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Updated to include the standards of the NASW Code of Ethics 2008.

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date: 22 October 2019

The NASW Code of Ethics

Abstract and Keywords

Ethical standards in social work have matured significantly in recent years. As in most professions, social work's principal code of ethics has evolved from a brief, broadly worded document to a detailed, comprehensive guide to ethical practice. This article summarizes the diverse purposes and functions of professional codes of ethics and the historical trends and changes in social work's codes of ethics. The key components of the NASW Code of Ethics—the code's preamble, broad ethical principles, and more specific ethical standards—are described.

Keywords: Code of Ethics, ethical principles, ethical standards, NASW, National Association of Social Workers, social work ethics, social work values

One of the hallmarks of a profession is its willingness to establish ethical standards to guide practitioners' conduct (Greenwood, 1957; Hall, 1968; Lindeman, 1947). Ethical standards are created to address ethical issues in practice and to provide guidelines for determining what ethically acceptable or unacceptable behavior is.

Professions typically publicize their ethical standards in the forms of codes of ethics (Bayles, 1986; Banks & Gallagher, 2009; Kultgen, 1982; Reamer, 2006). According to Jamal and Bowie (1995), codes of ethics are designed to address three major issues. First, codes address problems of moral hazard, or instances when a profession's self-interest may conflict with the public's interest (for example, whether accountants should be obligated to disclose confidential information concerning serious financial crimes that their clients have committed, or whether dentists should be permitted to refuse to treat people who have a serious immune disease, such as HIV-AIDS). Second, codes address issues of professional courtesy––that is, rules that govern how professionals should behave to enhance and maintain a profession's integrity (for example, whether lawyers should be permitted to advertise and solicit clients, whether physicians should accept gifts and free trips from pharmaceutical company representatives, or whether psychoterapists should be permitted to engage in sexual relationships with former patients). Finally, codes address issues that concern professionals' duty to serve the public interest (for example, the extent of nurses' or social workers' obligation to assist when faced with a public emergency or to provide low-income people with pro bono services).

Like other professions such as medicine, nursing, law, psychology, counseling, and engineering, social work has developed a comprehensive set of ethical standards. These standards have evolved over time, reflecting significant changes in the broader culture and in social work's mission, methods, and priorities. They address a wide range of issues, including, for example, social workers' handling of confidential information and electronic communications, dual relationships and boundary issues, conflicts of interest, informed consent, termination of services, administration, supervision, education and training, research, and political action.

Ethical standards in social work appear in various forms. The NASW Code of Ethics (NASW, 2008) is the most visible compilation of the profession's ethical standards. Ethical standards can also be found in codes of ethics developed by other social work organizations (for example, the National Association of Black Social Workers [NABSW] and the Clinical Social Work Association [CSWA]), regulations promulgated by state legislatures and licensing boards, and codes of conduct adopted by social service organizations and other employers. In addition, social work literature contains many discussions on ethical norms in the profession (Banks, 2012; Barsky, 2010; Dolgoff, Harrington, & Loewenberg, 2012; Reamer, 2006, 2013).

The Profession's Early Years

During the earliest years of social work's history, few formal ethical standards existed. The earliest known attempt to formulate a code was an experimental draft code of ethics printed in the 1920s and attributed to Mary Richmond (Pumphrey, 1959). Although several other social work organizations formulated draft codes during the profession's early years (for example, the American Association for Organizing Family Social Work and several chapters of the American Association of Social Workers [AASW]), it was not until 1947 that the AASW, the largest organization of social workers of that era, adopted a formal code (Johnson, 1955). In 1960 NASW adopted its first code of ethics, five years after the association was formed. Over time, the NASW Code of Ethics has been recognized as the most visible and influential code of ethics in the United States.

In 1960 the NASW Code of Ethics consisted of 14 proclamations concerning, for example, every social worker's duty to give precedence to professional responsibility over personal interests; to respect the privacy of clients; to give appropriate professional service in public emergencies; and to contribute knowledge, skills, and support to human welfare programs. First-person statements (that is, “I give precedence to my professional responsibility over my professional interests” and “I respect the privacy of the people I serve” [p. 1]) were preceded by a preamble that set forth social workers' responsibility to uphold humanitarian ideals, maintain and improve social work service, and develop the philosophy and skills of the profession. In 1967 a 15th principle pledging nondiscrimination was added to the proclamations.

