The National Association of Social Work (NASW) Code of Ethics (CoE) was approved by the 1996 NASW Delegate Assembly and revised by the assembly in 2017. The purpose of the Code of Ethics is to clarify the core values of social work and establish professional standards. Most professional fields of practice including dentistry, medicine, and physical therapy have a code of ethics.

All social workers, whether they are engaged in advocacy, clinical practice, or administration are expected to adhere to the CoE. According to NASW, “Most social workers are held accountable to the NASW Code of Ethics, including NASW members, many licensed social workers, employed social workers, and students”.

Core Purposes of the Code of Ethics

The six core purposes of the NASW CoE are to:

  • establish core values for the profession
  • summarize broad ethical principles of social work
  • identify relevant considerations when there is a conflict or lack of ethical clarity
  • establish social work principles so the public can hold social workers accountable
  • socialize new social workers to the field
  • set ethical standards so unethical behaviors can be assessed and corrected

Core Values of Social Work

The six core values of social work as outlined in the CoE are: service, social justice, the dignity and worth of each individual, the importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. These values are reflected in the history and development of the profession. Students will learn about these core social work values as they go through their social work programs.

Social service, especially service to vulnerable populations, is the foundation of social work practice and advocacy. Social service includes listening, treatment, advocacy, and respect. Students learn that social justice, empowerment, social service, and advocacy are inextricably linked. The core value of social justice requires that:

“Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. These activities seek to promote sensitivity to and knowledge about oppression and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers strive to ensure access to needed information, services, and resources; equality of opportunity; and meaningful participation in decision making for all people.”

The core value of human dignity establishes that all human beings are deserving of basic human rights, understanding, and respect. Clinicians especially must be prepared to understand the many ways human relationships shape individual well-being, life trajectories, development, and mental health. Integrity and competence are core values of the profession because social workers are expected to carry out their work with honesty and respect, to take personal responsibility for staying current with their knowledge and training, and carry out their duties with the requisite skill and care. Early on, in a foundations course, social workers learn about the core values of social work.

Ethical Standards of Social Work

The CoE also extensively outlines ethical standards all social work professionals should uphold. The CoE makes it clear that some of the standards are aspirational while some are “enforceable guidelines for professional conduct.” The first standard has to do with ethical responsibilities to clients such as avoiding conflicts of interest, avoiding personal and romantic relationships with clients, being competent, using informed consent, and upholding privacy and confidentiality. It also outlines the proper approach to termination of services.

The second standard has to do with ethical responsibilities to colleagues including avoiding romantic relationships with supervisors and colleagues, the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, and the responsibility to take action when a colleague has acted unethically. The third standard covers ethical responsibilities in practice including ethical practices in consultation and supervision as well as in-field supervision. It also requires administrators to create a positive work environment, secure adequate resources for clients, and facilitate ongoing training for staff.

The fourth standard covers the ethical responsibilities of professionals. These are somewhat obvious ethical responsibilities common to many professions including the obligation not to discriminate against clients based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. This standard also covers the importance of social workers staying current with the latest research in the field. As students will learn, evidence-based practice is something they will be encouraged to engage in. This involves making treatment decisions based on knowledge of the latest research about which treatments are most effective for specific groups of clients.

The final two standards cover social workers’ responsibilities to the profession and broader society. Responsibilities to the profession include carrying out one’s professional duties with integrity. Social workers are also advised to be engaged in research and evaluation and to do so in an ethical manner. Ethical responsibilities to society include advocacy, participating in political and public life, and serving in times of public emergencies.

Ethical Standards in the Use of Technology

Revisions made in 1996 to the NASW CoE mainly had to do with ethical practices around the use of technology and electronic communication.  Ethical concerns around the use of technology include using social media responsibly, competently using technology, maintaining confidentiality in electronic communications and records, and understanding cultural differences in clients’ use or competence with technology.

The revisions also addressed ethical standards for looking up information about clients on the internet and the type of information that would be inappropriate to say or exchange via electronic communication with clients. Other revisions addressed client confidentiality. For example, a statement was added that social workers should not solicit private information about a client except in the case of “compelling professional reasons.”

What Students Should Know and Reflect On

The Social Work Code of Ethics is an important document that guides the profession’s ethical standards and conduct. Social work students should become familiar with the CoE early in their academic programs. Students should also reflect on their own values and ethical standards, and how these values and ethics developed. They might reflect on what institutions, experiences, and people have shaped their values and ethics thus far. Also, what is their understanding of human nature and the role of government in providing for the welfare of society. Students should also learn and reflect on the ethical dimensions of distributing services and benefits in society and seek to understand the concepts of distributive justice and utilitarianism (Hoefer, 2019).

Self-examination of this kind can help students relate their own values and ethics to what is outlined in the NASW CoE. The CoE might even influence them to change their own current ethical framework or help them understand, early on their professional responsibilities to society and vulnerable populations. The Social Work Code of Ethics will shape how they deliver policy practice and clinical services throughout their careers, so they should seek to understand it from the outset of their careers.

Stephanie Bosco-Ruggiero

B.A. Political Science| Vassar College

M.A. Urban Affairs | University of Delaware

Social Policy | Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service Doctoral Program

November  2019

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