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Why Are Ethics Important in Social Work?

6 Min Read

How would you address these ethical dilemmas?

  • Should a case manager accept a Facebook friend request from their client?
  • A school counselor has been helping a student overcome their social anxiety, and the student’s parents want to know how it’s going. Should the social worker give them details?
  • As they get to know their clients, should therapists conduct Google searches for information?

Social workers find themselves in situations like these each day, and the right answers aren’t always clear. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) states that these professionals should embrace basic values, ethical principles, and ethical standards as they carry out their responsibilities.1 But who determines what ethical means when an issue has no precedent?

Whenever they have a question or concern, those in the field turn to the NASW Code of Ethics, which provides information to guide their conduct.1 It takes an intricate understanding of the Code of Ethics to implement it successfully, and most professionals gain this expertise in advanced degree programs such as an online MSW.

Ethics Inform Social Work Practice

The issues listed above are only three of the countless scenarios that social workers face, and each person might handle them differently. While one person might ignore the friend request, for example, another might accept the request but limit the client’s access. Most social workers know that it’s imperative to maintain personal boundaries with clients, but what about the specifics of social media? Should the boundary be drawn at a friend request, at a profile view, at access to posts, or at a personal message? Furthermore, do professionals know how much of their information is publicly accessible? Without evaluating privacy settings, social workers could unknowingly share their location in posts and display their phone numbers on their profiles.

Social media is just one example of an evolving concern – the pitfalls multiply as fast as advancements in technology. Even if there were a field-wide rule book, it would be impossible to keep up with the multitude of potential ethical dilemmas. According to the International Social Work journal, professionals should handle these grey areas with contextual awareness and critical self-reflection so they can provide ethical, contemporary services.2 To help, social workers can learn from experience and explore contextual nuances in advanced degree programs. Then, they can make the most ethical decisions moving forward.

Examples of Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work

Everyone in the field will come to an ethical crossroads eventually, and some of the most common examples span the following categories.


Not all clients have reliable access to an internet-enabled device, which means that online services won’t always be an option; sometimes clients will also live too far away for in-person meetings and programming. Social workers should strive to provide equitable access to their services and to community resources.


Office staff members can’t assume that everyone who calls has good intentions. For instance, someone could call the office pretending to be a housing administrator while seeking a client’s address. Social services professionals should retain clients’ privacy by taking all measures to secure sensitive information online, in physical records, and otherwise.


Suppose that a client seeks help for a substance misuse problem, and is told, “You need help.” This phrase could be fully applicable but makes room for self-judgment if the client is unable to do what they “need to do.” A better option might be, “I’ve made a list of all the support groups in your area in case you’d like to attend.” Social workers should respect their clients by communicating with empathy and compassion.


Imagine that a family has come to a community center to ask about Hindu worship centers. The resource specialist feels uncomfortable looking into it because they believe in Christianity, so the family now feels self-conscious. Social workers should address how their religious beliefs, biases, cultural norms, and personal experiences affect their livelihood; critical self-reflection is a great way to make sure that these differences don’t compromise the high standards of the field.

Making Ethical Decisions in Social Work

With several layers of context to each scenario, it becomes impossible for social workers to predict or plan for all possibilities. A published code of ethics can help guide these professionals as they carry out their duties, which is the norm for several other fields as well:

  • Education: The National Education Association (NAE) provides the Code of Ethics for Educators3
  • Medicine: The American Medical Association (AMA) maintains the Code of Medical Ethics4
  • Nursing: The American Nurses Association (ANA) publishes the Code of Ethics for Nurses5

The benchmark for social work is the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics, which applies to all professionals and students, no matter where they work or the populations they serve.1 The Code is made up of four sections: the Preamble, the Purpose of the NASW Code of Ethics, Ethical Principles, and Ethical Standards. Plus, the NASW publishes updates to the Code every few years.

Social Work Code of Ethics: Core Values and Principles

The Code consists of six core values, each with an overarching principle.1

  1. Service – Principle: Social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems.
  2. Social Justice – Principle: Social workers challenge social injustice.
  3. Dignity and Worth of the Person – Principle: Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person.
  4. Importance of Human Relationships – Principle: Social workers recognize the central importance of human relationships.
  5. Integrity – Principle: Social workers behave in a trustworthy manner.
  6. Competence – Principle: Social workers practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise.

How to Become an Ethical Social Worker

The NASW’s Code of Ethics is a living document that responds to social change to meet the needs of the profession. The latest update, in 2021, includes language that addresses the importance of professional self-care.1 Given these regular updates, social work students and seasoned professionals should continually review the Code and apply it in their day-to-day practices.

Learn how to decipher the Code in an online MSW program such as Utica University’s, which explores values and principles in the Code and shows how they impact real-world situations. Plus, Utica’s online MSW is the only clinical social work program in the nation that centers on recovery theories, values, and skills. You can learn how to support clients using ethical, proven trauma-informed interventions.

Complete the traditional online MSW in two years or choose the 12- to 16-month online MSW: Advanced Standing option if you already have a BSW. Discover all the benefits of Utica University’s social work program with a quick visit to the MSW page or submit your information to talk with a member of our team.


  1. National Association of Social Workers (NASW). Code of Ethics. Retrieved March 6, 2024, from
  2. International Social Work. Disrupting Social Work Ethics. April 25, 2023. Retrieved March 6, 2024, from
  3. National Education Association (NEA). Code of Ethics for Educators. Retrieved March 6, 2024, from
  4. American Medical Association (AMA). Code of Medical Ethics. Retrieved March 6, 2024, from
  5. American Nurses Association (ANA). Ethics and Human Rights. Retrieved March 6, 2024, from

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