Social Work and Ethical Issues

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Workplaces are locations where different people engage intensely in many different ways. There are differences in how each individual person perceives and applies the underlying methods, even in the most unified workforce made up of professional individuals in the same field. The variances can be possible due to age, personality, or experience. The range of encounters, however, may vary from profession to profession due to variations in the size of a social circle. Every person who exists in a social setting or workplace, whether as an active player or as an observer, contributes in some way to the way that relationships develop there. The various publics will always interact in different degrees of interactions. Owning to the difference in personality, perceptions, and beliefs of people across all the divides of the interacting publics ethical issues may arise (Heider, 2013). In the perspective of public relations, social work, being a profession and discipline that is passionate for people through putting a tireless concern on the wellbeing and best social functioning of individuals in families, communities, and groups has probably the highest regard for ethics. It has become somewhat common knowledge for many to recognize that indulgence in social work always causes ethical dilemmas and questions. This dilemma makes social work a multifaceted social public discipline.

Dealing with people in the social scenarios may often cause different interpretations and understanding among the concerned community of groups. Social workers are therefore relentless in avoiding ethical misconduct in the respective functions (Dixon, 2010). However, the profession has many people who may not always be in agreement with the stipulated rules and regulations that govern an area of social interactions. It may lead to the frequent occurrence of ethical hitches that would be termed unethical or contemporary important. This paper seeks to provide a detailed literature review on ethical issues in social work. It further seeks to identify a gap in the literature regarding issues of ethical importance in social work and provide a possible methodology that might be for followed for a warranted research.

Literature Review

Social work being a broad discipline and profession of practice has attracted the attention of many scholars, researchers, and authors. They have in the past and present managed to explore the fields of social work with a primary concern on the prevalent and emerging ethical issues. It has thus been in the interests of the authors and scholars to research and record on the issues as pertains interactions of human beings at the workplaces. This section of the paper seeks a very detailed background search of information on the ethical dilemmas and situations that are met in social work.

Advancements and developments in social work theory and philosophy have become a contributing milestone in making the conventional ways of addressing and managing ethical issues to seem inadequate. It is amidst these changes that in social work practice theory and philosophy that traditional ways of addressing the issues perceived to be of ethical importance have evolved. Moral dimensions take the various angles in the implications caused by the ethics in new legislation and regulations in criminal justice and community care, the emerging trends in thought-provoking policies in social work. The thought intensive areas in social work may include user empowerment, youth work, feminism, managerialism, and practices that ensue for anti-oppression.

Richard Hugman and David Smith of the British journal of social workplace ethical issues as central factors in the social work discipline. They attribute the discipline to a humanitarian stand as it focuses on with intense care for people with diverse needs, relationships of families, offending social responses to the activities that happen in their environment (Cowden &Singh, 2014). Some need s arise from structural triggers for instance poverty. In their difference, they qualify themselves as moral concerns that embed in the fabric of the society, and they mature to become social values.

However, the interpretations of the values from the different viewpoints makes them contentious as everyone tries to derive what is best and desirable in the society. In the degree of contentiousness and the heightened aspect due to perception and beliefs of different occupants of the society, they pose a high propensity for disagreements. It means that an endeavor of social work is a reflection of the prevailing values as they are deliberate interventions of important everyday life parameters(Hugman & Smith, 1995). According to Hugman and Smith, such an activity might often receive disputes for the reason that the activity’s objectives may not always appeal equally for mutual acceptance by all society members. It would mean in themselves they contribute to ethical issues.

A compromise between the contests caused by a social work activity and the inherently contentious values and ethics should be arrived at to encompass all implications. The choice and enumeration of social workers are not much concerned in the ethical dimension that their work may involve, but the degree of explicitly addressing ethical questions and the manner in which they are explored. When social work is treated as a phenomenon that is unitary, and concern itself with ethical questions might always result in mistaking the whole agenda.

With time and advancements in knowledge and understanding, the ethical oppositions that are encouraged have been evolving regarding social work. In the past, the positions of ethics were majorly championed to inculcate acceptance, a spirit of non-judgementalism, and individualized personal care for a client and confidentiality. Also, the involvement of a nature of controlled emotions, self-determination, and a purposeful emotional expression was conventionally the preferred ethical positions. In modern times, however, the traditional positions have changed and include stigma counteraction, and promotion of the spirit that encourages inclusion through the elimination of oppressive and discriminative activities in social work (Gray& Lovat, 2014).

The strengths and the dignity of the clients under the current positions are respected, individual values are committed, the plight of vulnerable people in the society is addressed by protecting them and creating a culture that respects confidentiality and privacy within the limits of context. The promotion of choice has also become an ethical position that is championed in the social work scenarios.

