Home Blog Ethical Issues in Social Work: Navigating Gray Areas

Ethical Issues in Social Work: Navigating Gray Areas

August 10, 2023
Female social worker sits with a group of volunteers to discuss ethical topics of social work.

The sensitive nature of social work demands strong ethical standards and clear boundary setting. That stems from the fact that the social worker-client relationship is inherently power-imbalanced, as clients are vulnerable and often at their most desperate. They come for help, and the social worker is tasked with devising a plan for their growth and recovery. In these relationships, the social worker has most of the knowledge and expertise and is responsible for interacting ethically with the client.

The National Association of Social Work (NASW) publishes a Code of Ethics, updated regularly, that covers the most common ethical responsibilities, from cultural responsiveness to dual relationships.1 However, it’s impossible for any standardized document to cover all scenarios, so gray areas may arise.

Social workers often face situations in which ethical standards may not match the client’s best interest. In these situations, the social worker needs a clear grasp of the current ethical standards and an in-depth understanding of social psychology and cultural sensitivity. To illustrate, let’s explore three situations in which gray areas often appear.

Confidentiality and Informed Consent

Client privacy and confidentiality are essential in the therapeutic relationship. Clients disclose highly sensitive information to their social workers and expect that they will keep it between them. This fact is the cornerstone of every successful session and partnership.

As for what they share, the NASW Code of Ethics explicitly states that clients have the right to choose what information to share and what to keep private.2 This guideline relates to the rule of informed consent. Ethical standards demand that social workers explain the purpose, risks and limitations of their services in a language clients can understand. This allows clients to disclose information voluntarily with knowledge of how the therapist should use it.

Once the client has disclosed private information, the standard ethical guideline is to maintain confidentiality unless “disclosure is necessary to prevent serious, foreseeable, and imminent harm to a client or others.”3 An example of this would be someone threatening their own life or someone else’s. This guideline is in place because a breach of confidentiality can compromise the therapeutic relationship and potentially harm the client. However, appropriate levels of confidentiality may not always be clear-cut.

For example, some clients lack the mental capacity to provide valid informed consent. These clients may be children or adults with cognitive disabilities. Knowing this, the social worker may struggle with how much of the client’s situation to disclose to a caregiver, weighing the client’s right to autonomy against their long-term best interests. Ethical decision-making models provide helpful guidance in these scenarios. One such model, which the Manitoba College of Social Workers has published, urges social workers to view professional values and standards through an ethical lens.4

In the example above, consider that your primary responsibility is to protect clients’ well-being.5 In many cases, either disclosure or non-disclosure is more beneficial to the client over the long term. This question allows social workers to see a path forward, even if they cannot resolve the dilemma instantly.

Conflicts of Interest

Conflicts of interest arise when a social worker has two or more competing obligations or interests, at least one of which could interfere with a client’s best interest.6 Some conflicts of interest are obvious, especially when exchanges of money or intimate relationships are involved. A social worker would have difficulty arguing that counseling their financial advisor is not a conflict of interest.

Other conflicts are less clear-cut. For instance, suppose your friend is going through a divorce and wants full custody of her children. She asks you to write a letter testifying that you believe the children will be safer with her. You hold that belief, but you wonder whether your status as a social worker would carry an unfair amount of weight. A similar gray-area situation appeared in a 2017 issue of Social Work Today.7 The author, Dr. Frederic G. Reamer, confirmed that this scenario constitutes a conflict of interest, but it’s easy to see how someone might be unsure because it is outside of your professional work.

Navigating these issues requires unflinching self-honesty and objectivity. The Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers recommends asking yourself whether you have a “personal, financial or professional interest that could be influencing [your] professional judgment,” or whether others might see that kind of conflict as an influence on your decisions.8

If the answer is yes, or if you’re unsure, ethical supervision may be helpful. A knowledgeable third party can help you see things objectively.

Boundary Setting and Dual Relationships

Boundary setting forms the structure and limits of the therapeutic relationship. This relationship is unlike any other social or professional relationship, as the therapist receives sensitive personal information from the client but does not reciprocate. Clear boundaries keep this dynamic safe for the client and the therapist.

Avoiding dual relationships is a crucial element of boundary setting. A dual relationship exists when the social worker and client have at least one additional connection, social or professional.9 The NASW Code of Ethics states that “social workers should not engage in dual or multiple relationships with clients or former clients in which there is a risk of exploitation or potential harm to the client.”10

In some scenarios, identifying potential harm or exploitation is easy. Clients are too vulnerable to enter into a sexually or emotionally intimate relationship, even a friendship, with a social worker or therapist. Conversely, taking on a friend or acquaintance as a client could compromise the therapeutic process, given the degree of social contact.

Other scenarios are more challenging. For instance, suppose an adolescent client is graduating from high school and has asked you to attend the ceremony. Would doing so help her feel more confident and cared for, or would it blur the lines of social work?

Unintentional dual relationships are also tricky. If you learned that your client was your child’s new teacher or your mother’s doctor, would you need to terminate the therapy? How could it compromise the work you do with them?

The New Social Worker recommends identifying the risks and benefits to the client or former client.11 In the case of the adolescent, you might think about this client’s relational patterns and whether attending would compromise her work toward independence. In the unintentional-contact scenario, you might focus on whether the secondary contact will affect your work with the client.

Stay Current With Ethical Standards and Boundary Setting Strategies

Boundary setting is an unavoidable but essential element of social work. Complex human emotions and relationships will defy broad generalizations and require you to think more deeply than any published ethical standards can fully capture. Having access to ethical decision-making models can help by providing you with a road map to follow, and it’s essential to keep accurate documentation if any legal proceedings occur. Don’t forget to protect your mental health and take care of yourself when you face difficult ethical decisions.

Finally, make time to stay current with the ethical standards of your profession. Yeshiva University’s Online Master of Social Work program allows you to learn the most up-to-date practice standards while earning an esteemed degree. To prepare for boundary setting challenges in your social work practice, set up time to talk to one of our admissions outreach advisors and learn more.