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Managing Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work

November 20, 2022

Social workers routinely encounter a variety of complex situations—some heartbreaking, some inspirational—that can involve children, people who have no homes, those with intellectual, emotional, and developmental difficulties, and individuals in every possible situation in life. While social workers are well-trained for any situation they may encounter on the job, it’s impossible to prepare for everything. Eventually, we will all face circumstances that present difficult ethical dilemmas. Part of the challenge is social work’s unique quality of feeling simultaneously personal and professional. However, those working in the field must have a clear understanding of their professional ethics and responsibilities, and how to separate them from their personal values.1

Every situation is different, yet for social workers, it’s vital to know exactly what an ethical dilemma is and how to handle them when they arise. Read on to explore ethical principles, ethical standards, and moral principles—and how they factor into the challenge of managing ethical dilemmas in social work.

What Is an Ethical Dilemma?

In The New Social Worker, Dr. Karen Allen, Ph.D., LCSW, wrote:

“There are three conditions that must be present for a situation to be considered an ethical dilemma. The first condition occurs in situations when an individual … must make a decision about which course of action is best. Situations that are uncomfortable but that don’t require a choice are not ethical dilemmas. The second condition for ethical dilemma is that there must be different courses of action to choose from. Third, in an ethical dilemma, no matter what course of action is taken, some ethical principle is compromised. In other words, there is no perfect solution.”2

For social workers, an ethical dilemma most likely would come up when values, ethical principles, or ethical standards, as detailed in the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) established Code of Ethics, conflict with one another.

Values and Ethical Principles

According to The Encyclopedia of Public Health, “Ethical principles are part of a normative theory that justifies or defends moral rules and/or moral judgments; they are not dependent on one's subjective viewpoints. Ethical principles in public health practice refer to those general judgments that serve as a basic justification for the many particular ethical prescriptions and evaluations of public health activities.”2

The NASW Code of Ethics lists the following broad ethical principles. They’re based on social work’s core values and they inform social work practice:

Value: Service
Ethical Principle: Social workers elevate service to others above self-interest. Social workers draw on their knowledge, values, and skills to help people in need and to address social problems. Social workers are encouraged to volunteer some portion of their professional skills with no expectation of significant financial return (pro bono service).

Value: Social Justice
Ethical Principle: Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. These activities seek to promote sensitivity to and knowledge about oppression and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers strive to ensure access to needed information, services, and resources; equality of opportunity; and meaningful participation in decision making for all people.

Value: Dignity and Worth of the Person
Ethical Principle: Social workers treat each person in a caring and respectful fashion, mindful of individual differences and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers promote clients’ socially responsible self-determination. Social workers seek to enhance clients’ capacity and opportunity to change and to address their own needs. Social workers are cognizant of their dual responsibility to clients and to the broader society. They seek to resolve conflicts between clients’ interests and the broader society’s interests in a socially responsible manner consistent with the values, ethical principles, and ethical standards of the profession.

Value: Importance of Human Relationships
Ethical Principle: Social workers understand that relationships between and among people are an important vehicle for change. Social workers engage people as partners in the helping process. Social workers seek to strengthen relationships among people in a purposeful effort to promote, restore, maintain, and enhance the well-being of individuals, families, social groups, organizations, and communities.

Value: Integrity
Ethical Principle: Social workers are continually aware of the profession’s mission, values, ethical principles, and ethical standards and practice in a manner consistent with them. Social workers should take measures to care for themselves professionally and personally. Social workers act honestly and responsibly and promote ethical practices on the part of the organizations with which they are affiliated.

Value: Competence
Ethical Principle: Social workers continually strive to increase their professional knowledge and skills and to apply them in practice. Social workers should aspire to contribute to the knowledge base of the profession.”3

Ethical Standards

At significant length, the Code of Ethics also details six ethical standards to guide social workers' conduct and provide a basis for adjudication. They cover social workers’ ethical responsibilities:

  • To clients
  • To colleagues
  • In practice settings
  • As professionals
  • To the social work profession
  • To the broader society

The Code of Ethics is set in place to help give social workers a clear path of how to act. Yet, even with its support, situations can be complicated, making it difficult to find the best way to resolve a given problem.4

Moral Principles

Beyond the parameters set out by the NASW, we all make choices based on moral principles: “guidelines that people live by to make sure they are doing the right thing. These include things like honesty, fairness, and equality.”5

