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May/June 2007

Challenging Unethical Agency Policies
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
Social Work Today
Vol. 7 No. 3

Belinda Lima was a clinical social work supervisor at a juvenile correctional facility operated by the county child welfare agency. One morning, Belinda received a memo from an agency administrator instructing her and her clinical staff to notify the administrator whenever staff discovered that a juvenile resident of the facility was an undocumented immigrant in the United States illegally. The memo informed Belinda that the child welfare department was obligated to disclose to federal immigration officials the whereabouts of any undocumented immigrants.

Belinda met with her staff to discuss the memo. Everyone, including Belinda, was upset about the memo and its implications. The staff agreed the new policy would put them in an uncomfortable position that constituted a conflict of interest. The staff were concerned the department’s expectation that they “blow the whistle” on clients who are undocumented immigrants—essentially functioning in a law enforcement capacity—would conflict with their clinical duties and could compromise their ability to meet clients’ needs. They were especially concerned that their compliance with the new departmental policy would undermine the juveniles’ willingness to trust the social workers. Belinda and her staff spent considerable time talking about whether to comply with the directive.

Social workers sometimes find their ethical instincts conflict with agency policies and regulations. This may occur when social workers are employed in a “host” setting, where social work is not the primary function or profession and administrators may not be particularly familiar with social work values and ethical standards (typical examples include correctional facilities, the military, and schools). For example, military social workers may find that senior officers to whom they are accountable are not familiar with social work’s ethical standards related to confidentiality and expect social workers to disclose confidential information shared by soldiers who receive clinical services.

As a matter of principle, social workers have an obligation to ensure that employers are familiar with ethical standards in social work. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics, “social workers should take reasonable steps to ensure that employers are aware of social workers’ ethical obligations as set forth in the NASW Code of Ethics and of the implications of those obligations for social work practice” (standard 3.09[c]). Thus, under the code’s language, Belinda was obligated to acquaint the child welfare department administrator with relevant ethical standards in the profession. Belinda and her staff reviewed the NASW Code of Ethics and identified two particularly relevant standards:

• “Social workers should be alert to and avoid conflicts of interest that interfere with the exercise of professional discretion and impartial judgment. Social workers should inform clients when a real or potential conflict of interest arises and take reasonable steps to resolve the issue in a manner that makes the clients’ interests primary and protects clients’ interests to the greatest extent possible. . .” (standard 1.06[a]).

• “Social workers should protect the confidentiality of all information obtained in the course of professional services, except for compelling professional reasons. The general expectation that social workers will keep information confidential does not apply when disclosure is necessary to prevent serious, foreseeable, and imminent harm to a client or other identifiable person. . .” (standard 1.07[c]).

Belinda and her staff carefully reviewed the wording in these standards and concluded that disclosure of information about clients’ undocumented status would not prevent serious, foreseeable, and imminent harm, as they defined and interpreted those terms. Although the social workers did not condone illegal activity, they did not feel comfortable disclosing confidential information without clients’ consent when they did not have evidence to suggest that disclosure was necessary to prevent serious, foreseeable, and imminent harm.

Following their discussion, Belinda and her staff agreed that Belinda should take steps to change the department’s policy mandating social workers’ disclosure of confidential information about clients who are undocumented immigrants. This course of action is also required by the NASW Code of Ethics: “Social workers should not allow an employing organization’s policies, procedures, regulations, or administrative orders to interfere with their ethical practice of social work. Social workers should take reasonable steps to ensure that their employing organizations’ practices are consistent with the NASW Code of Ethics” (standard 3.09[d]).

Social workers can address unethical policies and regulations in various ways. First, they can attempt to address the issue informally by discussing their concerns with appropriate colleagues and administrators. Informal efforts to resolve problematic policies, procedures, and administrative orders are often successful. When such informal efforts do not succeed, however, social workers should consider taking more formal steps, perhaps by bringing their concerns to the attention of supervisors and administrators via memoranda or some other means that requests a formal response (for example, a formal request to change a policy or regulation or to appoint a committee or task force to address the matter).

Approaching an agency or organization’s board of directors, where they exist, is also an option. If these efforts fail, practitioners should consider whether the ethical issues or problems are grave enough that they warrant bringing the matter to the attention of parties outside the employment setting. In extreme cases, social workers may need to consider notifying appropriate outside agencies, such as the governor’s office, an advocacy organization, or the media.

Social workers should not take these steps lightly. Challenging agency policy and administrative orders can be difficult and fraught with employment and political repercussions within the agency. With good reason, social workers may be concerned about possible sanctions, disciplinary actions, and interpersonal resentment and tension. These are normal concerns. Ultimately, social workers concerned about unethical practices in their agencies must make decisions of conscience about whether to comply with or challenge them.

Belinda decided to share her concerns with the administrator who issued the directive. She explained to the administrator how she and her staff reviewed their profession’s code of ethics and consulted with an outside ethics expert. Belinda’s efforts were successful; although there was some tension when Belinda spoke with the administrator, the administrator listened carefully, asked hard questions, engaged in some debate, and concluded by saying that she would share Belinda’s concerns with appropriate senior administrators in the department and legal counsel. In the end, the administrator’s original directive was not enforced. Belinda and her staff’s efforts to uphold social work ethical standards were successful.

— 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.