• MSW Student Handbook
  • Section 3: MSW Curriculum and Degree Requirements

3.2 Social Work Core Competencies

The social work core competencies.

The MSW curriculum is organized around a set of social work core competencies, representing the dimensions of social work practice that all social workers are expected to master during their professional training. Berkeley MSW students are assessed throughout the course of their graduate study on progress to achieving each of the following social work competencies established for the Berkeley MSW Program:

Competency #1: Demonstrate Ethical and Professional Behavior

Social workers understand the value base of the profession and its ethical standards, as well as relevant laws and regulations that may impact practice at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. Social workers understand frameworks of ethical decision-making and how to apply principles of critical thinking to those frameworks in practice, research, and policy arenas. Social workers recognize personal values and the distinction between personal and professional values. They also understand how their personal experiences and affective reactions influence their professional judgment and behavior. Social workers understand the profession’s history, its mission, and the roles and responsibilities of the profession. Social Workers also understand the role of other professions when engaged in inter-professional teams. Social workers recognize the importance of life-long learning and are committed to continually updating their skills to ensure they are relevant and effective. Social workers also understand emerging forms of technology and the ethical use of technology in social work practice. Social workers:

  • make ethical decisions by applying the standards of the NASW Code of Ethics, relevant laws and regulations, models for ethical decision-making, ethical conduct of research, and additional codes of ethics as appropriate to context.
  • use reflection and self-regulation to manage personal values and maintain professionalism in practice situations.
  • demonstrate professional demeanor in behavior; appearance; and oral, written, and electronic communication.
  • use technology ethically and appropriately to facilitate practice outcomes.
  • use supervision and consultation to guide professional judgment and behavior.
  • infuse social work principles and interactions with clients and other relevant stakeholders.

Competency #2: Engage Diversity and Difference in Practice

Social workers understand how diversity and difference characterize and shape the human experience and are critical to the formation of identity. The dimensions of diversity are understood as the intersectionality of multiple factors including but not limited to age, class, color, culture, disability and ability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, immigration status, marital status, political ideology, race, religion/spirituality, sex, sexual orientation, and tribal sovereign status. Social workers understand that, as a consequence of difference, a person’s life experiences may include oppression, poverty, marginalization, and alienation as well as privilege, power, and acclaim. Social workers also understand the forms and mechanisms of oppression and discrimination and recognize the extent to which a culture’s structures and values, including social, economic, political, and cultural exclusions, may oppress, marginalize, alienate, or create privilege and power. Social workers:

  • apply and communicate understanding of the importance of diversity and difference in shaping life experiences in practice at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels.
  • present themselves as learners and engage clients and constituencies as experts of their own experiences.
  • apply self-awareness and self-regulation to manage the influence of personal biases and values in working with diverse clients and constituencies.
  • use inclusive strategies that carefully consider  the context of individuals, families, groups, organizations, and/or communities and challenge common assumptions, solicit ideas, and gain inspiration from clients and other relevant stakeholders.

Competency #3: Advance Human Rights and Social, Economic, and Environmental Justice

Social workers understand that every person regardless of position in society has fundamental human rights such as freedom, safety, privacy, an adequate standard of living, health care, and education. Social workers understand the global interconnections of oppression and human rights violations, and are knowledgeable about theories of human need and social justice and strategies to promote social and economic justice and human rights. Social workers understand strategies designed to eliminate oppressive structural barriers to ensure that social goods, rights, and responsibilities are distributed equitably and that civil, political, environmental, economic, social, and cultural human rights are protected. Social workers:

  • apply their understanding of social, economic, and environmental justice to advocate for human rights at the individual and system levels.
  • engage in practices that advance social, economic, and environmental justice.
  • facilitate team and coalition-building and other collaborative strategies for promoting system change designed to reduce social and economic inequities.

Competency #4: Engage In Practice-informed Research and Research-informed Practice

Social workers understand quantitative and qualitative research methods and their respective roles in advancing a science of social work and in evaluating their practice. Social workers know the principles of logic, scientific inquiry, and culturally informed and ethical approaches to building knowledge. Social workers understand that evidence that informs practice derives from multi-disciplinary sources and multiple ways of knowing. They also understand the processes for translating research findings into effective practice. Social workers:

  • use practice experience and theory to inform scientific inquiry and research.
  • apply critical thinking to engage in analysis of quantitative and qualitative research methods and research findings.
  • use and translate research evidence to inform and improve practice, policy, and service delivery.
  • use strategies that reduce gaps between science and social work practice including the translation of research findings into social work practice and policy.

Competency #5: Engage in Policy Practice

Social workers understand that human rights and social justice, as well as social welfare and services, are mediated by policy and its implementation at the federal, state, and local levels. Social workers understand the history and current structures of social policies and services, the role of policy in service delivery, and the role of practice in policy development. Social workers understand their role in policy development and implementation within their practice settings at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels and they actively engage in policy practice to effect change within those settings. Social workers recognize and understand the historical, social, cultural, economic, organizational, environmental, and global influences that affect social policy. They are also knowledgeable about policy formulation, analysis, implementation, and evaluation. Social workers:

  • identify social policy at the local, state, and federal level that impacts well-being, service delivery, and access to social services.
  • assess how social welfare and economic policies impact the delivery of and access to social services.
  • apply critical thinking to analyze, formulate, and advocate for policies that advance human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice.
  • assess and respond to the political, resource, and technology environments that shape policy practice to effectively advocate for social and economic justice.

Competency #6: Engage with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities

Social workers understand that engagement is an ongoing component of the dynamic and interactive process of social work practice with, and on behalf of, diverse individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Social workers value the importance of human relationships. Social workers understand theories of human behavior and the social environment, and critically evaluate and apply this knowledge to facilitate engagement with clients and constituencies, including individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Social workers understand strategies to engage diverse clients and constituencies to advance practice effectiveness. Social workers understand how their personal experiences and affective reactions may impact their ability to effectively engage with diverse clients and constituencies. Social workers value principles of relationship-building and inter-professional collaboration to facilitate engagement with clients, constituencies, and other professionals as appropriate. Social workers:

  • apply knowledge of human behavior and the social environment, person-in-environment, and other multidisciplinary theoretical frameworks to engage with clients and constituencies.
  • use empathy, reflection, and interpersonal skills to effectively engage diverse clients and constituencies.
  • demonstrate high quality, evidence-informed engagement skills to address complex systems related to client or community needs in different fields of practice. 

