When examining the ethics of social work, it’s important to first grasp the primary mission of the field. As a profession, the goal is to fundamentally enhance human well-being and help ensure that all people — regardless of any hardships they face — can meet their needs.
Social workers need to understand how environmental forces create or contribute to issues that affect the individuals they serve. By understanding their goals when they begin work in the field, as well as their core values, social workers can bring a unique perspective that helps them effectively address people’s needs.
In a challenging profession that deals closely with individuals and groups facing obstacles on a day-to-day basis, a code of ethics offers social workers guidance and clarity. The goal of social work ethics is to guide the shared responsibility of social workers.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the U.S. had 708,100 social workers as of 2021. All these professionals, regardless of their specific field of interest, must abide by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) code of ethics.
Social work students, including those in Master of Social Work (MSW) degree programs, should learn about the social work code of ethics and how it applies to their everyday responsibilities in the field.
The Social Work Code of Ethics
NASW established a code of ethics to identify the values, principles and standards that guide a social worker’s conduct. The NASW Code of Ethics is relevant to all social workers — including students — and applies to their work, regardless of their specific functions, the setting of their work or the populations they serve.
Importance of the Social Work Code of Ethics
NASW notes that the profession has an obligation to specify its values, ethical standards and principles, guiding social workers in decision-making when faced with difficult situations. The organization lists six purposes for its code of ethics:
- Identifying social work’s core values
- Summarizing the overall ethical principles that reflect the profession’s core values and establishing ethical standards to guide social work methods
- Helping social workers identify relevant issues to consider in professional conflicts or ethical dilemmas
- Providing ethical standards the public may apply to social workers’ actions
- Educating practitioners who are new to the field about social work’s mission, values, and ethical principles and standards as well as encouraging social workers to practice self-care and pursue ongoing education
- Specifying standards to evaluate whether social workers are acting unethically
NASW also encourages social workers to consider other sources of information to guide their ethical thinking and to consider general ethical theory and principles. Social work theory, research, laws, regulations and agency policies can help social workers perform their work ethically. Social workers should consider the NASW Code of Ethics as their primary source in ethical decision-making, however.
NASW’s ethical standards outline social workers’ ethical responsibilities related to:
- Practice settings
- Broader society
Elements of the Social Work Code of Ethics
First established in 1960, the social work code of ethics has changed periodically through the years, including 2021 amendments that address cultural competence and professional self-care. Here’s a brief overview of ethical standards in social work.
Ethical Responsibilities to Clients
The primary responsibility of any social worker is to promote the well-being of clients above all else. Social workers should encourage self-determination in those they serve. The social work code of ethics also calls for aiding clients only in the context of a professional relationship, with informed consent — using clear and understandable language to inform clients of their services.
Clients should always have an opportunity to ask questions. Social workers should be honest about their education, training and certification, and only provide services within the boundaries of their competencies.
Social workers must also be alert to — and avoid — conflicts of interest that could interfere with their judgment and their ability to exercise professional discretion. Social work professionals should also respect clients’ privacy and understand that standards of confidentiality apply during the sharing of private information.
Additionally, social workers should set fees that are fair and reasonable for the services they provide.
Ethical Responsibilities to Colleagues
Social workers should treat colleagues with respect. They should also protect the confidential information that their colleagues share in their professional relationships. When collaborating with colleagues in other fields as an interdisciplinary team, the group should establish clear professional and ethical obligations.
Social workers should also consult with other professionals in their field when it is in the best interest of the client. When social workers are speaking with their colleagues about clients, they should disclose as little private information as possible. Similarly, social workers should take all necessary measures to discourage, prevent or expose (and correct) the unethical conduct of their peers.
Ethical Responsibilities in Practice Settings
Social workers should also be transparent about their competencies when providing consultation. They should act in supervisory roles only when they possess the necessary skills to do so.
Supervising social workers are expected to conduct fair and respectful performance evaluations. The code of ethics also addresses how to properly maintain client records, complete administrative tasks and honor commitments to employers.