Soon after the adoption of the code, however, NASW members began to express concern about its level of abstraction, its scope and usefulness for resolving ethical conflicts, and its provisions for handling ethics complaints about practitioners and agencies (McCann & Cutler, 1979). In 1977 NASW established a task force to revise the code and enhance its relevance to practice; the result was a new code adopted by NASW in 1979.

The 1979 code included six sections of brief, unannotated principles with a preamble setting forth the code's general purpose and stating that the code's principles provided standards for the enforcement of ethical practices among social workers. The code included major sections concerning social workers' general conduct and comportment and ethical responsibilities to clients, colleagues, employers, employing organizations, the social work profession, and society. The code's principles were both prescriptive (“The social worker should act to prevent the unauthorized and unqualified practice of social work” [principle V.M.3]) and proscriptive (“The social worker should not exploit relationships with clients for personal advantage” [principle II.F.2]). Several of the code's principles were concrete and specific (“The social worker should under no circumstances engage in sexual activities with clients” and “The social worker should respect confidences shared by colleagues in the course of their professional relationships and transactions” [principle III.J.2]), whereas others were more abstract, asserting ethical ideals (“The social worker should promote the general welfare of society” [principle VI.P] and “The social worker should uphold and advance the values, ethics, knowledge, and mission of the profession” [principle V.M]).

The 1979 code was revised twice (NASW 1990, 1993), eventually including 70 principles. In 1990 several principles related to solicitation of clients and fee splitting were modified following an inquiry into NASW policies by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), begun in 1986, concerning possible restraint of trade. As a result of the FTC inquiry, principles in the code were revised to remove prohibitions concerning solicitation of clients from colleagues of one's agency and to modify wording related to accepting compensation for making a referral. NASW also entered into a consent agreement with the FTC concerning issues raised by the inquiry.

In 1993 the NASW Delegate Assembly voted to further amend the code of ethics to include five new principles, three related to the problem of social worker impairment and two related to the challenge of dual and multiple relationships. The first three principles addressed instances when social workers' own problems and impairment interfere with their professional functioning, and the latter two addressed the need to avoid social, business, and other nonprofessional relationships with clients because of the possibility of conflicts of interest (NASW, 1993).

The 1993 Delegate Assembly also passed a resolution to establish a task force to draft an entirely new code of ethics for submission to the 1996 Delegate Assembly. The task force was established in an effort to develop a new code of ethics that would be far more comprehensive in scope and relevant to contemporary practice. Since the adoption of the 1979 code, social workers had developed a keener grasp of a wide range of ethical issues facing practitioners, many of which were not addressed in the NASW code. The broader field of professional ethics (also called practical ethics), which had emerged in the early 1970s, had matured considerably, resulting in the identification and greater understanding of novel and challenging ethical issues not addressed in the 1979 code. Especially during the 1980s, scholarly analyses of ethical issues in the professions generally, and social work in particular, burgeoned. (For discussion of this development and the factors that accounted for it, see the entry “Ethics and Values” elsewhere in this encyclopedia).

The Current NASW Code of Ethics

The Code of Ethics Revision Committee was appointed in 1994 and spent two years drafting a new code. The committee, which was chaired by this author and included a professional ethicist and social workers from a variety of practice and educational settings, carried out its work in three phases. The committee first reviewed literature on social work ethics and professional ethics generally to identify key concepts and issues that might be addressed in the new code. The committee also reviewed the 1979 code to identify content that should be retained or deleted and areas where content might be added. The committee then discussed possible ways of organizing the new code to enhance its relevance and use in practice.

During the second phase, which overlapped with phase one activities, the committee issued formal invitations to all NASW members and to members of various social work organizations to suggest issues that might be addressed in the new code. The committee then reviewed its list of relevant content areas drawn from the literature and from public comment and developed a number of rough drafts, the last of which was shared with a small group of ethics experts in social work and other professions for their comments.