Competency #7: Assess Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities

Social workers understand that assessment is an ongoing component of the dynamic and interactive process of social work practice with, and on behalf of, diverse individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Social workers understand theories of human behavior and the social environment, and critically evaluate and apply this knowledge in the assessment of diverse clients and constituencies, including individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Social workers understand methods of assessment with diverse clients and constituencies to advance practice effectiveness. Social workers recognize the implications of the larger practice context in the assessment process and value the importance of interprofessional collaboration in this process. Social workers understand how their personal experiences and affective reactions may affect their assessment and decision-making. Social workers:

  • collect and organize data, and apply critical thinking to interpret information from clients and constituencies.
  • apply knowledge of human behavior and the social environment, person-in-environment, and other multidisciplinary theoretical frameworks in the analysis of assessment data from clients and constituencies.
  • develop mutually agreed-on intervention goals and objectives based on the critical assessment of strengths, needs, and challenges within clients and constituencies.
  • select appropriate intervention strategies based on the assessment, research knowledge, and values and preferences of clients and constituencies.
  • demonstrate high quality, evidence-informed assessment skills to address and monitor complex systems related to client or community needs in different fields of practice.

Competency #8: Intervene with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities

Social workers understand that intervention is an ongoing component of the dynamic and interactive process of social work practice with, and on behalf of, diverse individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Social workers are knowledgeable about evidence-informed interventions to achieve the goals of clients and constituencies, including individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Social workers understand theories of human behavior and the social environment, and critically evaluate and apply this knowledge to effectively intervene with clients and constituencies. Social workers understand methods of identifying, analyzing and implementing evidence-informed interventions to achieve client and constituency goals. Social workers value the importance of inter-professional teamwork and communication in interventions, recognizing that beneficial outcomes may require interdisciplinary, inter-professional, and inter-organizational collaboration. Social workers:

  • critically choose and implement interventions to achieve practice goals and enhance capacities of clients and constituencies.
  • apply knowledge of human behavior and the social environment, person-in-environment, and other multidisciplinary theoretical frameworks in interventions with clients and constituencies.
  • use inter-professional collaboration as appropriate to achieve beneficial practice outcomes.
  • negotiate, mediate, and advocate with and on behalf of diverse clients and constituencies.
  • facilitate effective transitions and endings that advance mutually agreed-on goals.
  • demonstrate high quality, evidence-informed intervention skills to address complex systems related to client or community needs in different fields of practice.

Competency #9: Evaluate Practice with Individuals, Families, Groups, Organizations, and Communities

Social workers understand that evaluation is an ongoing component of the dynamic and interactive process of social work practice with, and on behalf of, diverse individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities. Social workers recognize the importance of evaluating processes and outcomes to advance practice, policy, and service delivery effectiveness. Social workers understand theories of human behavior and the social environment, and critically evaluate and apply this knowledge in evaluating outcomes. Social workers understand qualitative and quantitative methods for evaluating outcomes and practice effectiveness. Social workers:

  • select and use appropriate methods for evaluation of outcomes.
  • apply knowledge of human behavior and the social environment, person-in-environment, and other multidisciplinary theoretical frameworks in the evaluation of outcomes.
  • critically analyze, monitor, and evaluate intervention and program processes and outcomes.
  • apply evaluation findings to improve practice effectiveness at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels.
  • demonstrate evaluation skills to monitor complex systems related to client or community needs in different fields of practice.
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Social Work as a Human Rights Profession: An Action Framework

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Didier Reynaert, Siebren Nachtergaele, Nadine De Stercke, Hildegard Gobeyn, Rudi Roose, Social Work as a Human Rights Profession: An Action Framework, The British Journal of Social Work , Volume 52, Issue 2, March 2022, Pages 928–945, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcab083

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Human rights are foundational to social work, as recognised in the global definition, leading many to consider social work a human rights profession. Although human rights has become an important compass for social work, comprehensive frameworks for understanding the ‘practice’ of human rights in social work are still limited. Only recently attempts have been made to fill this gap. This article seeks to continue these efforts and contribute to a better understanding of how social work constructs, deconstructs and reconstructs ideas of human rights in daily practice. We investigated the following research question: ‘How do social workers “act” when using human rights as a framework for practice?’ We used a qualitative research design consisting of ethnographic research and focus groups, with both social workers and service-users participating. Based on our research, we developed five building blocks for an action framework for human rights in social work: (i) systemworld-oriented action; (ii) lifeworld-oriented action; (iii) participatory action; (iv) joined-up action and (v) politicised action. These building blocks give a comprehensive account for the discursive practice of human rights in social work.

Human rights are foundational to social work, as recognised in the global definition, leading many to consider social work a human rights profession ( Healy, 2008 ; Staub-Bernasconi, 2016 ; Mapp et al. , 2019 ). Staub-Bernasconi (2016) , together with Gatenio Gabel (2015) , among others, acknowledges the historical connection of social work with human rights. In recent years, the recognition of social work as a human rights profession gained renewed attention in social work scholarship. In his book ‘ Practicing rights. Human rights-based approaches to social work practice ’, Androff (2016) makes a comprehensive account of the state of human rights in social work. He shows how (inter)national social work organisations adopted human rights in their codes of ethics, how social work scholars increasingly published books and articles on human rights or how social work education developed a range of training materials and educational programmes on human rights. Based on his analysis, Androff concludes that ‘The growth of scholarship and education focused on human rights suggests that the field is turning towards human rights, rediscovering its rights-based roots. It is now undeniable that there is a consensus that human rights are important and relevant to social work.’ ( Androff, 2016 , p. 10). These observations are in line with conclusions of Cubillos-Vega (2017) , who conducted a study on the scientific output on human rights in social work based on articles published in international indexed journals between 2000 and 2015. She notes that in recent years, the academic output on social work and human rights gradually increased. However, Cubillos-Vega’s (2017) study also reveals that published articles were primarily of theoretical nature. From the fifty-seven articles analysed, hardly one-third (sixteen) were of an empirical type. This trend is striking, Cubillos-Vega argues, because of the nature of the discipline of social work, taking a position between theory and practice. Already in 2012, Ife came to a similar conclusion: ‘Much of the academic debate about human rights remains at the theoretical level; less has been written about the practice of human rights. … There is little articulation of what it means in practice for professionals to claim that their work is based on human rights, and so human rights remain a “nice idea” rather than a solid foundation for the development of practice theories and methodologies.’ ( Ife, 2012 , pp. 10–11). Despite the ground-breaking work of several pioneers in the domain of social work and human rights (e.g. Reichert, 2003 ; Wronka, 2008 ; Ife, 2009 , 2012 ; Lundy, 2011 ), the practice of human right still remains a black box. To date, social work scholarship insufficiently succeed to gain practical knowledge showing how social workers ‘act’ when using the framework of human rights. Together with Ife, we acknowledge the presumption that human rights in social work have a discursive character, as they need to be permanently constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed throughout social work practice. ‘Social workers need to see themselves as active participants in this discursive process, and indeed social work practice itself can be seen as part of the ongoing process of the reconstruction of human rights. It is partly through social work practice that human rights are operationalised, and hence defined.’ ( Ife, 2012 , p. 133). Social work should recognise its actorship or agency in constructing human rights and social work scholarship should conscientiously scrutinise this construction process of human rights through social work practice.

