NASW Code of Ethics
NASW Code of Ethics
By: Allan Barsky, J.D., MSW, Ph.D.
People often quote the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics when identifying the ethical obligations of social workers. Did you know, however, that not all social workers are bound to comply with the NASW Code—at least in the legal sense? Did you also know that even if you follow the NASW Code, you might be engaging in unethical behavior? Did you know that you might need to follow the NASW Code even if you are not acting as a social worker? Now, before you start thinking that I’m speaking nonsense, please allow me to explain.
The NASW is a national association, but it is a voluntary association. A social worker who chooses to be a member of the NASW agrees to abide by the NASW Code. Any NASW member who violates the Code (or is alleged to have violated the Code) may be subject to the NASW’s professional review process. The professional review process could include mediation between the complainant and social work-respondent, or an adjudication to be heard by an NASW panel. If a social worker chooses not to become a member, the NASW has no authority to hear complaints or grievances against that social worker.
So, a social worker might ask, “Why should I become an NASW member if I don’t have to?” and “Why would I want to subject myself to a complaints process when I don’t have to?” There are many reasons to join NASW—to support the profession; to help advocate for social justice; to gain access to preferred rates on conferences, legal information, and liability insurance; and so on. One of the most essential reasons, however, is to proclaim to clients and the broader community that you believe in social work’s core values and ethical codes of conduct. Further, you are willing to be held accountable, as a professional, to these standards.
“So, if I follow the NASW Code, does that mean that I am acting ethically?” Most of the time, yes. However, there may be times when the NASW Code does not cover a particular ethical situation, or when there are conflicting obligations making it difficult to determine the most ethical course of action.
Consider Standard 1.07(f), which states:
When social workers provide counseling services to families, couples, or groups, social workers should seek agreement among the parties involved concerning each individual's right to confidentiality.
This standard only applies to “counseling services.” What if a social worker is conducting a child custody evaluation (considered forensic assessment services rather than counseling)? Does this mean that the social worker does not need to seek agreement regarding each individual’s right to confidentiality? Although the Code does not specifically address forensic services, it would still be ethically appropriate for the worker to follow the guidelines in Standard 1.07(f).
Consider the ethically difficult situation that arises when two ethical obligations are in conflict. Assume that a private adoption agency’s policies require social workers to ask prospective adoptive parents about their sexual orientation and to deny adoption to anyone who is gay or bisexual. Under NASW Standard 3.09(a), workers are supposed to “adhere to commitments made to employers,” which includes following agency policy. Under Standard 3.09(d), workers are not supposed to discriminate. Thus, the worker is caught in a bind concerning whether to follow agency policy (which includes discrimination) or to refuse to discriminate against the gay and bisexual applicants. When facing conflicting obligations, the worker may need to prioritize one ethical obligation over another. Thus, a worker who refuses to follow agency policy could be a worker who is acting ethically.
Some social workers assume that the NASW Code only applies to them when acting as a social worker. For instance, under the NASW Code, a social worker owes a duty of confidentiality to clients, but the worker does not necessarily owe the same duty of confidentiality to family members or friends. Although much of the NASW Code focuses on work with clients, some sections apply to conduct outside of the social worker’s role. Standard 4.03, for instance, states:
Social workers should not permit their private conduct to interfere with their ability to fulfill their professional responsibilities.
Consider a social worker who works with African American clients, but during private hours, the worker volunteers for a Neo-Nazi organization that promotes racist ideology. Although the problematic behaviors may be considered private conduct, they could interfere with the worker’s professional responsibilities. How would this social worker’s clients feel about working with a practitioner who promotes racism?
Some people believe that breaching the NASW Code amounts to breaking the law; however, breaching the Code is not necessarily breaking the law—unless there is a law requiring social workers to abide by the code. Regulation of the social work profession is determined state by state, so you would have to know the laws of your state to determine whether your laws incorporate the NASW Code into its legislation. In my state, Florida, the licensure laws do not incorporate the NASW Code; however, the laws do require the Licensed Clinical Social Workers to abide by certain professional rules, including maintaining client confidentiality. Accordingly, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who breaches confidentiality would not only be subject to the NASW’s professional review process; the state’s professional boards could hear the case and determine appropriate consequences, as well.