Inevitability, conceptuality, and specificity are some of the elements of ethical decisions in conceptualized social work. An immediate situation that has presented itself to a social worker, it the only measure or scale to answer or tell what is right for the worker to do. It is in this light that a clear and notably significant reality comes up. Any attempt to state or legislate universal ethical principles meets a hindrance as in both perspective and practice they cannot encompass a shared and adequate conception that reflects both moral and social good. It comes to the realization or the only alternative to align thoughts towards a no solid foundation and ground for the establishment of universally preferable ethics.

The notion of a relying on stated ethical stipulations that are universally applicable to derive a sense of specific situations should be abandoned. Sources of moral authority at the time of coining of ethical understating by the famous philosopher, Aristotle were viewed to be providers of principles rooted deeply in a specific society at a specific time. According to Smith and Hugman principles derived from a relevant, living and robust tradition must be expected to evolve constantly with constant disapprovals and disputes along the way.

In the morally ethical practitioner, Charles Husband invokes social morals of postmodernism through a proposition that active moral impulses are necessary aids to helping practitioners make vital connections between social work profession and ethics that brings political commitments and interests(Husband, 1995). In the view of ethics being the source of ethical issues as they are impositions that portray coercion as part of ethical guidelines by institutions, moral impulses cannot be entirely rejected. Ethics must take their positions in society as legitimate regarding the claims of principles and thus cannot stand as codes of conduct that are self-evident.

The claims by the principles allow for the easy recognition of human conduct that is wrong or right. In this regard, ethical guidelines are themselves embedded, legitimated and paradigmatic assertions that have a relationship with sound and universal judgment. It further portrays the exact nature of propensity to cohabitation and sociality. Modern institutions have come in place to normalize validating paradigm and ethics through regulations and policing to suit the interest of the social work profession, specific policy or the state.

It is only logical to be optimistic and anticipate ethical pluralism in an inclusive society and as such ethics should be approached as subject to external and internal social pressures at a place of activity that normalize them. The inclusion of all cultural alignments serves to increase and attract moral judgments that are exclusive and practices that are constantly seeking to replace the deviant norms of that society. In doing so, ethical issues are anticipated to be rampant as the replaced upright positions served a part of the society perfectly. In plural multi-ethnic society, a universal ethical framework or ethical neutrality cannot be assumed as an overall application to deliberations and opinions of the implications and nature of social work in such a modern contemporary society (Kendall &Hugman 2013).

A practitioner who is morally active, and in this respect a social worker is aware and always recognizes the underlying and emerging professional ethics at a social activity for what and why they are applied. The coercive pressure of a body of regulation serves to back up the reasonable and legitimate prescriptive set of guidelines(Milner, 2017). According to Husband, the recognition of the external ground of guidance that is prescribed in ethical issues of a social work scenario is inherent in legitimacy and regulation in the professional. It is thus a correct assertion that the practices and powers of social workers in ethical situations are very significant.

A morally active social practitioner is highly conversant with the ethical guidelines that are being implemented as desirable and constituting of irreducible minimums that are permanent and non-prone to change with routine. A perfect embankment and completion of duty do not always reflect moral responsibility. Taking a role or duty to completion may thus amount to just compliance. In understanding ethical situations that are met by morally upright practitioners, those workers who are morally engaged do not conceal themselves in the professional ethical anesthesia of irresponsibility and compliance. They seek to at all times retain their responsibility for implications that arise from their professional practice. This approach of social and moral obligation would in perspective and practice align itself with the new technical trend that social work is taking.

A personal relationship with a client that majorly puts a personalized moral concern for one another. A professional social practitioner becomes in respect of being responsible for the employer a primary agent of authority that acts externally such as the state. It is opposed to the preferred stance of a social worker being aligned to ethical dimensions of an autonomous, empowered, motivated moral carer. An employing agency thus defines and limits the moral status of social workers. It serves to deny them self-determination and actualization. It thus settles to convey and comprehend the actions of social workers as professional interventions as opposed to what in moral terms would be more appealing to regard them as personal interest in caregiving. Bauman states that they are no one who has real thoughts than the person who makes the initial step of applying and making a realization of their delivered actions and directions. The moral impulse or personal drive according to Bauman in concept is the primary determinant of a practitioner’s social work intervention.

