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Eye on Ethics

It Pays to Know the Code
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
Social Work Today
November 25, 2002

It’s time for a short quiz: What does the current version of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics say about practitioners’ social relationships with former clients? What are the code’s standards concerning the protection of clients’ electronically stored records? Is it ethical for social workers to barter with clients as payment for professional services?

If you’re unsure of the answers, it may be time to brush the dust from the Code of Ethics and examine it carefully. In fact, most practicing social workers concluded their formal education before the current NASW Code of Ethics was implemented in 1997. As a result, many social workers may be unfamiliar with the dramatic changes reflected in the current code. Without question, the evolution of ethical standards in social work constitutes one of the most dramatic developments in the profession’s history.

Many social workers are surprised to learn that the profession’s code has been revised twice since NASW was formed in 1955. Here’s the brief history: The first NASW code was introduced in 1960 and fit on one page. It included 14 proclamations concerning, for example, every social worker’s duty to give precedence to professional responsibility over personal interests; respect the privacy of clients; provide appropriate professional service in public emergencies; and contribute knowledge, skills, and support to human welfare programs. This series of first-person proclamations (such as “I give precedence to my professional responsibility over my personal interests” and “I respect the privacy of the people I serve”) was preceded by a preamble that set forth social workers’ responsibility to uphold humanitarian ideals, maintain and improve social work service, and develop the philosophy and skills of the profession. In 1967, a 15th principle pledging nondiscrimination was added, reflecting the increasingly enlightened politics of that era.

Before long, social workers became concerned about the code’s generality and level of abstraction. In 1977, NASW established a task force charged with drafting a more detailed, comprehensive code. NASW’s second Code of Ethics, implemented in 1979, was much more ambitious and included principles concerning social workers’ ethical responsibilities to clients, colleagues, employers and employing organizations, the social work profession, and society. This code was revised twice, eventually including 82 principles. In 1990, several principles were modified after an inquiry into NASW policies by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. As a result of the inquiry, which concerned possible restraint of trade, principles in the code were revised to remove prohibitions concerning solicitation of clients from colleagues or an agency, and to modify wording that concerned accepting compensation for making a referral. In 1993, a task force recommended that the NASW further amend the Code of Ethics to include several new principles related to social worker impairment, as well as dual and multiple relationships.

Interestingly, but perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the 1979 code was ratified at the same time that the broader field of applied and professional ethics was emerging and gaining serious public recognition. Because of what is now known as bioethics, many professions—including business, law, medicine, dentistry, engineering, psychology, law enforcement, and social work—began to pay attention to ethical issues and standards. These significant developments were the result of diverse social forces, such as new morally controversial healthcare technology, publicity involving ethical missteps of prominent public officials, the 1960s legacy of emphasis on individual rights (welfare rights, women’s rights, patients’ rights, criminals’ rights), and professionals’ growing understanding of the limits of scientific inquiry.

Eventually, the impressive maturation of professionals’ understanding of ethical issues and their eagerness for clearer and more explicit guidelines and frameworks for ethical decision making led to widespread efforts to enhance codes of ethics. NASW appointed a task force in 1994 charged with drafting an entirely new Code of Ethics, taking into account the dramatic growth of knowledge in the social work field since the ratification of the 1979 code.

After two years of work—including multiple drafts based on a review of professional literature, feedback from social workers throughout the United States, and a series of public hearings—NASW’s governing body approved a new code that is significantly different from its predecessors. In addition to a large section on ethical standards, the code includes, for the first time in the profession’s history, a statement of social work’s ethically based mission and an explicit summary of the profession’s core values (e.g., service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence). The code also includes a set of broadly worded ethical principles that form the foundation of professional practice.

The bulk of the code sets forth 155 ethical standards to guide social workers’ conduct. The standards address a number of issues broached in the two earlier codes—such as clients’ right to self-determination and confidentiality, conflicts of interest, and social workers’ duty to address social justice issues—but most of the standards are new.

Some of the standards reflect social workers’ refined understanding of age-old concepts. For example, criteria and procedures related to obtaining clients’ informed consent and circumstances that may warrant disclosure of confidential information without client consent are delineated based on current ethical and legal guidelines. Some of the standards reflect social workers’ grasp of important and longstanding ethical issues in practice related to, for example, cultural and social diversity; the rights of deceased clients; dual relationships; fees for professional services; impairment; labor-management disputes; collegial relationships; research and evaluation; and social action.

Other new standards, however, concern ethical issues that did not exist when the 1960 and 1979 codes were written. Examples include guidelines to protect the confidentiality of information transmitted via the Internet, fax machines, and wireless telephones, as well as ethical issues germane to managed care.

Social workers must be familiar with the current code because of its relevance to contemporary practice and to protect clients. The code provides extensive guidance for social workers who are earnest about the profession’s mission.

But, there are other, more pragmatic reasons that social workers should know the code inside and out. Many state licensing boards that process ethics complaints filed against social workers directly or indirectly draw on NASW Code of Ethics standards. The language in state licensing statutes for social workers often reflects concepts and principles from the NASW code. In addition, NASW—through the committee in each chapter that is charged with handling ethics complaints—uses the code as its principal measuring rod when determining whether or not members have violated ethical standards. Complainants must cite the code’s standards explicitly when alleging that a social worker has acted unethically.

Finally, lawyers and courts of law frequently consult the NASW Code of Ethics in conjunction with lawsuits involving social workers as defendants or plaintiffs where there is some ethics-related allegation (e.g., a lawsuit that alleges that a social worker engaged in an inappropriate dual relationship with a client, mishandled confidential information, or provided below-par services). In recent years, a significant percentage of lawsuits filed against social workers throughout the United States have alleged ethics-related negligence; hence, the code’s standards often surface in these cases. Language from the code may appear in the formal legal complaint, oral and written interrogatories, expert witness affidavits and testimony, and in courtroom exchanges during direct and cross-examination. The stakes are high.

Social workers should understand that the code’s influence and application are not limited to NASW members. Licensing boards and courts of law often invoke the code’s language in cases involving social workers, whether or not the social workers are NASW members. That is, throughout the profession and courts, there is widespread recognition that the NASW code provides the most comprehensive ethical standards.

Clearly, the NASW Code of Ethics casts a long shadow. It pays to know the code.

— 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 issues.