One of the most severe consequences of a board determination is revocation of licensure, which prohibits the worker from practicing clinical social work. One might ask, “Can’t you go to jail for breaking the licensing laws?” Generally, no. Regulatory statutes determine which consequences the regulatory board can and cannot impose. If the social worker breaks a criminal law—for instance, defrauding a client—then the worker could be charged criminally, and criminal sanctions (such as fines or incarceration) could be imposed.
Whereas criminal law provides punishment and deterrence for criminal behaviors, civil law provides people who have been injured with an opportunity to sue the person who caused the injury. One area of civil law most pertinent to social work is malpractice, or professional negligence. To substantiate malpractice and win compensation, a client must prove that (a) the social worker owed the client a duty of care, (b) the worker breached that duty, (c) the breach led to injuries suffered by the client, and (d) there was a reasonably close link (proximate cause) between the breach and the damages. When determining what constitutes a duty of care, the court considers what a reasonable social worker, acting prudently, would do in a similar situation. In making this determination, the court may consider the NASW Code of Ethics, even if the social worker is not a member of the NASW. This is because the standards of practice in the Code can be used to define what a reasonable and prudent social worker should do.
Consider a client who is addicted to sleeping pills and receives advice from a social worker to stop taking the pills. The client stops taking the pills and, without the benefit of a medically supervised detoxification unit, experiences a seizure. If the client sues the worker, the court may consider the NASW Code. In this case, the worker has acted outside the worker’s area of competence by advising the client to simply go home and stop taking the sleeping pills.
Although the forgoing discussion focuses on client complaints that go to the NASW, to a professional regulatory body, to criminal court, or to civil court, note that most client complaints do not go to such formal dispute resolution processes. Consider a client who feels that a worker was disrespectful because the worker touched the client’s shoulder without permission. This touching was a one-time incident. The client comes from a background in which men are expected to avoid touching women in this manner unless they are married. The worker’s actions could be interpreted as a breach of the NASW Code regarding cultural competence, as well as maintaining culturally appropriate physical boundaries.
So, will this case go to the NASW professional review process? Although the client has a valid concern over the incident, it may not require a report to the NASW. The client may be able to handle the incident by speaking with the worker and trying to handle the situation informally. If this does not work, the client could go to the worker’s supervisor or program director. If the client does file a complaint with the NASW, the National Ethics Committee’s Intake Committee will need to determine whether the allegations are serious enough to warrant the case going through the professional review process. The Intake Committee may also consider whether the case could be handled more appropriately within the agency or through some other process. Accordingly, even though the worker may have breached the NASW Code, the case may not go through the entire professional review process, particularly when the allegations of misconduct are not severe.
As social workers, we have a range of obligations. We have moral obligations, some of which come from our respective cultures and religions. We have ethical obligations, some of which come from our affiliation with the NASW. We have legal obligations, including those that govern our agencies and profession, as well as those criminal and civil laws that govern all people.
If we breach our obligations, the potential consequences of the breach depend on the nature and severity of the breach. If I spread gossip about co-workers, I may be in breach of my professional ethical principles and may be subject to professional review. However, the breach may not be severe enough to warrant professional review. Still, I may have breached my moral obligations of respect for the dignity and worth of all people, and the most significant consequences may be the informal reactions of my work colleagues. I may lose their trust. They may retaliate verbally or they may alienate me. I may also feel the wrath of my own conscience, perhaps feeling bad and losing sleep over hurting my colleagues.
Yes, it is useful to know the potential consequences of acting unethically. Still, our main motivation for acting ethically should not be the fear of professional, communal, legal, or agency sanctions. As Emmanuel Kant might suggest, we act ethically because it is the right way to act. We see ourselves as professional, respectful, competent, trustworthy, honest, and accountable. As Aristotle might suggest, we live these virtues because they reflect who we are and want to be.
For Further Information
NASW Code of Ethics: http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/default.asp
Dr. Allan Barsky is Professor of Social Work at Florida Atlantic University and Chair of the National Ethics Committee of the National Association of Social Workers. He is the author of Ethics and Values in Social Work (Oxford University Press), Conflict Resolution for the Helping Professions (Brooks/Cole), and Clinicians in Court (Guilford Press). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the view of any of the organizations with which Dr. Barsky is affiliated.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER magazine, Summer 2013, Vol. 20, No. 13. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 White Hat Communications.