In the third phase, the committee made a number of revisions based on the feedback it received from the experts who reviewed the document, published a copy of the draft code in the January 1996 issue of the NASW News, and invited NASW members to submit comments to be considered by the committee as it prepared the final draft for submission to the 1996 Delegate Assembly. In addition, during this last phase, members of the committee met with each of the NASW Delegate Assembly regional coalitions to discuss the code's development and receive delegates' comments and feedback. The code was then presented to and ratified by the Delegate Assembly in August 1996 and implemented in January 1997.

Several modest changes have been made to the current code since its ratification. In 1999 a clause was deleted from one standard (1.07[c]) because of concern about possible misinterpretation and risk to clients. The problematic clause stated that social workers are obligated to disclose confidential information without clients' permission when laws or regulations require disclosure. Some social workers were concerned that this statement might require members of the profession to disclose the identity of, and sensitive information about, undocumented immigrants, contrary to social workers' commitment to clients. In 2008, the NASW Delegate Assembly approved adding the phrase "gender identity or expression" to standards pertaining to cultural competence and social diversity; respect for colleagues; discrimination; and social and political action. This added language supplemented references in the code to insensitivity and discrimination related to individuals' race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, and mental or physical disability.

The code, which contains the most comprehensive statement of ethical standards in social work, includes four major sections. The first section, “Preamble,” summarizes social work's mission and core values. This is the first time in NASW's history that its code of ethics has contained a formally sanctioned mission statement and an explicit summary of the profession's core values. The mission statement emphasizes social work's historic and enduring commitment to enhancing human well-being and helping meet the basic needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. The mission statement clearly reflects social work's unique concern about vulnerable populations and the profession's simultaneous focus on individual well-being and the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living. The preamble also highlights social workers' determination to promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients.

The preamble also identifies six core values on which social work's mission is based: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. The Code of Ethics Revision Committee settled on these core values after systematically reviewing the literature on the subject.

The second section, “Purpose of the NASW Code of Ethics,” provides an overview of the code's main functions and a brief guide for dealing with ethical issues or dilemmas in social work practice. This section alerts social workers to the code's various purposes:

  • to set forth broad ethical principles that reflect the profession's core values and establish ethical standards to guide social work practice;

  • to help social workers identify relevant considerations when professional obligations, conflicts, or ethical uncertainties arise;

  • to familiarize practitioners new to the field to social work's mission, values, and ethical standards;

  • to provide ethical standards to which the general public can hold the social work profession accountable, and

  • to articulate standards that the profession itself (and other bodies that choose to adopt the code, such as licensing and regulatory boards, professional liability insurance providers, courts of law, agency boards of directors, and government agencies) can use to assess whether social workers have engaged in unethical conduct.

This section's brief guide for dealing with ethical issues highlights various resources social workers should consider when faced with difficult ethical decisions. Such resources include ethical theory and decision making, social work practice theory and research, laws, regulations, agency policies, and other relevant codes of ethics. Social workers are encouraged to obtain ethics consultation when appropriate, perhaps from an agency-based or social work organization's ethics committee, regulatory bodies (for example, a state licensing board), knowledgeable colleagues, supervisors, or legal counsel.

One of the key features of this section of the code is its explicit acknowledgement that instances sometimes arise in social work in which the code's values, principles, and standards conflict. The code does not provide a formula for resolving such conflicts and “does not specify which values, principles, and standards are most important and ought to outweigh others in instances when they conflict” (NASW, 2008, p. 3). The code states that “reasonable differences of opinion can and do exist among social workers with respect to the ways in which values, ethical principles, and ethical standards should be rank-ordered when they conflict. Ethical decision making in a given situation must apply the informed judgment of the individual social worker and should also consider how the issues would be judged in a peer review process where the ethical standards of the profession would be applied…. Social workers' decisions and actions should be consistent with the spirit as well as the letter of this "Code” (NASW, 2008, p. 3).

