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Eye on Ethics

Treating Colleagues With Respect in the Digital Age
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
March 2018

Last week I received an unusual telephone call from an administrator of a state social work licensing board. She explained that the board had received a complaint filed by one social worker against another. "This certainly is a novel complaint," the caller said. "We've never seen one like this before. I'm calling you to find out if you've heard of similar cases and know of any guidelines that might be relevant.

"Here's what apparently happened," the caller continued. "The complainant and respondent work at the same mental health center. The complainant is the respondent's supervisor. The respondent became quite angry with her supervisor after the supervisor included some negative comments in the respondent's annual review. According to the complaint filed with us by the supervisor, the respondent 'posted a handful of horribly nasty comments about me on her Facebook site. She accused me publicly of being incompetent and unethical. I don't think she realized that I had access to her Facebook postings.'"

I learned that the complaint the supervisor filed with the social work licensing board included verbatim excerpts from the Facebook postings. They are not pretty.

The New Normal
My guess is that there have been workplace disputes ever since workplaces were invented. People who work with one another sometimes disagree, and some disagreements get ugly. Historically, employees who wanted to vent have done so behind closed doors, often confiding in trusted colleagues whose lips were sealed. Some disgruntled employees quit in response and then spray critical comments about their former employer and colleagues both far and wide.

Today's disagreements, however, sometimes move far beyond whispered office conversations and social gatherings to a borderless, often transparent digital stage. For some distraught and angry practitioners, the deep wish to share their angst finds nearly instant electronic expression that can have profound, often unanticipated, repercussions. How many of us have heard colleagues or friends regret that they had sent a hurtful or insensitive e-mail message, text message, or tweet, or posted vitriolic comments on an online social networking site? And, unlike quiet conversations behind closed doors, online and digital messages often leave a permanent digital footprint, one that can be used as hard evidence to support licensing board complaints and lawsuits. Once these electronic bells have been rung, they are hard, if not impossible, to unring.

Old Wine in New Bottles
Social workers have always understood the importance of respectful collegial relationships; this is hardly a new idea. In fact, the first NASW Code of Ethics, adopted in 1960—nearly a half century before the advent of today's online and digital technology—indicated that a social worker should "treat with respect the findings, views, and actions of colleagues, and use appropriate channels to express judgment on these matters." In today's digital environment, these prescient words seem quaint; yet the core message is as relevant today as it was when this ethical standard was penned.

The current NASW Code of Ethics has considerably more to say about collegial relationships, but the gist of the message is similar to the language in NASW's first code. Significantly, the code's language was updated in 2017 to include social workers' electronic communications about colleagues. The following two standards focus on social workers' obligation to treat colleagues with respect:

• Social workers should treat colleagues with respect and should represent accurately and fairly the qualifications, views, and obligations of colleagues (standard 2.01[a]).

• Social workers should avoid unwarranted negative criticism of colleagues in verbal, written, and electronic communications with clients or with other professionals. Unwarranted negative criticism may include demeaning comments that refer to colleagues' level of competence or to individuals' attributes such as race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, and mental or physical ability (standard 2.01[b]).

In addition, the following two standards prohibit social workers from taking advantage of disputes involving colleagues for self-serving purposes:

• Social workers should not take advantage of a dispute between a colleague and an employer to obtain a position or otherwise advance the social workers' own interests (standard 2.04[a]).

• Social workers should not exploit clients in disputes with colleagues or engage clients in any inappropriate discussion of conflicts between social workers and their colleagues (standard 2.04[b]).

Defamation of Character: Online and Digital Risks
In addition to violating ethical standards, social workers who make derogatory comments about colleagues using online and digital technology expose themselves to legal risks in the form of a defamation of character lawsuit. For example, in the licensing board case about which I was consulted, the administrator told me that the complainant had also filed a lawsuit against the respondent. This moved the ethics-related complaint into the judicial arena. Once upon a time, social workers' occasional defamatory comments were limited to verbal conversations and handwritten documents (for example, a letter or note sent to a third party). In contrast, online and digital technology has expanded exponentially the ways in which defamatory comments can be communicated. Within minutes, a single online post, e-mail message, or text message can go viral; once they click "send," social workers lose all control over that message's digital destinations.

Defamation occurs when individuals make false statements that injure the reputation of another party and expose him or her to public contempt, hatred, ridicule, or condemnation. Unpleasant, angry, and hurtful comments do not necessarily rise to the level of defamation.

Defamation can take two forms: libel and slander. Libel occurs when the communication is in written form—for example, in a letter, note, Facebook posting, e-mail message, text message, or tweet about a colleague. Slander occurs when the communication is in oral form—for example, when a social worker makes demeaning and derogatory comments about a colleague. This might occur at an agency staff meeting, during conversation with a supervisor, or informally during a hallway chat.

In the digital age, social workers can be legally liable for defamation of character if they post online comments or send messages electronically about a colleague that have the following three elements:

• the allegations about the colleague were untrue;

• the social worker knew or should have known that the comments were untrue; and

• the comments caused some injury to the colleague.

Social workers' defamatory statements about colleagues—for example, about their alleged incompetence, unethical conduct, or mental status—can cause the colleague emotional distress, damage the colleague's reputation, or cause financial harm by jeopardizing the colleague's career in some way.

Ideally, social workers would address workplace and colleague disputes constructively, thoughtfully, and face-to-face instead of airing their grievances electronically. Social workers pride themselves on their knowledge of conflict resolution protocols; often we draw on this knowledge when we work with and advise clients who are caught in challenging interpersonal disputes, including workplace, friendship, partner, and marital clashes. No social worker would advise a client who is wrestling with conflict-related issues to post their grievances online for much, or all, of the world to see. Similarly, social workers should be disciplined, circumspect, and principled when they try to manage conflict with colleagues. To do otherwise is to behave unethically and sully one's reputation.

No social worker wants to become embroiled in workplace disputes with colleagues. Should they occur, however, social workers would do well to adhere to prevailing ethical standards. In contrast to earlier generations of social workers, today's practitioners must be especially mindful of the ways in which angry and contemptuous online and digital communications about colleagues in the heat of the moment can expose them to significant ethical and legal risks.

— 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.