Understanding Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work

A social worker talks with a client.

Ava, a first-grader in foster care, offers her caseworker a lacy handmade valentine. Zack, an unemployed man in his 30s experiencing stress and anxiety, reveals plans to physically harm his partner. Each scenario poses an ethical dilemma in social work.

Social work’s mission is to advocate for the well-being of all people, especially vulnerable people confronting poverty or oppression. Knowing and following professional standards are key to supporting those in need while upholding professional ethics that respect humanity.

The National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics guides social workers in everyday professional conduct and ethical decision-making.

Social workers are committed to helping humanity. In doing so, all social workers, according to the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics, share the following six core values:

  • Service
  • Social justice
  • Dignity and worth of the person
  • Importance of human relationships
  • Integrity
  • Competence

What Is an Ethical Dilemma in Social Work?

Ethical dilemmas in social work are more complex than they seem. In the field, ethics refers to the profession’s code for proper conduct. According to the NASW, an ethical dilemma in social work is a circumstance in which two or more professional ethical principles conflict.

Social workers learn ethical decision-making to uphold professional values, such as integrity and social justice, as well as professional principles, such as helping people in need. In doing so, they take positive action to protect clients and others while fulfilling their responsibility to respect the dignity and foster the well-being of all members of society.

Examples of Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work

Every ethical issue social workers encounter in their practice is important. Furthermore, the decisions they make to resolve these issues have one overarching motivation: to seek the option that does the least amount of harm.

In general, an ethical dilemma arises when a social worker must choose between two equally valid, mutually exclusive choices of action, both of which result in some sort of harm to a person or persons.

The following examples are representative of ethical dilemmas in social work that correspond to some of the field’s key values and principles.

Recognizing the Importance of Human Relationships

As healers and helpers, social work professionals strive to improve relationships among people to support the well-being of clients, families and communities. Often, this means modeling and maintaining appropriate boundaries in professional relationships.

Example: Receiving Gifts

Suppose a client, Daniel, gives his social worker an expensive gemstone ring for her birthday. Refusing to accept the gift may damage the rapport the social worker has built with Daniel over many years; it may leave him feeling personally rejected. Accepting the ring, however, would cross the line into an inappropriate relationship because its expense could imply a bribe, and its nature has intimate, romantic connotations. A social worker weighing the two options would likely decide to refuse the gift.

However, a social worker may decide that accepting another client’s inexpensive gift of a handcrafted clay figurine or a homemade fruitcake might be a more desirable option than refusing it and risking harm to the professional relationship. The age of the gift-giver may also come into play, as with the case of Ava and her handmade valentine in the scenario above.

Example: Social Media

Given the importance of upholding social relationships when many interactions between individuals occur online, how should a social worker handle professional relationships on social media? The issue gets complicated.

For instance, if a client sends their social worker a friend request on Facebook, should the social worker ignore or accept the request? How should a social worker handle posting to their own social media accounts? Would their posts influence a client outcome or breach confidence in a professional relationship?

Dignity and Worth of the Person

Overall, social workers support and protect their clients’ right to self-determination — that is, to decide how to live their lives without interference. The NASW Code of Ethics, however, includes a qualifying statement to this principle: “Social workers may limit clients’ right to self-determination when, in the social worker’s professional judgment, clients’ actions or potential actions pose a serious, foreseeable, and imminent risk to themselves or others.”

Example: Involuntary Commitment

Zack describes to his social worker in specific detail how he would like to harm his partner. Zack also exhibits disorientation, laughs and becomes aggressive as he describes his intent to do harm.

The ethical dilemma for the social worker is between confidentiality and duty to warn. Not all states have adopted a duty to warn. Trained social workers are aware of local and state regulations, professional responsibility and liability, and use their social work education along with good clinical supervision to maneuver challenging decisions like this.

Cultural Awareness and Diversity

When professionals grapple with ethical dilemmas in social work, the client’s cultural background is an important consideration. Standard 1.05 of the NASW Code of Ethics, “Cultural Awareness and Diversity,” emphasizes that social workers should continuously seek to heighten their awareness of people of diverse cultures and backgrounds and strive to better meet their needs.

Prepare to Address Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work

Before issues arise, social workers understand they should be prepared to address them. Professionals in the field recommend these steps:

  1. Study the NASW Code of Ethics, which includes the social work profession’s mission, values and principles.
  2. Learn an ethical decision-making process. For example, as a foundation, the Code of Ethics contains a brief guide for dealing with ethical issues and dilemmas in practice.
  3. Seek professional supervision, and discuss issues and how to address them with supervisors and professional consultants.
  4. Keep current in the profession and stay apprised of Code of Ethics updates.

Pursue an Advanced Degree in Social Work

Social workers are allies for social justice, human dignity, and the celebration of human diversity and freedom of expression. For individuals who are motivated to help others and maintain integrity in a respected profession, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Online Master of Social Work program prepares students to serve society’s most vulnerable.

Tailored to meet the needs of working professionals, the program upholds ethical practice in a changing world as a guiding principle. Discover how understanding ethical dilemmas in social work prepares you to make a difference in this rewarding field.