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Eye on Ethics: When Politics Enters the Room
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
Social Work Today
Vol. 19 No. 3 P. 30

Immediately after the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, NASW CEO Angelo McClain, PhD, LICSW, circulated a widely viewed video sharing NASW’s profound concerns about the implications of the election results. McClain spoke forcefully about the divisive election campaign and how it worsened class, gender, race, and ideological divisions in our nation. He highlighted the potential harm that could result from Trump’s proposed cabinet appointments and budget cuts. McClain spoke explicitly about social workers’ duty to fulfill mandates in the NASW Code of Ethics and “fight fiercely” against any Trump administration efforts to oppress people. McClain exhorted social workers to “fight,” “oppose,” and “resist” unjust policies.

For many social workers, it came as no surprise that NASW’s CEO would speak out about the social justice implications of that transformative election. Unlike other human services and behavioral health professions—such as psychology, psychiatry, mental health counseling, and marriage and family therapy—social work is alone in its formal, explicit embrace of political and social justice issues that affect individual human beings’ private troubles. Since the profession’s inauguration in the late 19th century, social workers have understood that enlightened efforts to assist people who struggle in life must include both individually focused clinical services and broader efforts to shape public policies that have a direct bearing on challenges related to poverty, mental illness, substance use disorders, homelessness, unemployment, trauma, discrimination, and poor health, among others. Social workers have reason to be proud of the fact that the NASW Code of Ethics is the only code in the human services and behavioral health professions to proclaim, in no uncertain terms, that social justice, public policy, and social change are part and parcel of the profession’s mission. The Code of Ethics’ preamble states the following:

A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession’s focus on individual well being in a social context and the well being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living.

Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients. … These activities may be in the form of direct practice, community organizing, supervision, consultation, administration, advocacy, social and political action, policy development and implementation, education, and research and evaluation.

Further, the Code of Ethics’ enumeration of the profession’s core values highlights, unambiguously, the importance of social justice: “Social workers challenge social injustice. Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice.” And, the Code of Ethics’ specific ethical standards state the following:

Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice (standard 6.04[a]).

Ethical Challenges
One of the great privileges of my career as a social worker includes the opportunities I have had to meet colleagues who, with remarkable passion and determination, focus their efforts on social justice issues and social change. Some of these social workers devote their entire careers to community organizing, advocacy, and policy practice in an effort to shape public policies that align with social work values, challenge unjust and discriminatory policies, and speak truth to power. Other practitioners integrate these efforts into their more clinically focused work, e.g., by encouraging their individual clients to register to vote. Still others supplement their direct practice social work with participation in local, statewide, or national coalitions and campaigns that focus on social justice issues. The diverse ways in which social workers can fulfill the profession’s social justice mission are endless.

That said, it is important for social workers to recognize that their earnest involvement in social justice efforts can produce ethical challenges. Clinical social workers who march in protest or to support political candidates may be featured in news reports or widely circulated online video. Clients who hold views that are diametrically opposed to their social workers’ views may be troubled by what they see and hear. A client who opposes abortion for religious reasons may be deeply troubled to learn through media accounts and social networking posts that her social worker is a staunch reproductive rights advocate. A client who is an ardent Trump supporter may be distraught to learn, as a result of conducting a Google search on his social worker, that the social worker is an active participant in a national campaign to challenge the president’s initiatives related to immigration. These ideological conflicts could affect the therapeutic relationship in troubling ways.

Here is the ethical conundrum: On one side of the proverbial coin, social workers are exhorted to address social justice and social change issues. The NASW Code of Ethics says so. NASW’s CEO says so. In this respect, social justice and social change are in social workers’ professional DNA. On the coin’s other side, however, are the boundary issues that can and sometimes do emerge when social workers pursue their moral mission. Social workers who serve individual clients know quite well that clients’ interests are primary. In this respect, social workers must ensure that they take the necessary steps to protect clients, to the greatest extent possible, when social workers’ activities in the public arena find their way into their relationships and conversations with clients. Social workers should anticipate the possibility, if not the probability, that some clients might ask their social workers about their preferred political candidate, or share their distress about their social workers’ visible or vocal participation in social action activities that run counter to the client’s ideology and beliefs.

These are not new issues. Although prominent elections and political events may stir them up vigorously, social workers have always known that their personal lives and convictions can sometimes intersect with their professional lives. The bottom line is that social workers would do well to pay close attention to the carefully crafted language in the NASW Code of Ethics concerning such boundary challenges. Since 1996, the code has included this pertinent standard:

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. In some cases, protecting clients’ interests may require termination of the professional relationship with proper referral of the client (standard 1.06[a]).

Of course, the advent of social media and social networking has intensified this challenge in unprecedented ways. The recent (2017) revision of the Code of Ethics added this important standard:

Social workers should be aware that personal affiliations may increase the likelihood that clients may discover the social worker’s presence on websites, social media, and other forms of technology. Social workers should be aware that involvement in electronic communication with groups based on race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, mental or physical ability, religion, immigration status, and other personal affiliations may affect their ability to work effectively with particular clients (standard 1.06[g]).

For many, social work’s commitment to social justice is the keystone in the profession’s arch. Its pursuit is virtuous, yet social workers should be mindful of the ethical challenges that accompany it.

— Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College. He is the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, health care, criminal justice, and professional ethics.