Owning to the fact that ethical issues are a significant and central feature associated with social work, social workers throughout history have struggled with issues of wrong or right. Contentious matters of obligation and duty have also been of historical importance in the profession of social work. It has led the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) in the recent past to ratify a code of conduct. However, only a part of the code reflects the real impression of the growth in the understanding and grasp of the complex ethical matters in the practice of social work. Social workers interest in ethics of practice has seen maturity, especially in the past century. It has moved from preoccupied and frequent concern for morals with clients’ values to the interest on ethical questions that are complex and pose dilemmas that face today’s practitioners (Reamer, 1998). It also has come to a time when strategies are laid to deal with the ethical dilemmas.

In the evolution of social work ethics, the concern through history spans four main periods. However, the intervals are sometimes overlapping due to different rates of adoption by various agencies and social work fraternities. The times include; the morality period, values period, decision making and ethical theory period, and risk management and ethical standards period. The morality period was the first relevant time that followed the inauguration of social work as a profession. In it, more emphasis was placed on the morality of the client being served and ethics of the profession itself and that of its practitioners. Ethical issues in social work as mentioned earlier might arise from structures within the client population. Social workers at this period put the focus on poor people’s morality, and most social workers sought to address ethical issues from the viewpoint of environmental and structural causes of social and individual problems. Of particular concern was the social worker's ethical responsibility to promote and advocate for social reform and social justice. More energy was directed to the cause rather than the entire case during the period.

The exploration of values was the next phase that is significant in the development of social work ethics and ethical issues. In an attempt to establish a code of ethical conduct in social work, some schools in the 1920s were teaching values and ethics as part of their discrete courses. The professional argued and championed or the establishment of a clear articulation of the ethical foundation that was value based. The clients’ morality as a central feature of focus changed to values, ethics, and morality of the practitioners and the profession as a whole. Ethical standards to guide behavior and approach to issues were developed and made public in 1947 by the American Association of Social Workers during a delegate conference. What would later follow were the redirection of attention to issues of civil rights, social reforms, and social justice.

Applied professional ethics as a new field changed the view of ethical issues in social work. It brought into the profession an angle created by the decision making and ethical theories. The applied ethics mainly introduced bioethics in the medical field(Kuhse &Singer, 2013). It was a deliberate attempt to try and implement methods and concepts of philosophy in morals to real-life dilemmas and questions in ethical matters faced by practitioners. Abortion, end of life decisions, reproduction and organ transplants were some of the contentious ethical dilemmas that were rampant in this period (Ely et al., 2012). It led to the studies by moral philosophers and scholars on the applied ethical issues.

Ethical standards aimed at managing the risks associated with ethical matters in the society was the last period that saw the maturation of the social ethics to what they are today. It all started with the requirement for every social worker to give priority to professional responsibility as opposed to personal interests. It also demanded the respect of the confidentiality and privacy of clients. Clients were now to be accorded professional service that was appropriate in public emergencies and relentlessly contributes to skills, knowledge in support for human welfare programs (Reamer, 2013). The noteworthy feature of this last evolution period being inculcation and inclusion of core values that are service, personal worth, and dignity, social injustice, the significance of human relationships, competence and integrity.

The youth in the modern society comprise the largest part of the demography. Talking about social work without including youth work would result in non-inclusion. Youths are majorly the practitioners of the social work agencies. Ethical issues among the young social workers are by far many than the old workmates and counterparts. In this respect, an analysis of the core questions and dilemmas that face the young workers in the respective social activities in daily work is thus warranted. Some of the social, ethical difficulties faced by youth workers are confidentiality and privacy breach, ethics that contradict due to religious conversions, conflicting cultures, a state of balance between control of a young mind and autonomous, and maintaining responsibility among employers, sponsors, and young people.

Youth work is surrounded by situations that give them ethical tensions and dilemmas. The classics of this dilemmas mainly being how to decide between respecting personal choices and acting to promote the public good. It also poses a question of whether in social endeavors, youth should be empowered or controlled as they are being nurtured. Since all the activities have to work within the ambivalence of the society regarding a client, young social workers are mostly viewed as undeserving and threatening (Banks, 2012). It thus raises an ethical question of whether to contain or empower them amid their threatening ability.

It is often difficult to arrive at a compromise that provides a middle ground on which a balance is established for the liberation, advocating, protection and the caring role. It is in such knowledge that a social worker in giving ultimate services to clients face several ethical issues in their practice regardless of activities of specialization. These dilemmas include self-determination rights, confidentiality, varying values, and morals, due human relationships and administrative issues (Congress, 2017). In self-determination, clients are in charge of making their decisions that pertain them regardless of the opinion of a social worker. In being a professional with know-how and experience, a social practitioner lands in a dilemma of ethical implications while trying to influence a client make a right decision.