Recent launches in social work scholarship rose to this challenge. In 2015, the SpringerBriefs in Rights-Based Approaches to Social Work were launched. The series aims to develop a social work practice grounded in human rights by presenting and reflecting on new methods ( Gatenio Gabel, 2015 ). The Journal of Human Rights and Social Work, established in 2016, has similar aims. In the inaugural issue, the editors-in-chief state that the journal ‘offers the opportunity for educators, practitioners, administrators, and students in this and related disciplines to have a voice and to expand their knowledge base on issues within human rights practice, knowledge of human rights tools, and to develop skills practicing from a human rights perspective’ ( Gatenio Gabel and Mapp, 2016 , p. 1). Additionally, several social work scholars have been developing practice approaches for human rights in social work. Androff (2016 , 2018 ), for instance, seeks to integrate the five-principles framework of human rights (human dignity, non-discrimination, participation, transparency and accountability) into the social work arena. According to Androff, this framework can offer an integrative account across a wide range of social work practices (see also Mapp et al. , 2019 ). One step further is the proposal of McPherson ( McPherson, 2015a ; Mapp et al. , 2019 ; McPherson and Abell, 2020 ), which contains a comprehensive framework for human rights practice in social work (HRPSW). It comprises three pillars of practice: a human rights lens, human rights methods and human rights goals. McPherson (2015a ) explains that the HRPSW model can be useful for both social work practice and social work education. What these practice models demonstrate is the increased academic interest in practice approaches of human rights in social work ( McPherson, 2015b ).

In this article, we build upon these efforts and present an action framework for human rights in social work. Our action framework expands the above mentioned models in an important way. It provides an understanding of human rights in social work in the context of a different welfare regime. Both the studies of Androff and McPherson are USA based, thereby confirming Cubillos-Vega’s (2017) observation of an Anglo-Saxon hegemony in social work scholarship on human rights. However, different social welfare regimes show different traditions of social work ( Lorenz, 2001 , 2008 ), associated with different understandings of human rights ( Alseth, 2020 ). Our study was conducted in Belgium, which is generally conceived as a conservative welfare state, distinct from the liberal welfare regime of the USA. Conservative welfare regimes have a certain tradition with social rights in particular. Additionally, conservative welfare regimes are characterised by a welfare state architecture of corporatism, balancing civil society’s interest and state power ( Esping-Andersen 1990 ; Lorenz, 2001 ; Dean, 2002 ). It is within this corporatist structure that human rights take shape with social workers developing a human right-based practice.

Because of the open character of our research question (‘How does social workers act when using human rights as a framework for practice?’), we chose a qualitative research design ( Shaw and Holland, 2014 ; Carey, 2012 ), developed in two parts. The first part consists of ethnographic research; the second, of focus groups.

Ethnographic research

Ethnographic research allows one to understand complex practices in their ‘natural setting’ ( D’Cruz and Jones, 2004 ) by being ‘ involved in the ongoing, daily world of the people being studied’ ( Fielding, 2008 , p. 269). Being part of and participating in human-rights-based practices in social work allows the ethnographer to get to know the logic, dynamics and meanings behind these practices. For this study, collaboration was set up with one of the eight regional institutions for community development in Flanders, Belgium. These institutions are recognised and subsidised by the Flemish government through the 1991 Act on Community Development. The overall mission of the institutions for community development is to contribute to realising the right to a decent life for people living in vulnerable life conditions. The institutions for community development explicitly use human rights as a framework to realise their mission. In particular, they focus on social rights as they are recognised in the Belgian Constitution: the right to decent housing, the right to education, the right to social security, the right to health care, the right to work, the right to a healthy living environment and the right to cultural and social development. The participatory approach is typical for the work of the institutions for community development. They are not working just ‘for’, but above all ‘with’ people living in vulnerable life conditions. Therefore, the institutions for community development are an interesting case for investigating the meaning of social work as a human rights profession. Our research took place in the institution for community development in East Flanders, one of the five Flemish provinces in Belgium. In collaboration with the institution, we decided to select two human rights domains to study: housing and education. These domains could be considered as exemplary to study social work as a human rights profession.

Research methods used in ethnographic research can be very diverse. For this study, we used a documentary review, participant observation and conversation-style interviews with key informants ( D’Cruz and Jones, 2004 ). For the documentary review, we used documents produced by social workers who are active in the institution for community development. These documents gave us an insight into the work of the institution regarding the role of social work in ‘doing’ human rights. Policy notes, minutes of meetings, annual reports, etc. were all considered. Because in ethnographic research, it is important to understand the particular historical and socio-cultural context of the practices being researched ( Bryman, 2012 ), additional documents produced outside the institution for community development were selected. They were used to develop an environmental analysis in order to ‘capture’ the work of the institution in relation to the broader policy context (demographic data, a ‘map’ of the available welfare organisations, the history of particular neighbourhoods, etc.).

For the participant observation, the relevant activities to understand the work of the institution for community development were selected in mutual consultation with a ‘gatekeeper’ ( Fielding, 2008 ) of the institution. Gradually, the researcher also spontaneously took part in a variety of activities. Participation by the researcher was always overt (see Bryman, 2012 ). Field notes were kept during or directly after the participant observation. These field notes took the form of detailed descriptions of particular events and of people’s actions in these events, as well as the researcher’s initial reflections on these events. In total, participant observations took four months and more than 400 h. Time was divided equally between the domains of education and housing.

The third method we used was conversation-style interviews with key informants. In order to guarantee the validity of the observations, provisional ideas on the findings, striking observations or remaining questions were ‘shared with the member’s world’ ( Fielding, 2008 ) and checked. These ‘ethnographic interviews’ often took the form of ‘interviews on the spot’ and gave a deeper understanding of the practice being studied. For both education and housing, 26 people participated in an interview (total n  = 52). In the case of education, the group consisted of eight community development workers, twelve social workers from partner organisations (civil servants from the city, school social workers, school directors, social workers from the public centre for social welfare [PCSW], social workers from poverty-related organisations, etc.) and six service-users from the institution for community development. The service-users all had a background of living in poverty, and were selected as members of a parent group from a local school for primary education.

In the case of housing, the participants were six community development workers, eleven social workers from partner organisations (civil servants from the city, social workers from the social housing company, social workers from the PCSW, social workers from poverty-related organisations, etc.) and nine service-users. The service-users were selected based on their participation in the working group on housing that is organised by the institution for community development. This working group consists of people who all face problems with regard to housing. All interviews were audiotaped and transcribed. The researchers had no personal connection whatsoever with the institution for community development. The only professional link that the researchers had with the research context was expertise in the domain of community development and encounters with representatives of the institution in the context of education-related activities (e.g. internships).

