By: Mike Meacham, Ph.D., LCSW
The NASW Code of Ethics is a long document that provides guidelines for many complicated situations. As a new social worker or a social work student, you may have questions about the Code. I have provided some answers below. However, one must remember that clinical judgment allows us to determine our course of action with each individual case and circumstance. In the areas of ethics, morals, and values, there is often no one correct answer. (See the full NASW Code of Ethics at
1. What is the purpose of listing values as part of a code of ethics?
Sociologists define values as the most abstract level of beliefs in what is moral. Ethics are the particular statements about conduct for a profession. When decision-making about ethics becomes an issue, social workers may rely on the general beliefs of our conduct, as well as be guided by more specific guidelines within the Code.
2. Are there limits to how far a social worker is committed to a client?
Yes, Standard 1.01 mentions the legal obligations social workers have to society. Although social workers occasionally choose to ignore some illegal acts of clients during therapy, we have a commitment to the law, and we are responsible for the consequences of those decisions. Standard 3.09 states that social workers should abide by their commitment to employers, as well. Agency procedures and rules should be followed if they are not in conflict with the Code, which may at times limit our ability to help a client with a specific need.
3. Are there directions that we may use to decide if a client’s self determination should be restricted?
Yes, Standard 1.02 states to do so if “in the social worker’s professional judgment, a client’s actions or potential actions pose a serious foreseeable and imminent risk to themselves or others.” A general rule used by many social workers is “dangerous to self or others.” Potential and imminent violence must be reported, according to the Tarasoff ruling. (See http://tinyurl.com/newswtarasoff.) Rules of behavior in the agency must be enforced. This leads to some different interpretations about self determination, depending on the environment. For example, a social worker may or may not report that a client is selling marijuana if he or she is working in an outpatient setting. But in prisons, drug sales are one of the leading causes of murder within the “walls” and should then be reported.
Standard 4.07 disallows endorsement from clients or soliciting clients informally, as this may create an undue influence.
4. What if I am not sure if a client is capable of understanding “informed consent”?
There are supports available. Psychological testing prior to our services may indicate IQ and ability to understand situations. The mental status exam will give evidence, as well. There is a “Kent Intelligence Exam” that is used to give the social worker some evidence that he or she tried to measure the level of client functioning. A team approach also helps.
Also, we need to obtain qualified interpreters for those who need them. (See Standard 1.03 b, 1.14.) It is important that the interpreter be aware of and preferably part of the specific culture of the client, because euphemisms differ among subcultures (e.g., specific meanings differ in Spanish at times, depending on the country of origin).
5. Is therapy over the telephone or by computer allowable?
Yes, but Standard 1.03e states that clients must be made aware of the limitations of distant forms of treatment.
6. Sometimes clients present with problems in areas about which I have little knowledge. What can I do in these cases?
Standard 1.04c states that social workers should “ensure the competence of their work and protect clients from harm.” This standard in the Code originated from Hippocrates. We can refer clients to whom we are not capable of providing good treatment, and we have trainings, formal and informal education, research, consultation, and supervision to support us. At these times, a team approach is helpful. We may transfer a client, but Standard 3.08 tells us that we should minimize difficulties for the client in transfers by giving them adequate notice and explanation. Also, we should assure no duplication of services.