The most common Social Work ethical dilemmas include confidentiality, moral dilemmas, and client requests for independence. When clients’ actions mirror their intentions, an ethical dilemma will rarely present itself in the social work context. Someone who blatantly abuses their family members without remorse, for example, will be quickly reported by a social worker without much internal conflict on the reporter’s part. When a well-intentioned client makes a misguided decision, however, as part of the effort to improve their situation based on the social worker’s advice, an ethical conflict can occur.
Especially when mental health and addictive tendencies, social workers are very conscious of the fragility of recovery for their clients. For this reason, they may feel compelled to stay silent when a well-meaning client crosses an ethical boundary. To skillfully navigate this recurring issue, social workers must first recognize the most common forms of ethical problems in their field. Then, they can establish a method for gently guiding clients to a more productive course of action in a way that minimizes impact on morale.
Social workers are of course bound to confidentiality, meaning they cannot discuss client business with anyone else. Like healthcare providers and HIPAA, this is a very serious matter that people lose their jobs over, even in the case of accidental breaches.
There is only one scenario that justifies a breach of confidentiality, and reasonably so: unlawful and harmful acts. If a client tells you that they are hurting themselves, hurting anyone else, or being hurt by someone else, that’s grounds for the release of private information.
When social workers are in school, this may seem like a relatively straightforward requirement, but they often feel very conflicted when they first encounter it in the field. If a case is blatant, as mentioned, as with severe harm or abuse, then the reporter is not so conflicted. If a client shows up to a session with a small bruise that is consistent with abusive handling, however, and they insist strongly that they aren’t being abused, the social worker may struggle ethically – especially if the spousal or parental relationship is fragile enough to be damaged by an investigation.
The best way to resolve this dilemma – or at least make it easier – is to pre-empt it. At the start of a social worker’s relationship with a client, the social worker should disclaim to the client that all information is private except for reports of self-harm, harm to others. This will help to preserve trust, even in the case of a report. In either case, social workers should always remember their state’s NASW guidelines (Connecticut linked as an example). These guidelines help outline the circumstances required for a mandated report.
Client Requests for Independent Living
This issue most prominently affects clients with mental health and behavioral concerns. When a client with mental health ethical dilemmas requests their own housing, the social worker may feel conflicted. They want to encourage the client’s self-sufficiency.
However, they aren’t entirely sure if the client is prepared to make that transition, especially since the client has been in an inpatient environment for a significant amount of time. Similarly, a social worker may be hesitant to place a client with severe depression and suicidal tendencies in their own home.
The more assessment data a social worker can obtain, the more evidence and confidence they will have to reinforce their ultimate decision. Assessment data varies per client, but the following can act as a very general framework in most cases:
- What services does the client currently need throughout the day?
- What services will they have access to if they move to this home/apartment?
- How long has it been since the client lived on their own?
- What is the client’s current level and quality of social interaction with fellow tenants/caregivers?
- What do the client’s family members say about his or her independence level before community/institutionalized living?
Assessment is critical in this event, as it will lessen the social worker’s hesitation in making a decision either way. Even if a social worker decides not to endorse a client’s appeal for independent housing based on this data, they can use it to create an action plan for the client so they can strive to make the transition in the future.
Moral and religious qualms are a two-way street when it comes to the social work environment. If a client is seeks assistance in having an abortion, for example, and their social worker is firmly against abortion in general, a moral conflict may affect that case. On the other hand, a social worker may refer a client to healthcare or mental health specialists who practice treatments that violate certain religious beliefs (drawing blood or taking certain medications, for example).
In the first scenario, the social worker needs to prioritize the client’s welfare over their own beliefs. It is an abuse of a social worker’s oversight to deny or discourage abortion on any grounds not related to the patient’s functional needs.
Social workers can prevent the second scenario with a mindful approach to intervention planning. A social worker may have has never worked with someone of a certain religious or moral ideology. However, they can still prevent problems by simply asking everyone what they’re comfortable with prior to recommending certain services.
The Self-Determination vs Security Paradox
Encouraging self-determination is usually high on the list of a social worker’s objectives for any given client, but the freedom to direct oneself is fundamentally related to a greater risk of harm. Consider the post-9/11 crackdown on airport security, to illustrate a much broader case. Before 9/11, passengers had much more freedom to bring certain items onboard airplanes. But, authorities restrict freedom for security.