Focus groups

In the second part of the study, focus groups were set up. While the general aim of a focus group is to discuss a specific topic ( Bryman, 2012 ), we had an additional 2-fold goal. First, we wanted to flesh out several issues that were not clear after the ethnographic research (deepening). Second, we wanted to explore whether the findings of our ethnographic research that took place in the context of community development were applicable in other domains of social work (broadening). We chose focus groups because they allow for creating rich data, enabling in-depth analysis. We selected people with a more expert profile in social work and human rights. The selection criteria used for participants were (i) being familiar with human rights in a social work context and (ii) having a generalist view on social work practice or policy. Participants from the focus group were senior staff members of various social work organisations, as well as lecturers and professors who teach social work at universities and universities of applied sciences in Flanders. Four focus groups of four to six people were organised (total n  = 18). In addition, seven in-depth interviews were organised with experts who, because of practical considerations, were not able to attend the focus groups. All the focus groups were led by two people: the researcher who conducted the ethnographic research and whose role it was to bring up the content for discussion and a supervisor who was the moderator of the focus group. Each focus group lasted approximately an hour and a half, and each was organised around three statements: (i) Participatory action, as a foundation of a human rights-based approach in social work, can also exclude people; (ii) a human rights-based approach in social work contributes to individualisation and responsibilisation and (iii) a human rights-based approach that starts from rules and laws (a top-down perspective) obstructs an approach that starts from the needs of people (a bottom-up perspective). The discussion in the focus groups was organised based on the five-stage model proposed by Cronin (2008) : (1) introduction; (2) opening; (3) introductory statement; (4) key questions and (5) ending questions. Both the focus group discussions and interviews were audiotaped and transcribed.

Ethics statement

The study was approved and funded by the Research Council of the HOGENT University of Applied Sciences and Arts. It was carried out in collaboration with Ghent University in compliance with the ethical standards of both the institutions. Informed consent was obtained from all of the participants after an extensive explanation of the research project.

Data analysis

For the data analysis, an inductive approach was chosen ( Hodkinsons, 2008 ). More specifically, a thematic analysis was done on the materials obtained from the ethnographic research. The analysis was executed in two steps by the two first authors. In the first step, both authors separately analysed the same six interviews (two community development workers, two social workers form partner organisations and two service-users) for each domain (education and housing). The analysis was based on the six-step model developed by Braun and Clarke (2006 ; see also Teater, 2017 ). Initial codes were assigned to the materials and afterwards they were grouped around several themes or ‘building blocks’. To answer the question of how social work acts when using human rights, we were looking for themes or building blocks that constitute a comprehensive action-framework for human rights in social work. We were particularly looking for different or even conflicting interpretations or constructions of human rights by social work, as these different interpretations could clearly demonstrate the action component of our framework. After individual analysis by the two authors, the results were pooled and discussed. This working method increases the inter-rater reliability among the researchers ( Oluwatayo, 2012 ). The result of this first step was a first draft of an action framework for human rights in social work. In the second step, the second author continued the analysis of the remaining interviews and also analysed the documentary review and the participant observations.

Although the analysis was primarily data-driven, we, as researchers with an interest in social work and human rights, could not disengage from our pre-existing knowledge. As Braun and Clarke explain, ‘data are not coded in an epistemological vacuum’ (2006 , p. 14). So the research context of community development coloured our data to a certain extent. As explained earlier, the community development organisations explicitly use human rights as a framework for their practice. In recent years, they acquired a great deal of expertise in the field of human rights, which has been reflected in numerous reports, memoranda and suchlike. Furthermore, as social work is a practice characterised by interconnectedness with local communities, working with vulnerable people, both at the micro-level of individual support and at the macro-level of structural change, it is no coincidence that related themes emerged from the data. Altogether, the first phase analysis yielded five themes or building blocks for an action framework for human rights in social work: (i) systemworld-oriented action, (ii) lifeworld-oriented action, (iii) participatory action, (iv) joined-up action and (v) politicised action. In the next step, these findings were presented to all the authors and discussed. This did not result in any adjustments at the level of themes, but it did result in some changes to the topics included under each building block. The remaining points of discussion and things that were unclear were taken to the focus groups. After the focus groups were held, the same procedure was followed: the four transcribed focus groups and seven additional interviews were analysed by the two first authors, and then discussed with all the authors, until consensus was reached. Again, this did not result in any adjustments at the level of the building blocks.

Based on our data, an action framework for human rights in social work was developed, consisting of five building blocks. In the next part of this article, we present these five building blocks.

Systemworld-oriented action

The right to social support would be meaningless without social services; the right to education would be meaningless without schools; the right to decent housing would be meaningless without houses and the right to health care would be meaningless without hospitals. All these systems—social services, schools, houses, health care, social security, etc.—are considered parts of the systemworld . The systemworld can be defined as all the institutionalised societal resources necessary for the realisation of human rights. Access to these systems is often difficult for people living in vulnerable life conditions. They frequently experience high thresholds.

The problem is that you have to be well informed and to know the right person.  … How many people know about the income guarantee for elderly people? A lot of people probably know about the premium for housing, but how many of them are actually applying for it? Definitely not that many, because it requires a lot of jargon that keeps people from applying . (a service-user)

It is a recurring complaint that social systems are inaccessible, because people who need care and support must deal with bureaucracy. The problem is not just the large number of forms that need to be filled in. Social workers also send people from pillar to post, so that ultimately people give up and do not apply for the support they are entitled to. In the end, social rights are often not realised.

We do not understand just how high the thresholds are for people who are already in a vulnerable position, who are living in difficult circumstances, and who are then confronted with a multitude of services that are not working in an integrated way, have cultural thresholds, etc. We have no idea what it means to live in poverty, how hard that is … so that support by social services and an emancipatory approach don’t mean anything. (a social worker, institution for community development)

An important topic related to creating accessible social institutions concerns the distinction between ‘universal’ and ‘selective’ social systems. Based on a human rights perspective, social workers often argue for universal social systems. However, some social workers point out the risks of this approach.

Human rights are of course for everyone. But I think that certain groups are more easily deprived of them. These are certainly socially vulnerable groups.  … Other groups have more power to make their voices heard. In any case, they also have easier access to certain rights. Education, for example, is more in line with middle-class culture. (a social worker, institution for community development)

Another social worker puts it even more bluntly:

That is actually a waste of time and resources if we focus on all citizens.  … In such an inclusive organisation, time and energy are not focused on the most vulnerable people. (a social worker, institution for community development)

To resolve the tension between a universal and a selective approach, some social workers argue for so-called progressive universalism. According to this line of thinking, social support should in principle be universal in orientation, and therefore should be addressed to everyone. However, these universal social systems should simultaneously develop ways of supporting people living in vulnerable life conditions who may fall through the cracks, by supplementing them with selective measures ‘within’ these universal systems. So a community centre can be open to everyone, but for people living in poverty, extra support should be provided ‘within’ this community centre to guarantee their participation.

