The ethical and legal considerations that social workers must be aware of in their practice

The code of ethics was created to identify the core values of social work and to establish a set of ethical practices that will serve as a guide to social workers. It serves as a basis for consultation in cases of conflict during the course of work.

Here are the core values of the social work profession, as outlined by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW):

  • Service: The main goal of the social worker is to help people who are in need, and to address social problems.
  • Social justice: Social workers should constantly strive to challenge social injustice.
  • Dignity and worth of the individual: Social workers should respect the inherent dignity of the individual.
  • The importance of human relationships: When trying to effect change, social workers should acknowledge the importance of good human relationships.
  • Integrity: Social workers should behave in a trustworthy and honest manner.
  • Competence: Social workers should practice within their areas of competence, always developing and enhancing their skills.

The mission of the social work profession is to help to meet the basic needs of all people, to enhance their wellbeing, and to empower them to improve their situations, whether they are poverty-stricken, disabled, vulnerable or oppressed. The social worker advocates for improved conditions in communities and addresses the environmental and social forces that influence living standards and the negative situations that affect people. Their awareness of racial diversity motivates them to bring about an end to oppression and discrimination, as well as poverty and other forms of social injustice.

In setting out the code of ethics, the NASW indicates that when conflicting ideas and complex situations arise, a responsible evaluation of the situation is necessary, consistent with the values, standards and principles outlined in the code. Social workers should always be mindful of the impact that their decisions have on the principles and values of their clients, as well as on their personal values. If the social worker is unable to reach a suitable solution to a problem, they need to consult with a senior colleague with more experience, if possible. Failing that, there are ethics committees linked to regulatory bodies and social work organizations. If the problem is of a legal nature, legal counsel can also be sought.

A violation of the code of ethics does not necessarily mean a violation of the law. The NASW Code of Ethics may be used by agencies, organizations and individuals in their daily practice. It can also be used by courts of law, licensing and regulatory boards, providers of professional liability insurance, and other bodies that choose to adopt the ethics therein.

That is why ongoing education is essential for social workers who want to keep abreast of updates and changes in laws regarding their profession. Further study will give the social worker a skill set that can enhance their employment opportunities and work experience. To this end, an online MSW program in Georgia from the University of Florida offers access to advice and support while you balance your work and study.

Below, we examine the ethical principles in more detail:

  • Service: Social workers draw on their skills, knowledge and values, placing the needs of others above their own self-interests. They are encouraged to volunteer some portion of their professional skills with no expectation of significant financial reward.
  • Social justice: Social workers pursue social change on behalf of individuals or groups of people, with a focus on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination and other social injustices. Their activities should promote knowledge of, and sensitivity to, the injustices of oppression, as well as an understanding of ethnic diversity. Social workers strive to provide access to services, information and resources for people in need to improve their situation. Social workers also provide access to equal opportunity and allow meaningful participation in matters that concern their wellbeing.
  • Dignity and personal worth: Social workers treat each person with care and respect, while being mindful of individual differences and cultural or ethnic diversity. They strive to enhance their clients’ opportunities and the ability to take care of their own needs. This includes instilling an ethos of social responsibility during the client’s process of self-determination. Social workers are cognizant of their dual responsibility to their clients as well as to society in general, resolving conflicts between the two in a responsible manner consistent with the ethics and values mentioned here.
  • The importance of human relationships: Social workers acknowledge that good relationships between people are important for bringing about change and encourage people to participate in the process. With the aid of strengthened relationships, social workers seek to promote, enhance, restore and maintain the wellbeing of individuals, groups and communities.
  • Integrity: Social workers practice in a manner consistent with the profession’s values, mission, ethical standards and principles. They are honest and responsible, promoting the ethics of the organizations with which they are affiliated.
  • Competence: Social workers practice within their areas of competence, while regularly updating and enhancing their skills and professional expertise. They should aspire to contribute to the knowledge base of the social work profession.

Ethical standards

The primary responsibility of a social worker is always toward the client while respecting colleagues, maintaining confidentiality, and consulting colleagues when needed. That can include seeking advice and guidance about sensitive subjects such as sexual relationships.

