Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work

Image of a man with scales of justice for a face.

In social work, ethical conduct is an essential — but complex— practice. Social workers must often act quickly and effectively in the face of difficult moral dilemmas, especially when the results can have a profound impact on the course of their clients’ lives. It is therefore imperative for social workers to both familiarize themselves with predicaments they may face in the field, as well as their profession’s standards of best practice.

Defining “Ethical Dilemma”

In the context of social work, an ethical dilemma is a situation in which two or more professionally identified values are in conflict. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics outlines these values, including service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity and competence.

Common Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work

Some common ethical dilemmas in social work are described in the Houston Chronicle and Social Work Today. 

Receiving Gifts

Clients who receive assistance sometimes wish to reciprocate. Although giving a gift can be a kind gesture, it can also prove problematic. If a social worker receives a gift (particularly when it is expensive), it may constitute a breach of integrity. However, rejecting a gift may hurt the client’s feelings, potentially damaging the relationship. If the gift is handmade or inexpensive, it is generally considered appropriate to accept.

Right to Self-Determination

Although the job of social workers is to help people make informed decisions, they are ultimately not responsible for the actions of their clients. When clients choose to act against their own best interest (such as former drug addicts deciding to visit their old dealer), it can be tempting for social workers to provide their clients with “tough love.” But except in extenuating circumstances, social workers must ultimately respect their clients’ autonomy.

Differences in Personal Values

Sometimes, clients need a type of assistance that conflicts with a social worker’s personal moral beliefs. A pregnant client, for example, may ask her anti-abortion social worker for help obtaining an abortion. Social workers may feel torn between providing a type of service requested and maintaining a positive relationship with the client. They may want to encourage the client to choose another alternative. However, they must ultimately follow the NASW policy statement, Family Planning and Reproductive Health, which states support for clients to make their own decisions about sexuality and reproduction.

Dual Relationships

The NASW strictly forbids relationships between social workers and their clients outside a professional context. However, these connections can sometimes prove difficult to avoid. Social workers and their clients may live in the same communities, shop at the same stores, or send their children to the same schools and share intimate life details due to the nature of their work. Practitioners of social work must decide on the most ethical and professional way to engage with their clients in a nonprofessional setting.

Confidentiality Involving Minors

Although information shared between social workers and their clients is strictly confidential, certain situations may arise that require the social worker to disclose client information to a third party. Sometimes these situations include minors who may or may not be entitled to certain rights of confidentiality, depending on federal, state and agency laws. Acting in these situations may prove both difficult and painful because they can feel to both parties like a major breach of trust.

Precautions and Management of Ethical Dilemmas

Taking the following precautions may help social workers cope with difficult ethical decisions, according to Social Work Today.

Review Professional Guidelines

The NASW publishes resources that cover common ethical dilemmas. Social workers may find it helpful to familiarize themselves with the NASW Code of Ethics and other relevant documents.

Consult with Others

As professionals, social workers commonly make use of each other’s opinions and experiences. Asking for feedback from peers, mentors and the NASW allows social workers to remain accountable to both each other and their clients.

Always Make Sure Professional Decisions Comply with the Law

Although it seems obvious, staying within the boundaries of local, state and federal law is a priority for social workers.

Analyze Before Taking Action

The desire to help is a driving force for social workers, and occasionally, it can be tempting to jump into solving a situation. But to truly provide effective care, stepping back and analyzing the situation is important. This allows social workers to understand the implications of any actions taken and to gather any resources that may be needed.

The NASW offers a list of questions to ask in the event that an ethical dilemma occurs. Some key points include:

  • What is the proposed action to be taken that needs to be evaluated as ethical or unethical? Are there relevant legal issues to be considered? Are there other standards that apply?
  • Who has the responsibility to make the decision? Who has the right to make the decision? Who should participate in the decision? Why?
  • What alternative actions could be taken? What are the consequences of each alternative?

Social Work Ethics and Your Education

While resources are available to help social workers facing ethical dilemmas, education is the best way to prepare for these common situations. Brescia University’s online social work degree programs can help, providing the necessary training for individuals who choose to pursue careers where they can assist those in need.