The code's third section, “Ethical Principles,” presents six broad ethical principles that inform social work practice, one for each of the six core values cited in the preamble. The principles are presented at a fairly high level of abstraction to provide a conceptual base for the profession's more specific ethical standards. The code also includes a brief annotation for each of the principles. For example, the ethical principle associated with the value “importance of human relationships” states that “social workers recognize the central importance of human relationships” (p. 6). The annotation states that “social workers understand that relationships between and among people are an important vehicle for change. Social workers engage people as partners in the helping process. Social workers seek to strengthen relationships among people in a purposeful effort to promote, restore, maintain, and enhance the well-being of individuals, families, social groups, organizations, and communities” (p. 6).

The code's final section, “Ethical Standards,” includes 155 specific ethical standards to guide social workers' conduct and provide a basis for adjudication of ethics complaints filed against NASW members. The standards fall into six categories concerning social workers' ethical responsibilities to clients, to colleagues, in practice settings, as professionals, to the profession, and to society at large. The introduction to this section of the code states explicitly that some of the standards are enforceable guidelines for professional conduct and some are standards to which social workers should aspire. Furthermore, the code states, “the extent to which each standard is enforceable is a matter of professional judgment to be exercised by those responsible for reviewing alleged violations of ethical standards” (p. 7).

In general, the code's standards concern three kinds of issues (Reamer, 2003, 2009, 2013). The first includes what can be described as “mistakes” social workers might make that have ethical implications. Examples include leaving confidential documents displayed in public areas in such a way that they can be read by unauthorized persons or forgetting to include important details in a client's informed consent document. The second category includes issues associated with difficult ethical decisions—for example, whether to disclose confidential information to protect a third party from harm, barter with low-income clients who want to exchange goods for social work services, or terminate services to a noncompliant client. The final category includes issues pertaining to social worker misconduct, such as exploitation of clients, boundary violations, or fraudulent billing for services rendered.

Ethical Responsibilities to Clients

The first section of the code's ethical standards is the most detailed. It addresses a wide range of issues involved in the delivery of services to individuals, families, couples, and small groups of clients. In particular, this section focuses on social workers' commitment to clients, clients' right to self-determination, informed consent, professional competence, cultural competence and social diversity, conflicts of interest, privacy and confidentiality, client access to records, sexual relationships and physical contact with clients, sexual harassment, the use of derogatory language, payment for services, clients who lack decision-making capacity, interruption of services, and termination of services.

Unlike the 1960 and 1979 codes, the current NASW Code of Ethics acknowledges that although social workers' primary responsibility is to clients, instances can arise when “social workers responsibility to the larger society or specific legal obligations may on limited occasions supersede the loyalty owed clients” (standard 1.01, p. 7). Examples include when a social worker is required by law to report that a client has abused a child or has threatened to harm self or others. In a similar vein, the code also acknowledges that clients' right to self-determination, which social workers ordinarily respect, may be limited when clients' actions or potential actions pose a serious, foreseeable, and imminent risk to themselves or others.

Standards on informed consent were added to the current code specifying the elements that should be included when social workers obtain consent from clients or potential clients for the delivery of services; the use of electronic media such as computers, telephone, radio, and television, to provide services; audio- or videotaping of clients; third-party observation of clients who are receiving services; and release of information.

Another section added to the current code pertains to the subject of cultural competence and social diversity. In recent years social workers have enhanced their understanding of the relevance of cultural and social diversity in their work with clients, in communities, and in organizations. The code requires that social workers take reasonable steps to understand and be sensitive to clients' cultures and social diversity with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, and mental or physical disability.

Unlike earlier versions of the code of ethics, the current code pays substantial attention to the topics of conflicts of interest and problematic dual or multiple relationships, for example, involving social workers' social relationships with former clients or when social workers provide services to two or more persons who have a relationship with each other.

The current code substantially expands the profession's standards on privacy and confidentiality. Noteworthy are details concerning social workers' obligation to disclose confidential information to protect third parties from serious harm; confidentiality guidelines when working with families, couples, or groups; disclosure of confidential information to third-party payers; discussion of confidential information in public and semipublic areas; disclosure of confidential information during legal proceedings (privileged information); protection of clients' written and electronic records; the use of case material in teaching and training; and protection of the confidentiality of deceased clients. The code requires social workers to discuss confidentiality policies and guidelines as soon as possible in the social worker–client relationship and as needed throughout the course of the relationship.

