3 Ethics

Social Work Mission: “To enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty” (Cournoyer, 2011, p. 160).


Social work is considered a helping profession. Like many other helping professions such as nursing, counselling, teaching, and psychiatry, social work has ethical guidelines to help direct and guide the work (Cournoyer, 2011). Helping professions address a multitude of problems or dilemmas often involving a person’s physical, mental, social, intellectual, and spiritual well-being. Therefore, social workers are responsible for many important decisions. Often these decisions involve ethical choices in the best interest of clients’ lives. These decisions can be extremely difficult and emotionally charged and may not always be the choices the professional is comfortable making.

The purpose of this chapter is to provide a brief understanding of the NASW Code of Ethics as you begin your journey into the foundations and practice of social work. This chapter is designed to explore and help provide a base understanding of the terms and overall principles related to social work ethics and professional practice. Finally, for those pursuing a social work degree, the goal is to prepare you for future courses and your future career, so you are familiar with the general concepts, as you will continue to explore and apply the NASW Code of Ethics throughout your education. (Keywords: ethics, values, obligations, and duties)

Establishment of the Code of Ethics 

As social work endeavored to gain recognition as a profession, the need arose for a formal code of ethics. While there were many social workers who helped pave the way, Mary Richmond is considered one of the most important. In 1920, Mary Richmond provided an experimental Code of Ethics which served as a base for many other social workers seeking justice, equality, and fairness for vulnerable and oppressed populations (Reamer, 2006). Richmond’s Code of Ethics served as a guide to the first edition of the NASW Code of Ethics which was constructed in October of 1960. This document, developed by the NASW’s Delegate Assembly of the National Association of Social Workers, officially defined the duties and obligations for which a social worker is responsible. The 1960 edition defined fourteen responsibilities social workers were obligated to fulfil based on the mission of social work, and even included a discrimination clause. With the first revision in place, the social work profession established a sense of professionalism. Over the years, major revisions have taken place:

  • 1979 – revisions for handling ethical dilemmas
  • 1990s – revisions around relationships between clients and social workers
  • 2008 – revisions incorporated the terms sexual orientation, gender identity, and immigration status into the non-discrimination standards
  • 2022- revisions include language that addresses the importance of professional self-care; revisions to provide more explicit guidelines regarding Cultural Competence

Provided is a link with all updated changes: https://www.socialworkers.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=UyXb_VQ35QA%3D&portalid=0#:~:text=After%20careful%20deliberation%20via%20the,Competence%E2%80%9D%20as%20it%20relates%20to

We have the code of ethics in place to:

  • Protect both the social worker and the client
  • Legal protection
  • Guidance
  • Optimal practice

Overview of NASW Code of Ethics 

The NASW Code of Ethics consists of four sections (Woodcock, 2011):

  1. Preamble
  2. Purpose of the NASW Code of Ethics
  3. Ethical Principles
  4. Ethical Standards


The preamble is intended to outline Social Work’s mission and core values. Social Work’s mission is “to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty” (Cournoyer, 2011, p. 160). With this mission, social workers have a clear indication of what is expected when entering the field and practicing as a social worker. Every agency and organization will have their own guidelines and rules, and it is then the social worker’s responsibility to incorporate those guidelines along with the NASW Code of Ethics. Social workers have many distinct roles and can be found in many areas of work, with the primary goal always to endorse social justice (Woodcock, 2011).

Purpose of the NASW Code of Ethics

The purpose of the NASW Code of Ethics is to hold social workers to a high standard of professionalism. The NASW Code of Ethics serves six purposes (NASW, 2008):

  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 by which the public can hold the social work profession accountable.5.    The Code socializes practitioners new to the field to social work’s mission, values, ethical principles, and ethical standards.
  5. The Code articulates standards that the social work profession itself can use to assess whether social workers have engaged in unethical conduct.

The NASW Code of Ethics cannot guarantee that it covers all ethical behaviors. There may be times when social workers will not be sure what to do or what decision to make, which then leads to frustration. The Code of Ethics is intended to guide the process of difficult decision making to come to the best conclusion. Working closely with a supervisor is also an important part of the process. It is up to the social worker to become familiar with and follow the Code of Ethics and best represent the profession.

Ethical Principles

The ethical principles are based on the six core values of social work. These six values are important for all social workers to recognize and apply to their practice. They should help direct all ethical decisions or dilemmas encountered. Social workers should also be conscientious of these values when working with clients, talking with co- workers, writing grants, or any other role a social worker performs, even if an ethical dilemma does not present itself.