We shouldn’t become the home of the poor either. We have to keep it a bit open without opening it up again to everyone, because then you know that the weakest people will fall out again. (a social worker, institution for community development)

Lifeworld-oriented action

Systemworld-oriented action has its counterpart in lifeworld-oriented action. Lifeworld-oriented action is about social workers making connections with the experiences from people’s everyday lifeworld. The focus is not so much on institutionalised resources, but rather on the practices that people themselves develop to cope with daily experiences of injustice and with violations of human rights.

Actually, being in the field, close to the people, makes you better able to understand the underlying causes … you can more easily contextualise situations. People don’t always say what they want to say or what they think. If you know the context, you can understand that people formulate things in a certain way but mean it differently. (a social worker, institution for community development)

People living in vulnerable life conditions often find that their living environments are insufficiently understood by social workers as well as others. At the same time, they experience difficulties in explaining their own situation to social work organisations.

A lifeworld orientation also requires that social workers facilitate the opportunities to connect different lifeworlds. Connecting lifeworlds can contribute to sharing diverse experiences and to creating connectedness.

One time there was a ‘week of empathisation’. This is good for involving citizens so they can also experience it that way. They cannot imagine what it is like.  … It is good to involve them, so they get a very different view of our problems, because those people don’t normally have to deal with these problems. They should do this a lot more, through a campaign set up by the working group on housing, so these people are motivated to join our conversations and to experience what is going on. (a service-user)

Social workers also point out several risks that might be associated with a lifeworld approach. Specifically, they warn against a narrowing view on social problems where not only are social problems observed in the lifeworlds of people, but also solutions for these social problems are sought within the same lifeworlds. However, problems that manifest in the lifeworlds of people often originate from external causes, such as the labour market, the housing market or the school system. Therefore, social workers should always try to link issues raised in the lifeworld with the way social systems are organised.

That double movement has to be part of our work. That is why we say that you should not see our work merely as directed downwards. You have to work from the bottom up, but that movement must also go upwards.  … You have to link the work with a broader movement of social organisations. They help to raise the issues of social inequality, and they can move society in the direction of redistribution.  … It is even more necessary to set up broader alliances, so that all those little things that happen can become part of a broader context and become part of a wider environment. (a social worker, institution for community development)

The final crucial aspect of social work with lifeworld-oriented action is social duty in public deliberation.

The articulation of different needs of different groups is the core of democracy; that is a social issue. Which needs do we as a society recognise, and which not? Which needs can be defined as rights, how are they recognised, and can we organise ourselves accordingly? These are public debates. These are collective discussions, because not having your needs recognised, and, consequently, not being seen or heard in society, is usually a collective and structural problem. (a lecturer on social work)

Participatory action

Participation is a loose concept, but nevertheless a key notion when talking about an action framework for human rights in social work. After all, shaping human rights requires dialogue between social workers and citizens about how to construct human rights and for what purpose. Social workers point to two complementary features of participation. First, participatory action entails involvement, connection and reciprocity between social workers and citizens. Here, social workers focus on the ‘relational’ characteristic of the practice of participation.

Participative work cannot be one-sided. You cannot expect your client to participate in everything that comes out of your sleeve. I think the art is to participate with them, and to play it by ear: ‘What is going on here?’ If you as a social worker participate with them , you are going to exclude far fewer people than you would if you expect them to come and participate with you. (a social worker, institution for community development)

Social workers also recognise that participation is not simply a relational issue, but that it entails a ‘structural’ approach as well.

If I say that we have to be more individual, this doesn’t mean that we have to find an individual solution. What I mean is that we have to approach people individually and then hear from there what problems those people or those groups are experiencing. It is also important that policy acknowledges the stories of those people. (a social worker, institution for community development)

Participatory action comes with many pitfalls. One is the social exclusion caused by participatory practices. For social work, it is important to be aware of these processes of exclusion and to identify possible barriers and difficulties. In general, social workers indicate that ‘stronger’ people are the ones who participate in available activities, as these practices require a certain assertiveness or particular social or cultural skills.

Participation usually starts from a certain framework and not everyone fits into that framework. It also requires certain skills from clients—skills they don’t always have. So participatory practices exclude people, but at the same time, this makes us aware that we need to find a different way to involve those excluded. (social worker, institution for community development)

Another pitfall has to do with participation in social policy. One of the working methods of the institution for community development is to coach people who live in vulnerable life conditions to speak with policymakers. This involves a risk of instrumentalisation, not only by policymakers, but also by social workers, as these people adapt themselves to the preferences of social workers.

In everything we do, of course, it is important that we let people make their own choices. But to what extent we, as community workers, steer those choices … I’m not sure.  … We wouldn’t say it like that, but we do come up with the solutions.  … We start a project and then we involve people in it. (a social worker, institution for community development)

Joined-up action

Social work exists in many fields of practice. This can lead to physical or metaphorical borders between these fields. The over-organised professional field of social work often results in fragmentation or compartmentalisation. Social work from a human rights perspective should question these borders and even try to break through them. This is what is meant by joined-up action. Joined-up action aims to counteract structures and logic that withhold the realisation of human rights in social work.

A trend in the social field is to divide everything into separate human rights or compartments. That is how social policy is organised. A human-rights-based perspective implies an integrated or joined-up approach. This requires breaking through this administrative compartmentalisation of human rights. (a social worker, institution for community development)

Besides the limitations caused by the organisation of social work in different fields, social work is often restricted by the proliferation of rules, procedures, protocols, etc. From a human rights perspective, this requires social workers to push boundaries.

It is about pushing and crossing boundaries, looking outside the range of tasks, thinking outside the box. Laws are not violated, but rules are; these are agreements, and they can be interpreted more broadly or reinterpreted … . (a social worker, community health centre)

Social workers call for questioning rules and procedures. Joined-up action here means that social workers should use their professional discretion in order to be guided by their ethical duty instead of following fixed rules and arrangements.

Having sufficient professional discretion is very important, especially if you work with the most vulnerable groups. You need to take the side of these people instead of working with a double agenda. In any case, they will feel this immediately. But secondly, the more professional discretion social workers use in a system, the more they can defend the rights of vulnerable groups in society.  … It is important that they make full use of their professional discretion in order to develop a social reflex as much as possible. (a social worker, institution for community development)

Politicising action

Politicisation concerns questioning and contesting power. Power is mostly conceived of as something that belongs to societal structures, like politics or the judiciary system. Exercising power may result in injustice and in inhuman living conditions. The role of social work is thought to be to collectivise individual experiences of human rights violations and to bring these to the public debate. Politicised social work should use political advocacy to denounce structures and systems of power that cause violations of human rights.

