July/August 2008 Issue
Tyla was the director of a community mental health center that provided counseling services for low-income people struggling with mental health emergencies and chronic mental illness. A significant percentage of the agency’s clients were refugees and immigrants. Tyla learned that her state’s governor had issued an executive order requiring any agency receiving state funding to ask clients for proof of citizenship. The order further required agencies to notify state and federal law enforcement authorities if an applicant for services was an undocumented immigrant. Tyla, concerned that compliance would undermine clients’ trust and jeopardize the agency’s relationship with the local community, considered whether to comply with the governor’s executive order.
Juan was the director of a community action program that provided a wide range of services to low-income clients, including energy assistance, emergency shelter, a food pantry, employment services, literacy education, and substance abuse counseling. Juan learned that as a result of a severe budget crisis, the funding his agency received from state government was being slashed by about 40%. Juan and his board of directors had to make a series of daunting decisions about which programs and employees to terminate, knowing that no matter what they decided, some very vulnerable people would be harmed.
Madeline was the executive director of a family services agency that provided clinical services to individuals, couples, families, and small groups of clients. The agency’s accountant notified Madeline of spending irregularities in a large federally funded program for homeless families. After some investigation, she discovered that the program’s director, a longtime agency employee, had misappropriated nearly $25,000 for his personal use. Madeline had to decide whether to report her subordinate’s misconduct to the local police or handle the matter internally.
Seasoned social work administrators know that their jobs are sometimes fraught with ethical challenges. It is not enough for administrators to know about budgeting, program planning, grant writing, marketing, and personnel management. They also need a keen understanding of moral dilemmas in administration—that is, circumstances requiring hard choices among competing values, duties, and obligations. To be competent administrators, social workers need a comprehensive and firm grasp of ethical dilemmas in administration; ethical analysis, moral reasoning, and decision-making strategies; and ethical risk-management protocols to protect clients and prevent ethics complaints and litigation.
Second, social work administrators encounter ethical dilemmas involving program and organizational design, administrative policy, and program development. For example, administrators may encounter ethical challenges concerning compliance with unjust contract provisions, statutes, regulations, or policies; allocation of limited or scarce resources (known in the ethics field as issues of distributive justice); use of deceptive marketing practices; and personnel issues involving harassment, affirmative action, labor actions and strikes, and termination of employment.
Finally, social work administrators sometimes face ethical dilemmas involving relationships among agency staff and colleagues. These may involve instances where administrators discover that staffers or colleagues have been involved in fraudulent practices or other unethical conduct and need to make decisions about whether to “blow the whistle.”
Ethical Decision Making
Ethics Risk Management
Administrators should be especially familiar with major ethics-related risks involving ethical mistakes, decision making, and misconduct. Potential risks involve administrators’ relationships with staffers (e.g., hiring and firing decisions, sexual harassment, discrimination, performance evaluations, staff supervision, management of employee impairment) and clients (e.g., the limits of clients’ right to confidentiality, staffers’ use of high-risk and nontraditional treatment strategies and interventions, management of conflicts of interest and boundary issues, sexual harassment, informed consent, defamation of character, consultation, referral, supervision, documentation, and termination of services).
Some of the ethical issues facing social work administrators are straightforward, while others are complex. In light of the extraordinary growth of knowledge related to professional and social work ethics, it behooves social work administrators to acquaint themselves with the impressive array of ethical issues that emerge in social service agencies and organizations and with the rich conceptual tools that have evolved in recent years. Administrators should also be familiar with practical strategies designed to protect clients and prevent ethics complaints and lawsuits. Administrators also need to pay close attention to staffers’ need for ethics training and education.
Social work administrators’ understanding of ethical issues has matured, as has the development of the profession’s pertinent ethical standards and guidelines. Administrators are in a key position to cultivate and refine their agency’s ethical standards, set a moral tone, and oversee assertive and comprehensive ethics education and training. When ethical dilemmas emerge, administrators sit at the end of the decision-making line and thereby assume considerable responsibility for ultimate outcomes.
— Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work, Rhode Island College. He is the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, healthcare, criminal justice, and professional ethics.