One of the unique aspects of social work is that we are not just counselors or therapists, we are also advocates. We understand that the environments individuals live in have an effect on how their lives may be playing out. We advocate on both the level of individual client and at the larger macro level. We are encouraged and even expected – as is written in the Social Worker Code of Ethics– to fight against exploitation and ensure people have access to their basic human rights. Being involved in social justice issues and policy is all part of being a social worker. I have always thought it was a bit freeing that not only can I question authority and status quo but that it is expected!
As a social worker, we care about people. We want them to live the best life they can. And…at least secretly – we are sure we know what the best choices are to get what we view as the best life.
It turns out though – that even though we are assisting people in finding their way – their choices and their desired outcomes aren’t up to us. One of the main tenets of social work is self – determination.
The National Association of Social Workers states self-determination is an ethical principle of professional practice.
“Social workers respect and promote the right of clients to self-determination and assist clients in their efforts to identify and clarify their goals. Social workers may limit clients’ right to self-determination when, in the social workers’ professional judgment, clients’ actions or potential actions pose a serious, foreseeable, and imminent risk to themselves or others.”
It is imperative that a social worker is aware of their own value system and beliefs so they aren’t subconsciously or subtly moving the client to the clinician’s goals. You want to act for your client’s best interest but who decides what that is?
A long time ago, when I was earning my BSW degree, we had a journal assignment to complete each day during our internship. Basically, I was to identify and discuss an ethical dilemma I encountered each I time I worked. Social workers come across ethical dilemmas every day. They interact with complicated systems and people. The decisions of a social worker impacts individual’s lives and the answers are rarely black and white. It takes work to practice as an ethical social worker.
What are ethics? What does it mean to be ethical? Ethics are different than the law.
The law is about what is legal. For example, everyone talks about the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA.) This is a law. Choosing not to follow this or other laws could lead to criminal charges, convictions, prison and/or monetary fines and other penalties.
Ethics are about the “should.” Ethics are what choice a person “ought” to make. There are not necessarily legal ramifications for not being ethical (although there could be professional or moral consequences.) Ethics are where a person asks- “What is the best decision in this situation.” Unfortunately, when you are working with complex clients the best choice isn’t always obvious. Many times a professional will have to choose between several not so ideal choices and decide which choice is least harmful.