You can try to help the person on an individual level to realise his or her rights, but you will always come across structural issues. (a social worker, institution for community development)

Power is also something that is situated in speaking about particular social issues. These discourses of power have a significant impact on people. The role of social work is to question these dominant orders of society. A social worker from a poverty-related organisation working with young people explains:

Many of the young people who arrive at our organisation are caught up in the ‘it’s your own fault’ discourse … . These young people are caught in a system and therefore they often blame themselves: ‘I think it’s me’ … . For example, education is an often recurring subject: 90% have attended special education. How is that possible? Is it only because of the context of poverty that they are being referred to this type of education, largely determining their future? In our organisation, they learn that this is happening not only to them, but this is something systemic. We explain that it is caused by our educational system failing to give everyone equal opportunities. By doing this, we are ‘de-blaming’ them: there is an individual responsibility, but there is also a social responsibility. For them, this is a process of awareness-raising about how society works and about who decides what. In the beginning, this often alienates these young people, these issues of politics, policy, human rights. (a social worker, poverty organisation).

However, because of the often extensive subsidisation of social work organisations by the government, the politicising role of social work is frequently at odds with the autonomy and independence of the organisation.

You are actually in a sort of a split, which keeps you from going fully for human rights. We cannot just be a protest movement. We can never go full 100 per cent. We can do that, but only with the blessing of a minister. (a social worker, institution for community development)

Therefore, social workers should be aware of depoliticising tendencies that increasingly emphasise the controlling side of social work over its emancipatory character.

The pressure is increasing for social workers to exercise control. I think it is important that social workers be very conscious of this: what is my task? … You see that organisations that are not complying are experiencing consequences. … We owe it to ourselves to say why we stand for. If we don’t do that, we do not take our clients seriously. We must unite as social workers to make it clear to policymakers: this is social work and this is not social work. … We must be able to define our role as social workers: what do we serve? We cannot be used for everything. (a social worker, organisation supporting people with a migration background)

Social workers indicate that they should be much more concerned with their self-critical role. Their own actions as social workers should also be scrutinised in some form of ‘self-politicisation’.

Our qualitative research on how social work acts when aiming to realise human rights reveals five building blocks. They flesh out what it can mean for social work to be a human rights profession. It is important to consider these five building blocks in connection to one another as an action framework for human rights in social work. The key point of this framework is the recognition that human rights in social work are collectively constructed and that social workers play a crucial role in this construction process. To state that human rights are collectively constructed is to acknowledge the discursive, contested and complex nature of human rights in social work ( Cemlyn, 2008 ; Ife, 2012 ). There is no single way to construct human rights. On the contrary, trying to realise human rights is a process characterised by a plurality of potential constructions, based on the plurality of interests of the communities and community members involved. Part of our data also show opposing constructions of human rights ‘within’ building blocks. The discussion on systemworld-oriented action, for instance, demonstrates that some social workers are in favour of selective social services, while others defend universal ones. The same goes for participatory action: being recognised as an agent and being acknowledged as a partner in dialogue can conflict with instrumentalising tendencies. It is remarkable that the conflicting perspectives each underpin their opposite positions from the same framework of human rights. Another part of our data show opposing views on human rights ‘between’ building blocks. This is probably most obvious in the building blocks of lifeworld-oriented action and systemworld-oriented action, which can be considered opposites. The approach of starting from the needs experienced by communities seems to be difficult to reconcile with the bureaucratic procedures of institutions within a system, although both rely on human rights.

Our action framework has an ambiguous relationship with previous action models. It resonates only partially with Androff’s five-principles framework ( Androff, 2016 ), particularly regarding the principle of participation. The principle of accountability in Androff’s model is closely linked to the building block of politicised action. For the other principles, the two frameworks can be considered complementary. The same goes for McPhersons’s HRPSW framework (2015; see also McPherson and Abell, 2020 ). Some of the human rights methods in her model share similarities with our action framework: participation is a shared concern; accountability and activism correspond to politicised action; community and interdisciplinary collaboration are related to lifeworld-oriented action and micro/macro integration and capacity building resonate with systemworld-oriented action. On the other hand, the human rights lens and human rights goals are absent from our action framework. As for earlier research in the Flemish context, our action framework agrees with some aspects of it but not others. Vandekinderen et al. (2020) conducted a research project to explore the common ground of social work in Flanders. They identified five building blocks that are considered the DNA of social work in Flanders. Of these, politicising work is the only building block that both frameworks have in common. It is no surprise that this building block also shows up in our results, as politicising work is a main concern in the work of community development organisations in Flanders.

The observed divergences between our own action framework and the practice approaches of Androff and McPherson can be explained in different ways. In part, this is probably due to the different research contexts in which the projects took place. In our project, collaboration was set up with organisations in the field of community development. Although we included focus group discussions to see whether our findings were transferable, additional research in other social work domains could reveal different emphases or even different building blocks. Furthermore, comparative studies between countries could provide more insight into the international transferability of our action framework. As explained in the ‘Introduction’ section, the nature of social work is closely linked to the welfare regime of a country, which in turn ‘set the scene’ for understanding human rights. How different welfare regimes affect the translation of human rights in social work practice remains a blind spot in social work scholarship. However, this is of particular relevance as welfare regimes all over the world are facing far-reaching transformation that have a significant impact on how human rights in social work are understood. Further research might reveal the link between the nature of different welfare regimes and the way social workers use human rights in their practice. Finally, although we included the voices of service-users in our research project, they often remain left out of rights-based practice literature. Further research on human rights in social work should pay much more attention to the perspective of service-users and to the way that a human rights framework affects their situations and life conditions. These issues require an empirical shift in order to fully understand social work as a human rights profession. Understanding these issues could lend more nuance to the discussions on the relationship between social work and human rights, and would move this debate beyond empty slogans and catchphrases.

Alseth A. K. ( 2020 ) ‘ Human rights as an opportunity and challenge for social work in a changing Norwegian welfare state’, European Journal of Social Work , 23 ( 6 ), pp. 920 – 13 .

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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:

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

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:

  • Study the NASW  Code of Ethics , which includes the social work profession’s mission, values and principles.
  • 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.
  • Seek professional supervision, and discuss issues and how to address them with supervisors and professional consultants.
  • 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.

Social Work With the LGBTQIA+ Community: Supporting the Needs of a Diverse Population

What Is Trauma-Informed Practice in Social Work?

Why Cultural Competence in Social Work Is a Vital Skill

GoodTherapy, “When Do Minors in Therapy Have a Right to Confidentiality?”

