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Eye on Ethics: The Invisible Gorilla and Social Work Ethics
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
Social Work Today
Vol. 21 No. 3 P. 30

Many ethical issues are obvious. Every clinical social worker understands that it is unethical to be Facebook friends with clients and bill for services they never provided. Social work administrators know that it is unethical to falsify quarterly reports in order to enhance funding from government agencies and foundations. Social work researchers know that it is immoral to alter data to create the impression that programmatic interventions were successful. And social work organizers know that it is unethical to lie to community residents about their educational credentials and work experience.

But, as seasoned social workers understand, many ethical issues are much more subtle and, at times, easy to miss. Sometimes, social workers focus so intently on clinical, advocacy, administrative, policy, or research challenges that it is hard to notice the ethical issues embedded in them.

Case Examples
In one case, a social work administrator at a program that provides affordable housing to low-income people needed help creating a new website for the organization. While the social worker did not have the requisite expertise or time to carry out the task, her college-age daughter was quite expert in website design.

The social worker hired and paid her daughter without seeking other proposals or gaining approval from the agency's board of directors. The social worker simply did not recognize the conflict of interest staring right at her. This became an issue when a government agency that funds the affordable housing program conducted an audit and penalized the agency for this ethical lapse.

Although this social worker meant no harm and did not intend to violate ethical standards or legal rules, at the very least her behavior raised questions about her ethical judgment.

In another case, a clinical social worker provided counseling services to a middle-aged woman who contemplated leaving her high-powered career in the finance world. The client sought counseling to help her think through this major life decision and some other challenges, including marital strain. Over time the social worker and client developed a strong therapeutic alliance. Eventually, the client decided to start a new business venture in the horticulture field. The client sought investors and offered the social worker an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of this promising business. The social worker invested $15,000.

About six months later, the clinical relationship ruptured. The now-former client filed a licensing board complaint against the social worker alleging that the social worker betrayed her confidence by disclosing confidential information, without the client's consent, to a lawyer representing the client's estranged husband.

During the licensing board proceedings, the former client disclosed that the social worker had invested in the client's new business. The licensing board sanctioned the social worker for violating professional boundaries and entering into a conflict of interest. Here, too, the social worker simply failed to recognize a seemingly obvious ethical issue. At the licensing board hearing, the social worker was not defensive and acknowledged her ethical lapse. The licensing board required the social worker to obtain extensive ethics education and consultation to increase the likelihood that, in the future, she would recognize ethical issues.

In another recent case, a social worker provided counseling services to a 10-year-old child who was in kinship foster care with an aunt. The counseling focused on the child’s efforts to cope with her trauma history. After nearly a year, the counseling ended when there was evidence that the child was coping well.

Three months later, the social worker was contacted by a caseworker at the county child welfare department. The caseworker told the social worker that the child’s foster placement was disrupted when the aunt encountered legal problems of her own. The caseworker explained that the department was trying to find a new foster placement but was having difficulty because the child was located in a very rural part of the state where there were few foster parent options. The caseworker told the social worker that the child said she would “love my former therapist to take care of me. I know she really cares about me.”

The caseworker asked the social worker whether she would be willing to serve as the child’s foster parent. After consulting with her husband, the social worker, who was eager to be a parent, agreed to provide foster care to the child. Eventually, the social worker and her husband adopted the child. On the day the adoption was finalized in court, the social worker posted a photo of the child and herself on Facebook with a caption stating, “I am so blessed that my former client XXX came into my life. I am now her mom!”

The social worker’s supervisor, who was a Facebook friend, saw the photo and caption and was stunned that the social worker had adopted her former client and disclosed publicly that her newly adopted child had been her client. The supervisor filed a licensing board complaint against the social worker alleging that she engaged in an inappropriate dual relationship and breached the child’s confidentiality. At the licensing board hearing, the social worker acknowledged that she failed to fully grasp the ethical issues. 

The Invisible Gorilla
Social workers, like members of every profession, sometimes miss important issues that are right in front of their eyes, so to speak. This may occur because social workers are preoccupied with other matters or, perhaps, do not have strong moral instincts or acumen.

In fact, there is remarkable empirical evidence that people are quite capable of looking right past what seem like obvious signs and warning signals. Researchers Christopher Chabris, PhD, and Daniel Simons, PhD, have documented this phenomenon in a series of creative studies summarized in their book The Invisible Gorilla. In the basic experiment, which the authors have replicated many times with impressively similar results, observers are asked to watch a short video in which six people—three in white shirts and three in black shirts—pass around basketballs. These observers are asked to keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in white shirts. At some point, a person in a gorilla costume strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera, thumps its chest, and then leaves, spending nine seconds on screen (www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/gorilla_experiment.html).

At the conclusion of the video, observers are asked to report how many times the people in the white shirts passed the basketball, suggesting that the purpose of the study is to assess people's ability to focus on and count a particular activity and compare observers’ reports. In fact, the point of the study is to assess how many people are so focused on the basketball activity that they completely fail to see the person in the gorilla outfit strolling into the middle of the action. As the authors demonstrate over and over again, consistently about one-half of those who watch the video and count the passes completely miss the gorilla, as though it were invisible.

I can vouch for this result. I have shown this video during many ethics lectures and, nearly always, about one-half of the audience reports that they did not see the gorilla. This is a compelling way to demonstrate that sometimes we simply do not see what is right before us.

Learning about social work ethics can be very humbling. Although many ethical issues are plain, simple, and obvious, some are not. To detect them, social workers must pay extraordinarily close attention. They must also have a keen understanding of what constitutes an ethical issue and ways to address them systematically.

Like watching the people passing the basketball, this may seem obvious, but it's not. Seasoned social workers know that some ethical issues are subtle and easily camouflaged. To protect clients and manage ethical challenges skillfully, social workers must keep their eyes wide open and be aware that, at times, what should be obvious can be easy to miss.

— 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.