The social worker must promote a sensible balance between autonomy and security for clients. Additionally, they should establish this precedent early on in the relationship. If a client wants to appeal for custody of their children, for example, but has not taken sufficient strides to remedy their substance abuse and behavioral problems as mandated by the court. It’s the social worker’s job to shift the focus towards these critical steps before jumping back into the legal process.
It’s important when guiding a client to a safer and less autonomous choice, the social worker clearly and reasonably justifies their decision, always prioritizing the clients:
- Safety and well-being
- Legal standing
- Motivation to continue their efforts
- Promises to family and friends
- Self-established goals
Sometimes, social workers need to encourage clients to be self-reliant. Instead of recommending a particular course of action for hesitant clients, it’s more important to the client’s self-reliance to keep the conversation open-ended so that they can choose (within defined parameters). “What do you think we should do?” or “Which of these options sounds best to you?”
When a social worker and client interface outside of their professional relationship, it is a dual relationship. Especially in the era of social media, this issue is very confusing for social workers across the country.
Sometimes, after a social worker and client finish working with each other, the client or a family member may reach out to thank the social worker. In many of these cases, nothing unethical occurs. Similarly, if a social worker encounters a former client in the community, there’s nothing wrong with polite conversation.
Professional relationships that turn into sexual relationships are a violation of the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics. This is example is straightforward, but what about a hug? What if a former spouse or partner seeks counsel from a social worker? Many of these cases exist in the “gray area” as far as state guidelines are concerned.
So, social workers should familiarize themselves with the hard boundaries. As always, the more informed a social worker is on appropriate behavior, the less conflicted they will have.
What is Social Work?
Social work is a profession that is practice-based and promotes social change to happen for people and communities. It also promotes the development, empowerment, and cohesion of people and entire communities. The practice of social work encompasses the understanding of human development as well as human behavior. S
ocial work practice also involves the social, economic, and cultural interactions between people and communities and the institutions that guide those. Professionals in the social work field work with families and institutions in a variety of areas. Some of those areas include:
- Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention
- Civil Rights
- Addiction and Treatment
- Unemployment Benefits
- Disability Pay
- Workers’ Compensation
- Reduced Mental Health Stigma
- Medicaid and Medicare
There are three different levels of social work. When it comes to micro-social work, social workers are able to provide one-on-one assistance to individuals, families, and small groups. They work with people who are facing ethical dilemmas, such as mental health or substance abuse.
Mezzo social work encompasses an area of social work in which social workers are able to help groups of people, such as students at schools, patients and hospitals, or inmates in prison. For example, a social worker at a prison may help inmates with their substance abuse recovery while they are incarcerated.
Macro social work refers to the policy-making area of social work along with research and community-based initiatives. Social workers at this level of practice will be focused on addressing societal ethical dilemmas, such as housing, substance abuse, and homelessness.
What is the Social Worker Code of Ethics?
The Social Worker Code of Ethics is a set of standards provided by the National Associate of Social Workers that helps guide the professional conduct of social workers.
- Preamble: The first section is referred to as the preamble and it summarizes the social work profession’s mission and its core values.
- Purpose of the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics: The second section is the purpose of the National Association of Social Work Code of Ethics, which provides the main functions of the code of ethics. It also includes a brief guide for social workers dealing with ethical dilemmas or dilemmas in the field of social work.
- Ethical Principles: The third section is the ethical principles the social worker should follow. These principles are based on social work’s core values that guide the practice of social work.
- Ethical Standards: the last section of the social work code of ethics addresses the ethical standards for social workers. This includes the ethical standards that guide the conduct of social workers and provide a basis for adjudication to be determined.
What Are some Examples of Ethical Dilemmas:
- professional relationships
- self determination
- professional relationship
- human relationships
- human relationships
- human relationships
- ethical decision making
- ethical decision making
- ethical dilemmas arise
- social justice
- social justice
- social justice
Social workers are expected to adhere to this code of ethics in their day-to-day interactions with their clients and the communities in which they serve. This is important for both the social worker and his or her clients.