The current code has also expanded standards related to social workers' sexual relationships with current and former clients, clients' relatives, and other individuals with whom clients maintain a close, personal relationship. Also included is a standard concerning appropriate and inappropriate physical contact with clients.

An unprecedented section of the code focuses on social workers' use of barter—that is, accepting goods or services from clients as payment for professional service. After considerable discussion, the Code of Ethics Revision Committee decided to stop short of banning bartering outright, recognizing that in some communities bartering is a widely accepted form of payment. However, the code advises social workers to avoid bartering because of the potential for conflicts of interest, exploitation, and inappropriate boundaries in social workers' relationships with clients.

The code also includes extensive guidelines concerning social workers' termination of services to clients. The code focuses primarily on termination of services when clients no longer need services, when clients have not paid an overdue balance, and when social workers leave an employment setting.

Ethical Responsibilities to Colleagues

This section of the code addresses issues concerning social workers' relationships with professional colleagues. These include respect for colleagues; proper treatment of confidential information shared by colleagues; interdisciplinary collaboration and disputes among colleagues; consultation with colleagues; referral for services; and sexual relationships with and sexual harassment of colleagues.

The current code particularly strengthens ethical standards pertaining to impaired, incompetent, and unethical colleagues. Social workers who have direct knowledge of a social work colleague's impairment (which may be caused by personal problems, psychosocial distress, substance abuse, or mental health difficulties, and which interferes with practice effectiveness), incompetence, or unethical conduct, are required to consult with that colleague when feasible; assist the colleague in taking remedial action; and if these measures do not address the problem satisfactorily, take action through appropriate channels established by employers, agencies, NASW, licensing bodies, and other professional organizations.

Ethical Responsibilities in Practice Settings

This section of the code addresses a wide range of issues pertaining to social work supervision; consultation; education and training; performance evaluation; client records; billing for services; client transfer; agency administration; continuing education and staff development; commitments to employers; and labor-management disputes. Standards in this section state that social work supervisors, consultants, educators, and trainers should avoid engaging in any dual or multiple relationships when there is a risk of exploitation or potential harm. Another standard requires that social workers who function as educators or field instructors for students should take reasonable steps to ensure that clients are routinely informed when services are being provided by students.

Several standards pertain to client records. The current code enhances documentation standards to which social workers are held. In particular, the code requires that records include sufficient, accurate, and timely documentation to facilitate the delivery of services and ensure continuity of services provided to clients in the future. Documentation should avoid gratuitous detail and include only information that is directly relevant to the delivery of services. The code also spells out expectations concerning protection of clients' privacy, record storage and retention, and accurate billing for services.

The code urges social workers to be particularly careful when an individual who is receiving services from another agency or colleague contacts a social worker for services. Several standards are designed to protect clients from exploitation and to avoid conflicts of interest. The code requires social workers to discuss with potential clients the nature of their current relationship with other service providers and the implications, including possible benefits and risks, of entering into a relationship with a new service provider. If a new client has been served by another agency or colleague, social workers should discuss with the client whether consultation with the previous service provider is in the client's best interest.

The code greatly expands coverage of ethical standards related to agency administration. Key issues involve social work administrators' obligation to advocate for resources to meet clients' needs; provide adequate staff supervision; allocate resources fairly; ensure a working environment consistent with code standards; and arrange for appropriate continuing education and staff development.

The code also includes a number of ethical standards for social work employees, for example, related to unethical personnel practices and misappropriation of agency funds. Especially important are standards concerning social workers' obligation to address employing organizations' policies, procedures, regulation, or administrative orders that interfere with the ethical practice of social work.

A novel feature of the code is the acknowledgement of ethical issues social workers sometimes face as a result of labor–management disputes. Although the code does not prescribe how social workers should handle dilemmas related to going on strike, it does permit social workers to engage in organized labor-related actions to improve services to clients and working conditions.

Ethical Responsibilities as Professionals

This section of the code focuses on issues primarily related to social workers' professional integrity. In addition to emphasizing social workers' obligation to be proficient, the code exhorts social workers to routinely review and critique the professional literature; participate in continuing education; and base their work on recognized knowledge, including empirically based knowledge, relevant to social work practice and ethics.