National Association of Social Workers, “Free Ethics Consultations for NASW Members”

National Association of Social Workers, “Read the Code of Ethics”

The New Social Worker , “Analysis of an Ethical Dilemma”

The New Social Worker , “Client Relationships and Ethical Boundaries for Social Workers in Child Welfare”

The New Social Worker , “Ethics Alive! Using Ethics Consultation: What, Why, When, Who, and How”

The New Social Worker , “To Report or Not To Report: That Is the Ethical Dilemma”

Social Work Today , “’Tis the Season: Managing Client Gifts”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers


Bachelor’s degree is required.

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International Federation of Social Workers

Global Online conference

Global Social Work Statement of Ethical Principles

July 2, 2018

Global Social Work Statement of Ethical Principles: 

This Statement of Ethical Principles (hereafter referred to as the Statement) serves as an overarching framework for social workers to work towards the highest possible standards of professional integrity.

Implicit in our acceptance of this Statement as social work practitioners, educators, students, and researchers is our commitment to uphold the core values and principles of the social work profession as set out in this Statement.

An array of values and ethical principles inform us as social workers; this reality was recognized in 2014 by the International Federation of Social Workers and The International Association of Schools of Social Work in the global definition of social work, which is layered and encourages regional and national amplifications.

All IFSW policies including the definition of social work stem from these ethical principles.

Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that facilitates social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing . http://ifsw.org/get-involved/global-definition-of-social-work/  


  • Recognition of the Inherent Dignity of Humanity

Social workers recognize and respect the inherent dignity and worth of all human beings in attitude, word, and deed. We respect all persons, but we challenge beliefs and actions of those persons who devalue or stigmatize themselves or other persons.

  • Promoting Human Rights

Social workers embrace and promote the fundamental and inalienable rights of all human beings. Social work is based on respect for the inherent worth, dignity of all people and the individual and social /civil rights that follow from this. Social workers often work with people to find an appropriate balance between competing human rights.

  • Promoting Social Justice

Social workers have a responsibility to engage people in achieving social justice, in relation to society generally, and in relation to the people with whom they work. This means:

3.1 Challenging Discrimination and Institutional Oppression

Social workers promote social justice in relation to society generally and to the people with whom they work.

Social workers challenge discrimination, which includes but is not limited to age, capacity, civil status, class, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, language, nationality (or lack thereof), opinions, other physical characteristics, physical or mental abilities, political beliefs, poverty, race, relationship status, religion, sex, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, spiritual beliefs, or family structure.

3.2 Respect for Diversity

Social workers work toward strengthening inclusive communities that respect the ethnic and cultural diversity of societies, taking account of individual, family, group, and community differences.

3.3 Access to Equitable Resources

Social workers advocate and work toward access and the equitable distribution of resources and wealth.

3.4 Challenging Unjust Policies and Practices

Social workers work to bring to the attention of their employers, policymakers, politicians, and the public situations in which policies and resources are inadequate or in which policies and practices are oppressive, unfair, or harmful. In doing so, social workers must not be penalized.

Social workers must be aware of situations that might threaten their own safety and security, and they must make judicious choices in such circumstances. Social workers are not compelled to act when it would put themselves at risk.

3.5 Building Solidarity

Social workers actively work in communities and with their colleagues, within and outside of the profession, to build networks of solidarity to work toward transformational change and inclusive and responsible societies.  

  • Promoting the Right to Self-Determination

Social workers respect and promote people’s rights to make their own choices and decisions, provided this does not threaten the rights and legitimate interests of others.

  • Promoting the Right to Participation

Social workers work toward building the self-esteem and capabilities of people, promoting their full involvement and participation in all aspects of decisions and actions that affect their lives.

  • Respect for Confidentiality and Privacy

6.1  Social workers respect and work in accordance with people’s rights to confidentiality and privacy unless there is risk of harm to the self or to others or other statutory restrictions.

6.2 Social workers inform the people with whom they engage about such limits to confidentiality and privacy.

  • Treating People as Whole Persons

Social workers recognize the biological, psychological, social, and spiritual dimensions of people’s lives and understand and treat all people as whole persons. Such recognition is used to formulate holistic assessments and interventions with the full participation of people, organizations, and communities with whom social workers engage.

  • Ethical Use of Technology and Social Media

8.1 The ethical principles in this Statement apply to all contexts of social work practice, education, and research, whether it involves direct face-to-face contact or through use of digital technology and social media.

8.2 Social workers must recognize that the use of digital technology and social media may pose threats to the practice of many ethical standards including but not limited to privacy and confidentiality, conflicts of interest, competence, and documentation and must obtain the necessary knowledge and skills to guard against unethical practice when using technology.

  • Professional Integrity

9.1 It is the responsibility of national associations and organizations to develop and regularly update their own codes of ethics or ethical guidelines, to be consistent with this Statement, considering local situations. It is also the responsibility of national organizations to inform social workers and schools of social work about this Statement of Ethical Principles and their own ethical guidelines. Social workers should act in accordance with the current ethical code or guidelines in their country.

9.2 Social workers must hold the required qualifications and develop and maintain the required skills and competencies to do their job.

9.3 Social workers support peace and nonviolence. Social workers may work alongside military personnel for humanitarian purposes and work toward peacebuilding and reconstruction. Social workers operating within a military or peacekeeping context must always support the dignity and agency of people as their primary focus. Social workers must not allow their knowledge and skills to be used for inhumane purposes, such as torture, military surveillance, terrorism, or conversion therapy, and they should not use weapons in their professional or personal capacities against people.

9.4 Social workers must act with integrity. This includes not abusing their positions of power and relationships of trust with people that they engage with; they recognize the boundaries between personal and professional life and do not abuse their positions for personal material benefit or gain.

9.5 Social workers recognize that the giving and receiving of small gifts is a part of the social work and cultural experience in some cultures and countries. In such situations, this should be referenced in the country’s code of ethics.

9.6 Social workers have a duty to take the necessary steps to care for themselves professionally and personally in the workplace, in their private lives and in society.

9.7 Social workers acknowledge that they are accountable for their actions to the people they work with; their colleagues; their employers; their professional associations; and local, national, and international laws and conventions and that these accountabilities may conflict, which must be negotiated to minimize harm to all persons. Decisions should always be informed by empirical evidence; practice wisdom; and ethical, legal, and cultural considerations. Social workers must be prepared to be transparent about the reasons for their decisions.

9.8 Social workers and their employing bodies work to create conditions in their workplace environments and in their countries, where the principles of this Statement and those of their own national codes are discussed, evaluated, and upheld. Social workers and their employing bodies foster and engage in debate to facilitate ethically informed decisions.

