What you can learn about ethics in social work

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Co-workers having a discussion.

Social workers face an array of ethical challenges in their everyday tasks. Close interactions with clients can coexist with larger roles in promoting justice in communities to create a variety of ethical and legal dilemmas that must be dealt with almost continually. The challenge is so great that the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) recently amended its code of ethics to acknowledge that “ethical decision-making is a process,” and point out that “conflicting obligations” frequently leave social workers without any easy answers. Pursuing a master’s in social work gives individuals an opportunity to prepare for the kinds of real-world challenges that emerge in the industry.

Social work ethics are complicated, but the right education can go a long way in making it easier to navigate what is a difficult moral, legal, and relational situation. The good news is that the NASW social work code of ethics lays the groundwork for best practices. Working toward a Master of Social Work (MSW) can expose students to the kinds of discussions and materials that can help them apply those practices to their everyday work.

A snapshot of social work ethics

While ethics aren’t a black-and-white issue, the NASW code of ethics serves to provide a benchmark social workers can follow as they make decisions on a daily basis. The document is a complex code exploring some of the most difficult issues in the industry, but a few of its noteworthy points include:

Reinforce the industry’s core values: The NASW has established service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence as the central values of the social work industry. All efforts in the sector are meant to further those values, and the code of ethics exists within this larger context. Major ethical best practices are principles meant to reflect these values in practice, giving social workers an idea of how they should behave when interacting with clients and communities.

Help those in need and address social problems: This ethical principle falls under the broader value of service. In it, the NASW advises social workers to put others above their self-interest to address both individual and large-scale social problems. The NASW also advocates for social workers to spend some of their time performing pro bono services.

Respect the dignity of the person: As the social work industry is built around the idea that individuals have an inherent right to respect and dignity, the NASW prioritizes promoting client self-determination, within the bounds of social responsibility, as a key ethical issue. This point incorporates being mindful of cultural and ethnic diversity and providing treatment that resolves any conflicts between client interests and those of society. Ultimately, the goal should be to empower clients to change and meet their own needs.

Be aware of the implications of technology: In early 2018, the NASW announced changes to its code of ethics that highlight the importance of recognizing how technology is changing the industry and adapting policies, procedures, and best practices accordingly. The NASW’s efforts center on how communication technology is increasingly common in the industry. One major focal point is getting client permission before recording anything or allowing third parties to view a discussion. Informed consent represents one of the most prominent issues in managing how technology is used, but the NASW also recommends that social workers account for diversity in preferences around technology use and avoid blurring the lines between personal and professional communication to avoid conflicts of interest.

Maintain practice in areas of competency and develop professional skills: Social issues in society are changing constantly, and social workers must adapt on an ongoing basis to keep up. As such, the NASW considers continual growth through skills development and increasing professional knowledge essential in maintaining ethical practice.

What to expect, in terms of ethics, in an MSW program

Ethics are a priority across the social work industry, and you can expect an MSW program to cover key topics in the sector. Most MSW programs, including the Regis College online MSW, cover ethics in a dedicated course. At Regis College, the class is taken during students’ specialized clinical year, blending in the materials devoted specifically to ethics among the more advanced classes in the program.

In addition to the specific course on ethics, you can expect ethical issues to come up naturally throughout your coursework. For example, a class on diversity and cross-cultural issues will naturally lead to discussion on the best way to manage a diverse client base, be sensitive to differing values among patients, and support diversity in your practice. These are all ethical issues that play a key role in the day-to-day work of the profession.

With the Regis College online MSW program, students can expect to get firsthand experience working practically in the industry, providing real-world insights into the ethical challenges social workers face. Our program focuses on clinical social work and includes an experiential learning component designed to allow students to get professional experience working in the field under direct supervision of a licensed clinical social worker. This presents learners with an opportunity to take their classroom lessons and apply them to everyday work, moving beyond the theory and into the real-world challenges social workers face.

Navigating ethical issues in social work presents individuals with a variety of challenges, but as the NASW points out, there often aren’t simple answers to the dilemmas professionals face. Continuing education gives social workers an opportunity to explore current thinking around ethics and get practical, supervised experience facing those challenges in the real world. This can be a springboard to handling ethics as a practicing social worker, giving individuals the background information, opportunities for open conversation, and practical guidance needed to help them deal with difficult decisions. The Regis College Master of Social Work is designed to prepare clinical social workers to navigate ethical decision-making as part of their day-to-day work. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you achieve your goals and advance your career.

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What is an MSW degree?


Online MSW Curriculum by Regis College

Code of Ethics by the National Association of Social Workers

Code of Ethics as of January 1, 2018 by the National Association of Social Workers