The six core values of social work are: 

  1. Service – Social workers need to be dedicated to their delivery of services and be fully committed to assisting a client’s needs.
  2. Social Justice – Social workers seek to promote equality for all people, with an emphasis on vulnerable and oppressed individuals or groups of people.
  3. Dignity and Worth of a Person – Social workers support equality without assigning levels of worth to an individual or group, honor the uniqueness of all individuals, and support others to realize their worth as a person.
  4. Importance of Human Relationships – social workers respect and nurture human relationships, as they are important for change, at all levels
  5. Integrity – Social workers are honest, responsible, and promote ethical practices to the fullest. Social workers are aware of the profession’s mission, vision, values, and ethical standards and apply them in a consistent manner.
  6. Competence – Social workers are degreed and licensed and continually enhance their professional knowledge and skills.

(Reamer, 2006).

Ethical Standards

The ethical standards of social work consist of six important criteria for which all social workers are held responsible. These are social workers’ ethical responsibilities:

  1. To clients
  2. To colleagues
  3. In practice settings
  4. As professionals
  5. To the social work profession
  6. To broader society

Common ethical violations to be aware of consist of the following:

  • Sexual activity with clients and colleagues before, during and after the case
  • Dual relationship before, during and after the case
  • Boundary violations
  • Failure to seek supervision
  • Failure to use practice skills
  • Fraudulent behavior
  • Premature termination
  • Inadequate provisions for case transfer or referral
  • Failure to discuss policies as part of informed consent with clients

(Cournoyer, 2011)

Summary of the Code of Ethics

In summary, the NASW Code of Ethics is a living document and will continue to be adjusted as new developments and issues arise. The Code also enforces the belief that the public will not be taken advantage of by the work of social workers for their own benefit and that clients will be treated fairly. Therefore, social workers are responsible for staying updated on all changes that are made and applying them in practice.

Legal Duties/Obligations

Another critical aspect of ethical social work is the legal obligations and responsibilities. These duties are profoundly serious, and all social workers must abide by them. These duties or obligations consist of:

  • Duty to maintain confidentiality
  • Duty to report
  • Duty to inform
  • Duty to respect privacy
  • Duty to warn and protect

Duty To Maintain Confidentiality

An important term in this chapter is confidentiality. The term confidentiality indicates that any information shared by a client or pertaining to a client will not be shared with third parties (Cournoyer, 2011). Confidentiality is extremely important for social workers as they have a duty to keep client information and conversations between the social worker and the client. Social workers should not only protect the information gained from clients, but they should also respect information shared by colleagues. If confidentiality is broken, it can be a serious violation. An important confidentiality law is the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) which is commonly found in the health profession. HIPAA assures that client information will remain private between client and professional.

Duty To Report

There are times when a social worker is required to break the confidentiality rule. This is known as duty to report. Social workers are mandated reporters and have a legal obligation to report to the designated authority if a client disclosed any of the following (Cournoyer, 2011):

  • to harm or kill another person or indications of outrages against humanity
  • abuse or neglect of a child, disabled person, or senior citizen
  • have a plan to commit suicide and admit to wanting to commit suicide

These circumstances are the only time that a social worker is legally obligated to breach confidentiality agreements and must be taken very seriously.

Duty To Inform

Social workers are required to educate clients concerning the scope of the services. This consists of informing the client about the role of the social worker, confidentiality, duty to report, the cost, length of treatment, risks, alternative services, and anything else the agency requires (Cournoyer, 2011). This process is often completed early, when the first meeting with a client or in advance of the first meeting. Not informing a client of the social worker’s roles, responsibilities, and obligations can be a form of malpractice, which is discussed later in the chapter.

Duty To Respect Privacy

Privacy differs from confidentiality because it refers to the client’s right to choose what to share and what to not share with a social worker. Social workers must respect that there may be things the client does not wish to disclose and cannot be forced to do so. It is a social worker’s duty to respect the relationship they have with clients and to not intrude on their lives outside of their sessions. For example, if a social worker is working in a small town and runs into a client at the grocery store, it is in the best interest of the social worker and client to respect the privacy of that individual and not approach them. Nor should a social worker discuss what was previously talked about during a client session together. Social workers should discuss these possibilities with their clients so they are aware of how they will react to their clients if they meet in a public setting.

Duty To Warn and Protect

Along with many other helping professions, a social worker is obligated to act to ensure that anybody who may be in danger is aware of the possible danger. Social workers have the responsibility to warn potential victims that a client may harm them (Cournoyer, 2011). Therefore, social workers must take serious action in deciding if a client is serious about harming another person. A case to be familiar with is the well-known Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California in which the Supreme Court ruled that mental health professionals have a duty to protect individuals of a third party who may be threatened or harmed by a client, in which now is known as duty to warn and protect (Dolgoff, Harrington, & Loewenberg, 2009).

Ethical Dilemmas

Situations where there is no clear answer, being required to choose between two or more decisions, or being faced with contradictory decisions with often undesirable outcomes for one or more persons (Dolgoff, Harrington, & Loewenberg, 2009) are examples of ethical dilemmas.