In her 2021 article, “What are Moral Principles?” Arlin Cuncic, MA, clarified that these guidelines vary from person to person, based on individual life experience, and that they fall into two main categories:5

Absolute Moral Principles

Absolute moral principles, sometimes called normative moral principles, are based on universal truths about the nature of human beings, and they’re generally accepted by society. Examples of absolute moral principles include:

  • Don't kill
  • Tell the truth
  • Be careful regarding what you say and do to others
  • Respect the property of other people
  • Treat people in need or distress as you would want to be treated if your situations were reversed

Relative Moral Principles

Relative moral principles are based on opinions and circumstances that may change over time, and they depend on an individual’s beliefs. They involve peoples’ perception of good or bad in relation to themselves. “In other words,” wrote Cuncic, “when someone says something is good, in most cases they are really saying it is good for them, or perhaps it contributes to their well-being.” Examples of relative moral principles include:

  • It’s morally wrong to spend money on a luxury item
  • It’s morally right to care for our planet and preserve it for future generations

Applied Ethics

A social worker facing an ethical dilemma must synthesize the values, ethical principles, ethical standards, and moral principles swirling inside in order to make practical, effective choices. This is where applied ethics come in.

“Applied ethics is a branch of ethics devoted to the treatment of moral problems, practices, and policies in personal life, professions, technology, and government. In contrast to traditional ethical theory—concerned with purely theoretical problems such as, for example, the development of a general criterion of rightness—applied ethics takes its point of departure in practical normative challenges.”6

In other words, applied ethics is when things get real. The social worker’s expertise lies in using heady, thought- and emotion-based concepts to address—ideally, to solve—real-world problems. It’s through applied ethics that the trained professional can manage ethical dilemmas in social work.

Managing Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work

In his Social Work Today article titled Making Difficult Decisions, Frederic D. Reamer, Ph.D., described an ethical dilemma (paraphrased here) that he was once asked to help resolve:7

He received a call from a seasoned social worker whose client had committed suicide two days earlier. Immediately following the suicide, the client’s parents, who had participated in her treatment at various times in the context of family counseling, contacted the social worker. The three of them met and talked about the daughter’s lifelong triumphs and challenges. The parents expressed their deep gratitude for the social worker’s earnest efforts to help their daughter, and spoke about how difficult it would be for them to bury her the next day. Then they asked a special favor: As the social worker was an important person in their family’s life, it would mean a lot to them if the social worker would deliver a eulogy at the funeral.

The social worker was touched and wanted to be supportive. She was also especially concerned about violating her client’s privacy and confidentiality, and about managing the boundaries in her relationship with the family; she wanted to avoid entering into an inappropriate ‘dual relationship.’ She was deeply ambivalent and unsure about how to resolve this ethical dilemma.

While there is no clear-cut formula for how to resolve every dilemma, Dr. Reamer’s article notes that, “The literature in most professions now contains thoughtful discussions of conceptually based frameworks designed to guide practitioners’ ethical decisions. These frameworks do not guarantee easy solutions to hard ethical choices, of course; rather, they provide useful guideposts to help professionals who face daunting ethical circumstances. Although the frameworks vary, they tend to contain common elements:

1. Identify the ethical issues, including the social work values and ethics, that conflict.

2. Identify the individuals, groups, and organizations that are likely to be affected by the ethical decision.

3. Tentatively identify:

  • All possible courses of action
  • The participants involved in each course of action
  • The possible benefits and risks for each participant

4. Thoroughly examine the pros and cons of each possible course of action, considering relevant:

  • Ethical theories, principles, and guidelines
  • Codes of ethics and legal principles
  • Social work practice theory and principles
  • Personal values (including religious, cultural, and ethnic values and political ideology)

5. Consult with colleagues and appropriate experts (such as agency staff, supervisors, agency administrators, attorneys, ethics scholars, and ethics committees).

6. Make the decision and document the decision-making process.

7. Monitor, evaluate, and document the decision.”7

These guideposts can be a strong starting point. Each ethical dilemma that occurs within a social worker’s job is unique and requires attention that’s appropriate to the given situation.

Make the Clearest, Best Choice for Your Career

To learn more about issues such as ethical dilemmas within social work, discover the online Master of Social Work program from Yeshiva University. Find and refine the theories and approaches that most effectively suit your counseling style. Our online MSW program offers a variety of specializations and your greatest opportunity to boost your career by putting your purpose and passion into action. Get training in advanced clinical practice with individuals and families, group work and community settings.

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