The confidentiality issue in social work affects both experienced and new and young workers. Client’s information is private and confidential, and some of the client’s information is so disturbing to a social worker, and the only way to relieve such stress is through sharing. A client is required to sign a consent to whom the information should be disclosed to and no matter how disturbing it is the social worker will abide by the will of the client. However, only for suicidal cases that a worker may break confidentiality and help the client.

Feelings and emotions are not part of the qualifications of a social worker to get the job. However, some of the confronting issues that may come their way are in contraction to their system of beliefs and moral values. Since every social worker has their values and virtues which are not easily influenced or changed by situations, they might conflict with those of the client. For instance, a solid Catholic nurse will find difficulties in procuring an abortion for a teenager regardless of the reasons that make the teen want the abortion performed. The moral conflict of the two constitutes an ethical situation.

It is human nature that during interactions to develop feelings to like, dislike, hate or love. The social work code of ethics prohibits relationships between clients and social professions. Although a personal connection at professional level helps in understanding a client and solving their problems, termination of contact technically ends the professional relationship. Rejoining of the association in other platforms may thus amount to an ethical issue.

The social work profession has in the past, and the present emphasized on the client and practitioners as central to the emergence of ethical issues. However, a gap in literature through the history and evolution of social work as a profession exists when it comes to the contribution of the management and administration of the agencies that involve in social work as contributors of the rise in cases of ethical situations. A way of determining if social workers that act in the capacity of administrative posts have the same probability of encountering ethical dilemmas the same way as their junior counterparts who actively engage with clients in the field is warranted. Questions such as whether the ethical matters that affect the administration have a way of translating itself downwards to other staff members should find answers.



To find out if the administration of social work firms and agencies are faced with ethical issues.

To find out if the same ethical issues, if there are any, are reflected the junior staff in the administration.

To find out if the ethical issues cited by the administrators are reflected downwards to the other departments in the organization.

The study will involve a sample population of 50 people. The population will be sampled from five large agencies and firms that engage in social work. 25 out of the 50 will be high ranking officials preferably in the administration as managers, their deputies, and directors. Each firm will contribute ten people to give the required 50. Ten respondents will be junior staffs in the administration that is two in every firm. The rest fifteen will be constituted of ordinary social workers not working in the administration but spread out in any of the other service departments.

Interviews and questionnaires will be used to collect information from the sample population. The questionnaires will be open-ended. Only one in every one of the five top officials will respond to interviews while the other four will respond to the questionnaires. The rest of the population will also respond to the open-ended questionnaires. Data will be collected, and tables will be drawn. A similarity index of the matters that affect the administration and the rest of social workers will be used to judge the correlation of the ethical issues.

The tables will be analyzed, discussions and conclusions are drawn from the responses given by the whole sample population. The findings will be compared to the expected outcomes to validate the essence of the study. As part of a constructive contribution to literature, recommendations on how to manage the risks associated with administrative, ethical issues will also be included.


Banks, S. (2012). Ethical issues in youth work. Routledge.

Congress, E. P. (2017). What social workers should know about ethics and Understanding and resolving practice dilemmas? Social Work Ethics, 1909.

Cowden, S., & Singh, G. (2014). A critical analysis of service user struggles. Rethinking anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive theories for social work practice, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Dixon, J. (2010). Social supervision, ethics, and risk: An evaluation of how ethical frameworks might be applied to the social supervision process. British Journal of Social Work, 40(8), 2398-2413.

Ely, G. E., Flaherty, C., Akers, L. S., & Noland, T. B. (2012). Social work student attitudes toward the social work perspective on abortion. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 9(2), 34-45.

Gray, M., & Lovat, T. (2014). The shaky high moral ground of postmodernist "ethics." Social Work/Maatskaplike Werk, 42(3).

Heider, F. (2013). The psychology of interpersonal relations. Psychology Press.

Hugman, R., & Smith, D. (Eds.). (1995). Ethical issues in social work. Psychology Press.

Husband, C. (1995). The morally active practitioner, the ethics of anti-racist social work. Ethical issues in social work, 84-103.

Kendall, S., & Hugman, R. (2013). Social work and the ethics of involuntary treatment for anorexia nervosa: A postmodern approach. Ethics and Social Welfare, 7(4), 310-325.

Kuhse, H., & Singer, P. (Eds.). (2013). A companion to bioethics. John Wiley & Sons.

Milner, V. (2017). Rekindling the flame of community through compassion–a call for leadership toward the compassionate community. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 20(3), 3-13.

Reamer, F. G. (1998). The evolution of social work ethics. Social work, 43(6), 488-500.

Reamer, F. G. (2013). Social work in a digital age: Ethical and risk management challenges. Social work, 58(2), 163-172.

March 15, 2023

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