Ethical dilemmas are often known as the grey area of social work. Therefore, social workers must know themselves very well, be conscious of the Code of Ethics, and let the Code guide them to making these decisions. Some common ethical dilemmas include:

  • Confidentiality and privacy issues
  • Divided loyalties
  • Professional boundaries with clients
  • Delivery of services
  • When to terminate services
  • Budget cuts
  • Hiring and firing of staff members
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Relationship between professional and personal values (Reamer, 2006)

There are many tips and suggestions for ethical problem solving, Dolgoff, Harrington, & Lowewenberg (2009) suggest considering the following when making ethical decisions:

  • Who is my client?
  • What obligations do I owe my client?
  • Do I have professional obligations to people other than my clients? If so, what are my obligations?
  • What are my own personal values? Are these values compatible with the profession’s six core values?
  • What are my ethical priorities when these value sets are not identical?
  • What is the ethical way to respond when I have conflicting professional responsibilities with different people?

Often social workers are alone when they must make difficult choices and cannot always seek supervision right away. Therefore, social workers must be prepared to handle these situations on their own. The ETHIC Model of Decision Making may be helpful (Cournoyer, 2011; Congress, 2000, p. 10):

E – Examine relevant personal, societal, agency, client, and professional values

T—Think what ethical standard of NASW Code applies, and relevant laws and case decisions

H—Hypothesize about consequences of different decisions

I—Identify who will benefit and who will be harmed

C—Consult with supervisor and colleagues about the most ethical choice


Malpractice can be defined as a form of negligence which occurs when a licensed social worker is not consistent with the professions’ Code of Ethics, standards of care, and is negligent to his or her legal duties and obligations (Reamer, 2006). Often this involves poor delivery of services or a social worker failing to meet the standard of care at his or her agency. Three common forms of malpractice include:

  • Malfeasance: when the social worker intentionally engages in practice known to be harmful
  • Misfeasance: when the social worker makes a mistake in the application of an acceptable practice
  • Nonfeasance: when the social worker fails to apply standard and acceptable practice if the circumstances include such practice

(Cournoyer, 2011)

Malpractice can occur even if one intentionally or unintentionally is aware of the wrongdoing. For example, a genuine mistake social workers make is simply forgetting to obtain a client’s consent before sharing confidential records with third parties. This alone can lead to serious civil lawsuits and can jeopardize your social work license. When these mistakes occur, the social worker does not intend to cause harm, but due to the many responsibilities social workers have it is easy to forget and unintentionally make this mistake (Reamer, 2006). Some common examples of malpractice include the following (Reamer, 2006; Cournoyer, 2011):

  • Failure to report abuse of neglect of a child
  • Failure to consult or refer to other health professionals
  • Failure to prevent a client from committing suicide
  • Failure to warn or protect third parties of harm or abuse
  • Failure to diagnose or incorrectly diagnosis for treatment
  • Failure to provide treatment without consent
  • Failure to renew their social work license
  • Inappropriate or inaccurate billing of services
  • Breach of confidentiality, even if the client is deceased
  • Being sexually involved with a client
  • Professional incompetence

It is important for practicing social workers to have insurance coverage to protect in case of a lawsuit. Social workers will often be covered by their agency, and the NASW also provides legal coverage to social workers.


The NASW Code of Ethics does not list any value or ethic as more important than the next. Therefore, one must consider all professional values and ethics as equal. To be a professional social worker, one should be well acquainted with the Social Work Code of Ethics along with the six core values. Furthermore, ethical decision-making takes skill and practice, and is a never-ending process (Reamer, 2006). If pursuing a career in Social Work, the more you prepare yourself, know yourself, and follow the Code of Ethics, the greater skill you will obtain as a professional social worker (Cournoyer, 2011). Finally, the Code of Ethics and 6 Core Values originated from the idea that all people are equal and deserving of the same entitlements. Social workers, through the Code and Core Values, share responsibility for continuing and promoting social justice.


Congress, E. P. (2000). What social workers should know about ethics: Understanding and resolving ethical dilemmas. Advances in Social Work, 1(1), 1-25.

Cournoyer, B. (2011). The social work skills workbook (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Dolgoff, R., Harrington, D., & Loewenberg, F. M. (2009). Ethical decisions for social work practice (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole

Morales, A. T.., Sheafor, B. W., & Scott, M. E. (2010). Social work: A profession of many faces. New York: Pearson Custom Publishing.

National Association of Social Workers. (2021). NASW Code of Ethics. Retrieved from https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English

Reamer, F. G. (2006). Social work values and ethics (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Woodcock, R. (2011). Ethical standards in the NASW code of ethics: The explicit legal model and beyond. Families in Society, 92(1), 21-27. doi.org/10.1606/1044-3894.4052


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Introduction to Social Work: A Look Across the Profession Copyright © 2022 by James Langford, LCSW and Craig Keaton, PhD, LMSW is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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