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act. The pandemic changed all that, with federal regulations revised to allow social workers to schedule telehealth calls with clients on any platform. However, the requirement to protect client records and privacy is still in force, creating a difficult situation between meeting clients in need and ensuring their protection.

Social Work Ethical Best Practices

Social work is a complex undertaking, as it deals with people who are suffering from mental, physical and social distress. It requires empathy and self-awareness, technological proficiency and the ability to maintain professional distance. Social workers can avoid ethical dilemmas by following these best practices.

Client-First Mindset

Social workers should place clients’ needs first. Ethical considerations such as client self-determination, informed consent, the right to privacy and the right to quality mental health care are paramount. While a client-first mindset won’t eliminate all ethical dilemmas in social work, it can help clarify a social worker’s course of action.

Consult with Colleagues

When faced with an ethical dilemma or client concern, colleagues can be the best resource. They can provide insight and understanding. Cross-team collaboration is also extremely useful. Social workers can learn a great deal from colleagues who practice in other disciplines.

Education and Training

It’s incumbent on social workers to make sure their credentials and training are up-to-date. Continuing professional education is essential to reinforcing ethical concepts and other industry best practices. Maintaining and growing professional competency is part of the NASW code of ethics.

Embrace Technology

Technology such as telehealth and electronic health records are part of any practice setting. Social workers who understand the advantages and the pitfalls of technology can better serve their clients’ needs and protect their right to privacy.

Maintain a Professional Office Environment

As both employees and supervisors, social workers have a responsibility to ensure the practice setting is professional and effective. All employees must work to maintain professional relationships with colleagues and clients. Clearly stating expectations and following up on issues are elements of the code of ethics.

Support Social Justice

Social workers, in the big picture, work for social justice. While they work with clients one-on-one, they also advocate for change in the community to improve the lives of all people. How a social worker meets that ethical obligation is up to the individual, but it can include peaceful protests, writing and research or policy development.

Practice Self-Care

Self-care is crucial to avoiding burnout. Social workers can’t effectively treat clients if they are overworked, overstressed or anxious. Practicing self-care is critical to helping social workers perform at their best and avoid making mistakes.

Pursue a Career in Social Work

Ethical dilemmas in social work are an unavoidable part of the profession, due to the sensitive nature of the work. With that said, the field offers rewarding opportunities for those interested in working to improve the lives of those in need. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts jobs to increase by 13% between 2019 and 2029. The latest data from the BLS reveals a 2020 median salary for social workers of $51,760.

If you’re excited about the opportunity to positively impact individuals and their communities, explore the online Master of Social Work at University of Nevada, Reno, whatever your academic background. We encourage students with a bachelor’s in the social sciences, humanities, research or human biology to investigate our program. With courses including social work methods and therapeutic practices, the curriculum is designed to prepare students for professional licensure.

Learn more about how University of Nevada, Reno can help you make a difference today.

Recommended Readings:

MSW Faculty Interview: Ashley-Marie Hanna, Ph.D.

What Does It Take to be an Effective Social Worker?

Why the Social Work Code of Ethics is Important


Filter, “The Ethical Conflict of Social Work Within a Carceral System

Houston Chronicle, “A List of Ethical Dilemmas Facing Social Work”

National Association of Social Workers, Read the Code of Ethics

National Association of Social Workers, “Coronavirus (COVID-19): 8 Ethical Considerations for Social Workers”

National Association of Social Workers, Standards for Technology in Social Work Practice

National Association of Social Workers, “8 Ethical Considerations for Responding to Social Injustice”

Psychology Today, “Don’t Let Social Workers Turn Away LGBTQ Clients”

Social Work Haven, “6 No Fuss Ways to Handle Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work Practice”

Social Work Today, “Eye on Ethics”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers

WebMD, “What Is Transference?”