Several standards address social workers' values and personal conduct. The code states that social workers should not practice, condone, facilitate, or collaborate with any form of discrimination and should not permit their private conduct to interfere with their ability to fulfill their professional responsibilities. The code further obligates social workers to make clear distinctions between statements and actions engaged in as a private individual and those engaged in as a social worker.

A prominent theme in the code concerns social workers' obligation to be honest in their relationships with all parties, including accurately representing their professional qualifications, credentials, education, competence, and affiliations. Also, social workers are obligated to take responsibility and credit, including authorship credit, only for work they have actually performed and to which they have contributed. In addition, the code requires that social workers not engage in uninvited solicitation of potential clients who, because of their circumstances, are vulnerable to undue influence, manipulation, or coercion.

One of the most important standards in the code concerns social workers' personal impairment. The code mandates that social workers must not allow their personal problems, psychosocial distress, legal problems, substance abuse, or mental health difficulties to interfere with their professional judgment and performance or jeopardize others for whom they have a professional responsibility. In instances where social workers find that their personal difficulties interfere with their professional judgment and performance, they are obligated to seek professional help, make adjustments in their workload, terminate their practice, or take other steps necessary to protect clients and others.

Ethical Responsibilities to the Profession

Social workers' ethical responsibilities are not limited to clients, colleagues, and the public at large; they also include the social work profession itself. Standards in this section of the code focus on the profession's integrity and social work evaluation and research. The principal theme concerning the profession's integrity pertains to social workers' obligation to maintain and promote high standards of practice by engaging in appropriate study and research, teaching, publication, presentations at professional conferences, consultation, service to the community and professional organizations, and legislative testimony.

The code also includes a substantial series of standards concerning evaluation and research. The standards emphasize social workers' obligation to monitor and evaluate policies, implementation of programs, and practice interventions. In addition, the code requires social workers to critically examine and keep current with emerging knowledge and to use evaluation and research evidence in their professional practice.

The code requires social workers involved in evaluation and research to follow widely accepted guidelines concerning the protection of evaluation and research participants. Standards focus specifically on the role of informed consent procedures in evaluation and research; the need to ensure that evaluation and research participants have access to appropriate supportive services; the confidentiality and anonymity of information obtained during the course of evaluation and research; the obligation to report results accurately; and the handling of potential or real conflicts of interest and dual relationships involving evaluation and research participants.

Ethical Responsibilities to Society at Large

The social work profession has always been committed to social justice. This commitment is clearly reflected in the code's preamble and in the final section of the code's standards. The standards explicitly highlight social workers' obligation to engage in activities that promote social justice and the general welfare of society, including local, national, and international efforts. These activities may include facilitating public discussion of social policy issues; providing professional services in public emergencies; engaging in social and political action (for example, lobbying and legislative advocacy) to address basic human needs; promoting conditions that encourage respect for the diversity of cultures and socieeties; and acting to prevent and eliminate domination, exploitation, and discrimination against any person, group, or class of people.

Conclusion

Ethical standards in social work, particularly as reflected in the NASW Code of Ethics, have changed dramatically during the profession's history. Along with all other professions, and largely as a result of the emergence of the professional ethics field beginning in the 1970s, social work's ethical standards have matured considerably. The current NASW Code of Ethics reflects social workers' increased understanding of ethical issues in the profession and the need for comprehensive ethical standards.

By themselves, ethical standards in social work cannot guarantee ethical behavior. Ethical standards can certainly guide practitioners who encounter ethical challenges and establish norms by which social workers' actions can be judged. However, in the final analysis, ethical standards in general, and codes of ethics in particular, are only one tool in social workers' ethical arsenal. In addition to specific ethical standards, social workers must draw on ethical theory, concepts, and decision-making guidelines; social work theory and practice principles; and relevant laws, regulations, and agency policies. Most of all, social workers must consider ethical standards within the context of their own values and ethics. As the NASW Code of Ethics states, ethical principles and standards “must be applied by individuals of good character who discern moral questions and, in good faith, seek to make reliable ethical judgments” (p. 4).

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