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Eye on Ethics

Help! My Supervisor Is Unethical
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
June 2013

Yesterday I opened my e-mail and noticed a message highlighted with the red exclamation point that shouts urgent. I did not recognize the sender’s name but discerned from the subject line that she was desperate to consult about an ethical dilemma.

My correspondent, a licensed social worker, explained that she works for a county agency in the Midwest that oversees services for people with disabilities. According to the message, the social worker’s job entails making clinical determinations for people who request accommodations because of their disabilities and ensuring the agency complies with disability laws.

The social worker explained that she routinely submits her clinical determination summaries to her supervisor, a rehabilitation counselor, who often rewrites and edits the summaries, overturns some clinical decisions, and gives final approval. However, the social worker said, the supervisor does not sign off on the determinations or indicate anywhere in the documentation that she participated in the report preparation or decision. Only the social worker’s signature appears in the documentation which, according to the social worker, is scrutinized by legal advocates from a prominent law firm because the agency has been sued by plaintiffs with disabilities who alleged that the agency violated their rights and discriminated against them.

The social worker said she is concerned that her supervisor is misrepresenting the agency’s decision-making protocol, being deceptive by camouflaging the agency’s internal procedures, and exposing the social worker to risk in conjunction with the intense legal scrutiny. “Only my name appears in the final determinations. I’m worried that legal challenges will target me, even though in many cases it’s my supervisor who made the final determinations behind the scenes. More importantly, I think this process is just plain unethical,” the social worker wrote. “It misrepresents how these important decisions are made.”

Unethical Agency Practices
Many social workers have encountered instances when supervisors or administrators have asked or instructed them to participate in, condone, or overlook unethical practices. Examples include supervisors who ask social workers to exaggerate service utilization data supplied to funders, ignore eligibility criteria for agency services to enhance revenue, and alter client records in advance of a site visit conducted by an accreditation agency. In these instances, social workers must make difficult ethical judgments about how they will respond to unethical requests or mandates.

On the surface, social workers have a stark choice between looking the other way—perhaps to avoid angering a supervisor, stirring up controversy in the agency, jeopardizing the agency’s status, or losing their job—and challenging the unethical behavior as a matter of principle. It is easy, of course, to proclaim that social workers must always blow the whistle on ethical misconduct if more moderate efforts fail—for example, attempting to persuade supervisors and administrators to abandon their unethical course and adhere to prevailing ethical standards. In reality, however, agency-based politics and organizational dynamics are such that management of these ethical dilemmas requires considerable skill and nuance.

In my experience, supervisors who exercise their (usually legitimate) authority and prerogative to rewrite and, possibly, overturn subordinates’ decisions indicate that they have done so to make the sequence of actions and participating parties clear, especially in the event that questions arise or there is a formal challenge, litigation, and so on. This is normal administrative and supervisory accountability. Establishing this clear paper or digital trail is not only sound risk management, but supervisors have a fundamental ethical duty to conduct themselves in a way that avoids any appearance of impropriety, misrepresentation, deception, or fraud. Transparency is important.

Applying Ethical Standards
The NASW Code of Ethics includes several standards that pertain to instances when practitioners believe they have been asked or ordered to engage in or be associated with unethical activity. In principle, social workers should take assertive steps to challenge a supervisor’s alleged practices and take whatever measures they reasonably can to avoid participating in activities that may constitute unethical conduct, such as misrepresentation, deception, and fraud. According to the Code of Ethics, “Social workers should take adequate measures to discourage, prevent, expose, and correct the unethical conduct of colleagues” (standard 2.11[a]). Social workers cannot turn a blind eye from patently unethical behavior. Once this bell has been rung, social workers cannot unring it.

The code also prescribes that “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, when feasible, social workers should alert people in positions of authority (e.g., senior administrators, members of a board of directors) about unethical practices within the organization. This may be politically awkward and uncomfortable, but it may be essential.

This step is important for three reasons. First, in a strict moral sense, this is the right course of action. Ignoring wrongdoing poses a threat to clients and can undermine the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission. Second, alerting people in positions of authority can minimize the organization’s legal exposure if disgruntled parties, such as clients or advocates, file a formal complaint or lawsuit. Finally, assertive efforts to challenge wrongdoing help to protect social workers themselves, especially in the event that other parties allege that the social workers failed to take steps to expose unethical conduct within the organization. Assertive action demonstrates social workers’ good-faith efforts to address wrongdoing.

This obligation is reinforced the Code of Ethics statement that “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]). In addition, “Social workers should not participate in, condone, or be associated with dishonesty, fraud, or deception” (standard 4.04).

Morally upright and principled social workers sometimes face the unenviable task of responding to supervisors’ and administrators’ unethical instructions and behavior. This is an unfortunate fact of organizational life. The challenge is managing these dilemmas with integrity and in a way that embraces relevant ethical standards. These are among the most difficult ethical circumstances that arise in social work. But social workers know well they cannot shy away from such difficult decisions. This kind of moral courage is part and parcel of being a professional.

As the British novelist and poet C. S. Lewis once said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”

— 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.