Codes of Ethics
by Allan Barsky, J.D., MSW, Ph.D.
When social work students enter the profession, they may assume that there is just one code of ethics that they need to learn and follow. Although some social workers practice according to the tenets of a single code of ethics (often, the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics), many social workers are subject to more than one code of ethics or standards of practice. As a family mediator, for instance, I not only follow the NASW Code, but also the model standards of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, or AFCC (http://www.afccnet.org/Resource-Center/Practice-Guidelines-and-Standards). Likewise, there are distinct codes and standards of practice for social workers with specializations such as:
- Employee Assistance Professionals (http://broward.org/HumanResources/Documents/codeofethics0106.pdf)
- Group Therapists (http://agpa.org/home/practice-resources/practice-guidelines-for-group-psychotherapy)
- Pastoral Counselors: AAPC Code of Ethics (http://www.aapc.org/about-us/code-of-ethics)
- School Social Workers (http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.sswaa.org/resource/resmgr/imported/naswschoolsocialworkstandards.pdf)
- Substance Abuse Counselors (http://naadac.org/codeofethics_1)
- Family Mediators (http://www.afccnet.org/Portals/0/PublicDocuments/CEFCP/ModelStandardsOfPracticeForFamilyAndDivorceMediation.pdf?ver=2013-08-21-072320-000)
So, which codes “must” social workers abide by? Which codes “should” social workers abide by? And if there are conflicts between two or more codes by which you are abiding, which code takes “precedence”?
Professional associations are voluntary associations, meaning that one is not legally obligated to belong to these associations. Although I certainly encourage all U.S. social workers to become members of the NASW, there is no legal requirement for social workers to be members in order to practice social work. When social workers do join the NASW or another professional association, they are agreeing to abide by its code of ethics.
Even if social workers do not join the NASW or another relevant professional association, however, they would be prudent to follow standards that apply to their areas of practice. If a social worker is sued for malpractice, for instance, courts may look at whether the worker complied with the NASW Code or with other relevant standards of practice. In a lawsuit, the question is whether the social worker lived up to a duty of care (or standards of practice) reasonably expected within the profession and area of practice. Therefore, a professional code of ethics may be relevant even if the social worker is not a current member of the association.
Now, let’s assume that a social worker is striving to follow two codes of ethics, but there are potential conflicts between their standards. How should the worker resolve these conflicts? In some instances, one code of ethics has a more stringent requirement than another. For instance, the NASW Code of Ethics has an absolute, lifetime prohibition about having sex with clients (Standard 1.09). Another code, the American Psychological Association’s Code of Conduct, does not have an absolute, lifetime prohibition. Under Standard 10.06, it allows psychologists (under certain circumstances) to have sex with a former client if at least two years have passed since termination of services. Assume that a therapist is a member of both the NASW and the APA. This therapist should abide by the stricter or higher standard. If practitioners follow the lesser standard, they may be placing themselves in ethical and legal peril.
In other cases, there may be a clear contradiction in ethical standards. Consider the ethical obligation of mediators to be “impartial” (AFCC, Standard IV). In contrast, the NASW Code says social workers should be advocates for social justice, acting to eliminate discrimination (NASW, Standard 6.04). Assume that a social worker is mediating with a family in which men are discriminating against women. The NASW Code suggests that the social worker needs to advocate for the women. The AFCC Code advises the mediator to remain impartial, not advocating for one side or the other. In this case, the conflict may be resolved by looking at the specific role of the practitioner, including what the client has agreed to during the informed consent process.
Social workers play a very broad range of roles, including the roles of mediator, advocate, counselor, broker, listener, facilitator, and organizer. Because the NASW Code is designed to cover the broad spectrum of roles, it cannot make fine distinctions in ethical obligations that depend on the specific role that a social worker is playing with a particular client. So, although it is generally a social worker’s role to advocate for social justice, this role would not fit with a worker who is playing the role of mediator with a particular family. In this case, the worker should follow the AFCC standards, which are designed for this more specific role.
So, is a social worker who acts as an impartial mediator in violation of the NASW Code’s standards related to social justice? Note that the wording of most sections of the NASW Code say that social workers “should....” The use of this term is deliberate, meaning that under most circumstances, the prescribed standard for behavior is appropriate. It also recognizes that there may be exceptions based on particular circumstances, including the role the social worker is playing.
Social workers should also distinguish between baseline standards and aspirational standards. Baseline standards define what behaviors are minimally required to meet fundamental ethical standards. For instance, social workers should maintain client confidentiality; a breach of confidentiality means that the worker has fallen below this basic requirement. Aspirational standards define ideal social work behaviors. Although it is hoped that social workers strive toward these ideals, social workers are not held liable for falling below the ideal. Thus, while social workers should confront social injustices (generally and ideally), they are not required to confront every social injustice, all the time. When a baseline standard and an aspirational standard seem to conflict, it is generally advisable to follow the baseline standard.
Each situation in which ethical standards seem to conflict will require an individualized analysis of the social worker’s obligations, options, and potential consequences for choosing each of those options. In general, some factors to consider include:
- Identify which codes of ethics or standards of practice apply to you, either because you are a member of the professional association or because a court might reasonably expect you to follow those ethics or standards.
- When you engage clients in services, explain which codes of ethics or standards of practice you will be following. As part of the informed consent process, ensure that the client knows which role(s) you will be playing and how this may affect your ethical obligations.
- Avoid engaging in dual roles with a client (e.g., acting as an advocate and a mediator, or an evaluator and a counselor), as these roles may entail different ethical obligations.
- If there is an apparent conflict between the standards of two or more codes, identify whether one code takes precedence because of your position or the type of work you are doing.
- If one code has stricter provisions than the other code, then acting in accordance with the stricter standards will keep you in compliance with both sets of standards.
- If the conflict is between an aspirational standard and a baseline standard, choose an option that meets or exceeds the expectations of the baseline standard.
- If you are not sure how to respond to potentially conflicting standards, then consult, consult, and consult! Possible sources of consultation include your supervisor or field instructor, your agency’s attorney, your own attorney, your professional liability insurance provider, and the ethics committees of the professional associations to which you belong.
- When determining how to manage conflicting ethical obligations, brainstorm options that may help you resolve the conflict and reduce risks to the client, yourself, and the agency.
- As part of your risk management process, make sure you document the ethical issue, how you analyzed it, how you made use of consultation, your decision, and how you came to your decision.
As the old American Express commercials state, “Membership has its privileges.” When it comes to membership in professional associations, membership also has its obligations. Be aware that you may be expected to follow certain ethical codes or standards, even if you are not a member.
This article has highlighted potential conflicts between various professional codes and standards. You may take some comfort in the knowledge that the codes of ethics of social work and related fields of practice have many commonalities—respect for the dignity and worth of all people, protection of client privacy, honesty, integrity, doing good, and avoiding harm. Difficult conflicts may not arise on a frequent basis. Still, be prepared for those occasions when conflicting ethical obligations do arise.
Dr. Allan Barsky is Professor of Social Work at Florida Atlantic University and former 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 (Oxford University Press), and Clinicians in Court (Guilford Press). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of any of the organizations with which Dr. Barsky is affiliated.