Ethical Responsibilities as Professionals
As professionals in a complex field, social workers must follow many ethical guidelines in how they should portray themselves and behave. Social workers are encouraged to keep up with education and emerging knowledge and to continuously review professional literature, and apply critical thinking in doing so.
The social work code of ethics discourages discrimination of any kind. Private conduct should not interfere with social workers’ ability to meet their professional responsibilities.
Ethical Responsibilities to the Social Work Profession
Social workers are encouraged to promote high standards of practice. They should also strive to uphold and advance the values, ethics, knowledge and mission of the profession. Furthermore, the code of ethics encourages those in the profession to monitor and evaluate policies, program implementations and practice interventions.
Ethical Responsibilities to Broader Society
Professionals in the social work field should promote the general welfare of society — from the local level to the global level — and the development of communities. Social workers should continue to advocate for efforts to fulfill basic human needs, as well as promote all aspects of social justice.
The Ethical Principles of Social Work
In the preamble to the social work code of ethics, NASW states that “the mission of the social work profession is rooted in a set of core values.” These core values are:
The ethical principle behind service is to help people in need and address social problems. The primary goal of the profession is addressing societal issues and helping communities as well as individuals. Social workers elevate the needs of others above their personal interests and use all resources available to them to serve their clients.
Professionals in this field challenge social injustice. A basis of social work is the concept of advocating for the oppressed, the voiceless and everyone else unable to advocate for themselves. Social workers deal with issues ranging from poverty and homelessness to racial oppression, sexual discrimination and other injustices.
Dignity and the Worth of the Person
Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of those they serve. They should be mindful of differences in cultures and social values. Regardless of a client’s individual beliefs, social workers are expected to treat everyone with the same level of dignity and respect.
Importance of Human Relationships
Social workers should recognize the central importance of human relationships, understanding that facilitating healthy relationships can lead to the long-term success of communities. Social workers connect people who need help with organizations and individuals who can assist them.
For clients and communities to trust social workers, these professionals must demonstrate trustworthiness at all times. Social workers must also uphold the core values and ethical guidelines of their profession.
Social workers should practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise. There is a reason that most social work jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree — and often a master’s degree and state licensing. Social workers must strive to expand their knowledge, while also practicing within their scope of understanding.
The Evolution of Ethics in Social Work
As time progresses, ethical guidelines must be updated. The world has changed much since the field of social work was formally initiated in the late 19th century. Historical literature suggests that in the beginning, the profession was more focused on the morality of clients than its own ethical guidelines. There was concern about the moral fiber of clients who struggled with poverty, unemployment and alcohol use.
A lot has changed since then.
Increasing Interest in Social Work Values
As social work expanded, interest in the values of the profession grew. There was an increased focus on the relationship between social work’s core tenets and the values of broader society, as well as the personal values of individual social workers.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, ethics became a widespread conversation topic among many professions. This new mainstream way of thinking brought curricula about ethical dilemmas and decision-making into the classrooms of future social work professionals.
During the ’90s, ethical guidelines seemed to cement themselves. While social workers continued to be interested in ethical dilemmas and decision-making, there was also an increasing amount of literature about social workers’ ethical judgment (or misjudgment), and increased publicity about the repercussions of perceived ethical mistakes — specifically, how they could lead to formal complaints and litigation.
Technology and Social Changes
With the evolution of technology, the need to continuously update ethical guidelines to fit the modern world grew more important. Other changes have led to additional updates to the code of ethics. For example, concerns related to COVID-19, frontline responders, and racial and social justice issues led NASW to amend the social work code of ethics to address the importance of self-care and to promote cultural competence.
New conceptual frameworks provide social workers with guidelines for their work and professional development. It also gives them something to look back on if they are ever concerned about their own ethical decision-making.
Explore the Importance of Ethics in Social Work
The code of ethics can serve as a helpful guide in tackling the challenges that social work professionals may face in working with clients, colleagues and the community. The online Master of Social Work program at the University of Nevada, Reno has a mission to support and develop effective, ethical social work leaders. The program provides a framework for assisting people from diverse populations in overcoming complex problems.
Learn more about the program and how it fosters the development of skills necessary to be a well-versed social worker, and discover how it can help you advance your social work career.