Why the Social Work Code of Ethics is Important

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Social worker talks to children while working on computer


When examining the ethics of social work, it is important to first grasp the primary mission of the field. As a profession, the goal is to fundamentally enhance human well-being and strive for all people – regardless of any hardships they face – to have their needs met. Social workers thus need to have knowledge of how environmental forces create or contribute to issues that affect individuals. The awareness of their goals when they begin work in the field, as well as their core values, lend to the unique perspective of social workers.

In such a challenging profession, that deals very closely with individuals or clients facing obstacles on a day-to-day basis, it makes sense that a code of ethics would be established. The goal: To guide the shared responsibility of social workers. As of 2017, there are nearly 70,000 social workers nationwide (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019). All of them, regardless of their specific field of interest, must abide by the National Association of Social Workers’ code of ethics.

The Ethical Principles of Social Work

The NASW states that “the mission of the social work profession is rooted in a set of core values” (NASW, 2017).

The core values are:

  • Service (Ethical principle: Help people in need and address social problems)

The primary goal of this 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.

  • Social justice (Ethical principle: Social workers challenge social injustice)

This field is based on 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 (Ethical principle: Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person)

Social workers need to 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 (Ethical principle: Social workers recognize the central importance of human relationships)

There is an understanding that facilitating healthy, solid human 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.

  • Integrity (Ethical principle: Social workers behave in a trustworthy manner)

For social workers to be trusted by clients and other individuals, they must demonstrate trustworthiness at all times. They must uphold the core values and ethical guidelines of their profession to continue to make meaningful contributions.

  • Competence (Ethical principle: Social workers practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise)

There’s a reason most social work jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree, but often more – a master’s degree and state licensing. Social workers must continue to strive to expand their knowledge, but always be realistic and practice within their scope of understanding.

The Social Work Code of Ethics

The purpose of the NASW Code of Ethics is to set forth the values, principles and standards that guide a social worker’s conduct. It’s important to note that this code is relevant to all social workers, including students. Regardless of their professional functions, the setting of their work, or the populations they serve – the NASW Code of Ethics applies to them. The six purposes of the Code of Ethics are as follows:

  1. The Code identifies core values on which social work’s mission is based.
  2. The Code summarizes broad ethical principles that reflect the profession’s core values and establishes a set of specific ethical standards that should be used to guide social work practice.
  3. The Code is designed to help social workers identify relevant considerations when professional obligations conflict or ethical uncertainties arise.
  4. The Code provides ethical standards to which the general public can hold the social work profession accountable.
  5. The Code socializes practitioners new to the field of social work’s mission, values, ethical principles and ethical standards.
  6. The Code articulates the standards set for the social work profession and can be used to assess if social workers engage in unethical conduct.

The NASW encourages social workers to consider other sources of information to guide their ethical thinking and to consider ethical theory and principles in a general manner. Social work theory, research, laws, regulations and agency policies can all be guiding forces for continuing an ethical approach to their work.That said, among the code of ethics, social workers should prioritize the NASW Code of Ethics as their primary source.

The NASW also outlines social workers’ ethical responsibilities to their clients, their colleagues, in practice settings, ethical responsibilities as professionals and to the broader society. The standards laid out by the organization are comprehensive, outlining many possible incidents and outcomes. The current Code of Ethics is 27 pages long – the third version since the NASW was created in 1955 (Social Work Today, June 2014).

The committee worked to keep it as succinct as possible, but as time has progressed, ethics-related risk management has become an increasingly important topic in social work training. There are also new challenges brought on by the growth of technology and a focus on the digital world.

Here’s a brief overview of the extensive ethical standards:

Ethical responsibilities to clients

The primary responsibility of any social worker is to promote the well-being of their clients above anything else. Social workers should foster maximum self-determination in those they serve. They should also only aid clients in the context of a professional relationship, with informed consent – using clear and understandable language with clients to inform them 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 competency.

Social workers are also required to alert and avoid conflicts of interest that interfere with their ability to exercise professional discretion and may impact their judgement. With clients, social workers also need to respect their privacy and understand that standards of confidentiality apply when private information is shared. It also mentioned in the Code of Ethics that social workers should set fees that are fair and reasonable in relation to the services provided.

Ethical responsibilities to colleagues

Social workers should treat their colleagues with respect. They should also protect the confidential information shared by their colleagues in their professional relationships. When working in collaboration with colleagues in other fields, as an interdisciplinary team, professional and ethical obligations should be clearly established. Social workers should also consult with other professionals in their field when it is in the best interest of the client. An important note is that when social workers are speaking with their colleagues about clients, they should disclose the least amount of information possible. Similarly, social workers are encouraged to take all necessary measures to discourage, prevent or expose (and correct) the unethical conduct of their peers.

Ethical responsibilities in practice settings

Considering that social workers are required to be honest about their competency, it’s natural that there are the same expectations when providing consultation. They should only be supervising when they have necessary skills to be supervising and consulting. Supervising social workers are expected to evaluate supervisees’ performance in a way that is fair and respectful. This section also covers how to properly maintain client records, administrative tasks, and commitment to employers.

Ethical responsibilities as professionals

As professionals in a complex field, there are many ethical guidelines for how they should portray themselves and behave. Social workers are encouraged to keep up with education and emerging knowledge, and continuously review professional literature – but critical thinking is encouraged.

This section outlines that discrimination is discouraged, on any basis. Private conduct should not interfere with their ability to perform their professional responsibilities.

Ethical responsibilities to the social work profession

Social workers are encouraged to promote the high standards of practice. They should also strive to uphold and advance the values, ethics, knowledge and mission of their profession. Furthermore, the Code of Ethics encourages those in the profession to monitor and evaluate the policies, implementation of programs and practice interventions.

Ethical responsibilities to the broader society

Professionals within the social work field should promote the general welfare of society – from local to global levels – 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 Evolution of Ethics in Social Work

As time progresses, so does the need to update ethical guidelines. It might be hard to understand how the first Code of Ethics was only one page in 1955, and the current Code of Ethics is a whopping 27 pages long. How could there be so much more now than there was then, especially knowing that the NASW was doing its best to be succinct in making the current ethical guidelines?

Social work, which was formally initiated in the late 19th century, has witnessed an ever-changing world since its inception. Historical literature suggests that in the beginning of the field, the profession was more focused on the morality of the clients than their own ethical guidelines. There was concern about the “moral fiber” of clients who struggled with poverty, unemployment and alcohol use. Of course, a lot has changed since then.

As social work grew, there was an increasing interest in the values of the profession. There was an interest in the relationship of social work’s core tenets and the values of broader society, as well as 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 curriculum about ethical dilemmas and decision-making to the classroom of future social work professionals.

During the 1990s, ethical guidelines seemed to cement themselves to what we know today. 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.

With the evolution of technology, the need to continuously update ethical guidelines to fit the modern world grew more important. 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’re ever concerned about their own ethical decision-making.

The Master of Social Work program at University of Nevada, Reno has a mission to support and create effective, ethical social work leaders. You can learn more about their online program and how it fosters the development of skills necessary to be a well-versed social worker.


Suggested Readings

Types of Social Workers and What They Do

How to Become a Social Worker: Determining if It’s The Right Path for You

University of Nevada, Reno, Online Master of Social Work Program



National Association of Social Workers, 2017. Code of Ethics. Retrieved from: https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English

Social Work Today, 2014. Eye On Ethics: The Evolution of Social Work. Retrieved from: https://www.socialworktoday.com/news/eoe_061614.shtml