Social workers are often responsible for training and performance evaluations of colleagues. Proper client records must be kept, and accurate and fair billing practices must be maintained. The social work administrator needs to ensure the availability of resources and that the allocation of resources is fair and consistent.

A social worker’s private conduct or any impairment should not interfere with their work – examples of this are personal problems, substance abuse, legal problems, psychosocial distress, and mental health issues. Misrepresentation of the social work profession, solicitation, and the acknowledgment of credit are also covered under professional ethics.

Social workers should always uphold the profession’s values, ethics, and knowledge, protecting, enhancing, and improving integrity through ongoing study, evaluation, and research.

They are also encouraged to participate in social action that seeks to ensure fundamental human rights. The advocation of changes in legislation for the good of the community and social justice should be a part of a social worker’s responsibility.

Technology and the ethics of social work

Technology-assisted social work services include services that are administered via mobile or landline phones, computers, tablets, video technology or other electronic devices, and platforms such as the internet, chat rooms, online social media, emails, text messages and more. Social workers need to familiarize themselves with the ethics regarding the different mediums. A helpful document published by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) in 2018 details the emerging consensus of Ethical Standards for Social Workers’ Use of Technology.

The legal aspects of social work

It should be noted that in the US, the law differs from state to state. It is therefore necessary for social workers to have a general understanding of the relationship between social work and the justice system in their state. They must also have knowledge of the laws and regulatory agencies in their specific area of work. Social workers are often required to stand as a witness in court cases, where knowledge of the law is an obvious advantage.

In light of the rise in malpractice suits since the 1980s, social workers should be aware of the legal risks in their profession and should know the extent of their duties and powers within their state.

Application of the code of ethics can sometimes conflict with civil or criminal law in their particular area of jurisdiction. For example:

  • Licensing and disciplinary requirements.
  • Codes of ethics, such as the NASW code.
  • Regulations and policies established by the agency of employment.
  • Local cultural or community standards.

In most states, a department or board of social work is established with the necessary power to determine the practice of social work, as well as the qualifications and licensure required.

The ASWB develops research and compiles regulatory research obtained from the 50 states and 10 Canadian provinces. A snapshot of jurisdiction requirements can be downloaded from its website. This provides the basics of regulatory law applicable to social workers in most areas.

The division of social work into specializations such as family crisis, psychotherapy, advocacy and policy planning complicates the legal aspect of the social worker’s job, making it necessary for them to familiarize themselves with the legal requirements in their area of specialty.

Professional liability

Since the 1980s, the social work profession has seen an increase in lawsuits. Clients have become more aware of their rights and more knowledgeable on how to file malpractice suits or lay charges. Because social work is now more specialized, clients have higher expectations.

The immunity from liability that existed for social workers is gradually being banned by courts, and new concepts such as ‘protect and warn’ (the social worker’s legal obligation to warn potential victims of their client) are increasing the range of duties that a social worker is legally bound to fulfill.

In the past, free social work services discouraged lawsuits. However, in recent years, more social workers are being employed on a fee-for-service basis, and this leads to client dissatisfaction.

Premature termination of a social worker’s services by an employer often leaves the client feeling stranded, prompting them to seek legal recourse.

Different classes of professional liability in the US include malpractice or negligence, civil violations such as violation of privacy, breach of contract and breach of confidentiality.

Ethical violations

Ethical violations are the breaking of rules regarding the values or goals of the social work profession. If there is a potential dispute regarding ethical rules, the social worker is advised to obtain legal advice.

Examples of disputes are terminating a contract if the client is not paying the required fees, giving a client access to their clinical records, or withholding damaging information about a client from their families.

How to stay on the right side of the law

By maintaining a high level of professionalism, and familiarizing themselves with the code of ethics, licensing regulations and state laws, social workers are more likely to maintain a litigation-free record. If in doubt, social workers should get some useful input from an attorney who is well-versed with social and mental welfare laws, malpractice and professional regulations.

Social work as a career has an exceptionally positive outlook as the world changes and various sectors of society become dependent on social grants, housing and healthcare. Society is still reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a full recovery will take years. Now, more than ever, social workers are in great demand, and this is likely to increase in the next decade. Your work as a social worker can make a big difference to many people’s lives.

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