Spanish translation – Traducción Español

Chinese Translation 全球社會工作倫理原則聲明 (繁體字譯本)

The Global Statement of Ethical Principles was approved at the General Meetings of the International Federation of Social Workers and the General Assembly of the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) in Dublin, Ireland, in July 2018. IASSW additionally endorsed a longer version:  Global-Social-Work-Statement-of-Ethical-Principles-IASSW-27-April-2018-1

National Code of Ethics

National Codes of Ethics of Social Work adopted by IFSW Member organisations. The Codes of Ethics are in the national languages of the different countries. More national codes of ethics will soon be added to the ones below:

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Social Work Ethics: 5 Common Dilemmas and How to Handle Them Responsibly

social work ethics assignment

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics is a set of guiding principles to assist social workers in making decisions in the best interests of their clients, even if they might contradict what we might do in our personal lives. These decisions are not always easy – especially when two guiding principles come into conflict.

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These conflicts are called ethical dilemmas . They occur when a specific situation calls for the worker to prioritize one ethical principle over another or if one’s personal values come into conflict with the best practices outlined by our profession. Today we’ll explore some more common situations faced by social workers in practice.

Receiving Gifts

Whether it’s the holidays, a special occasion, or some other milestone, your client may try to thank you for your hard work by giving you a gift. These situations are much more complicated than they seem because there are cultural, societal, and relationship factors to consider on top of the bond you and your client share.

Ethical values and principles involved

  • Importance of Human Relationships – Rejecting the gift may taint the rapport you’ve built, perhaps over several years, or leave the client feeling like you are personally rejecting her.
  • Integrity – Part of our job is to serve as role-models by maintaining healthy and appropriate boundaries in professional relationships.

Involuntary Commitment

Regardless of your social worker breed, at some point you will come across a client who intends to harm himself or someone else. These are some of our most challenging moments as helpers.

  • Dignity and Worth of the Person – We want to protect the client’s right to decide how to live his life. That said, it should be noted that the Code specifically states, “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.” (NASW Code of Ethics 1.02 Self-determination)
  • Importance of Human Relationships – There is a chance the decision to breach confidentiality will ruin the rapport you have established with that client.

Breaches of Confidentiality with Minor Clients

There comes a point in every adolescent therapist’s career when you hear these words:

“You’re not gonna tell my mom, are you?”

However soul crushing this may be, you are required by law to report not only to the parent(s), but to the Department of Social Services or Law Enforcement.

  • Dignity and Worth of the Person – We want to support the right to self-determination, even our youngest clients.
  • Importance of Human Relationship – Breaching a child’s confidentiality may impact their trust moving forward.
  • Integrity – We must behave in a trustworthy manner, not only with our clients, but with their families and the communities we serve.

Commission of Illegal Acts

Sometimes good clients do bad things. In cases of child abuse or neglect, reporting a client’s behavior is a no-brainer. Other times, however, the rules are a little grey. This is especially common for social workers who are working with clients who are incarcerated or abusing drugs.

  • Dignity and Worth of the Person – As the NASW Code of Ethics states, social workers 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.
  • Importance of Human Relationships – Trust is paramount to a client-worker relationship. Reporting on your client’s illegal activities is in direct conflict with that.
  • Integrity – We must practice in a way that is honest and responsible. We are also beholden to the laws and policies of the agencies and communities we serve.
  • Social Justice – Sometimes the law may seem unfair or your client’s situation may feel precarious, especially if he has experienced discrimination or injustice in the past.

Interacting on Social Media

Ten years ago it was considered unethical to email our clients. Now our Code of Ethics specifically addresses the best practices for conducting therapeutic services over the internet. One issue that remains sticky is social media. What should a social worker do if a client tries to “Friend Request” her on Facebook?

  • Dignity and Worth of the Person – You want to respect your client’s right to self-determination.
  • Importance of Human Relationships – Social media is a ubiquitous part of modern culture, particularly for younger clients. Your client may feel personally rejected or slighted by your decision not to “friend” them.
  • Integrity – Social workers must act in a way that is consistent with agency policies, even if that creates a bump in the smooth working relationship you have with a client. Some things to consider are how your client’s perception of you may be impacted by the things they learn about you through social media and what your comfort is with them being able to see your personal information and activities.
  • Competence – In addition to being a competent social worker, you need to be a competent user of technology. Handling this ethical dilemma involves working knowledge of the privacy capabilities and limitations of both the devices and applications involved.

There is no easy answer, and sometimes there is no right answer. You have to decide what’s best for your client and your practice.

Steps for handling ethical dilemmas:

1. consult the code.

You should always have a copy of the NASW Code of Ethics on hand for times like this. Spend some time reading through the code. Identify the principles that come into conflict in the specific situation and why they are important to social work practice.

2. Review State and Federal Laws

Be sure your decisions are sound, not only ethically but legally. Remember you can’t help anyone if you put yourself in a position to lose your license or your freedom.

3. Seek Supervision

No matter how long you’ve been in the field, if you have doubts, questions, or just need a sounding board, seek supervision. Everyone needs a second opinion once in a while. Supervisors can be particularly helpful in guiding you to make the best decision possible in a difficult situation.

4. Consult the NASW

One of the most vital benefits to being a member of the NASW is having the support of a national organization to back up your work. Most states have a hotline social workers can call when they experience ethical dilemmas. You can discuss your situation confidentially, without using identifying client details, and get professional advice on how to handle things. Sometimes a neutral party is the best resource to help you consider things from a new perspective.

5. Take Time to Process What You’ve Learned

After you’ve done your research and consulted the experts, take some time to process everything before making your decision. Often, when faced with an ethical dilemma, you can’t undo a decision once it’s been made. At the end of the day, you need to be able to live with your decision and to feel confident you are doing what is in the best interest of your client.

social work ethics assignment

McCombs School of Business

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Videos Concepts Unwrapped View All 36 short illustrated videos explain behavioral ethics concepts and basic ethics principles. Concepts Unwrapped: Sports Edition View All 10 short videos introduce athletes to behavioral ethics concepts. Ethics Defined (Glossary) View All 58 animated videos - 1 to 2 minutes each - define key ethics terms and concepts. Ethics in Focus View All One-of-a-kind videos highlight the ethical aspects of current and historical subjects. Giving Voice To Values View All Eight short videos present the 7 principles of values-driven leadership from Gentile's Giving Voice to Values. In It To Win View All A documentary and six short videos reveal the behavioral ethics biases in super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff's story. Scandals Illustrated View All 30 videos - one minute each - introduce newsworthy scandals with ethical insights and case studies. Video Series

Case Studies UT Star Icon

Case Studies

More than 70 cases pair ethics concepts with real world situations. From journalism, performing arts, and scientific research to sports, law, and business, these case studies explore current and historic ethical dilemmas, their motivating biases, and their consequences. Each case includes discussion questions, related videos, and a bibliography.

A Million Little Pieces

A Million Little Pieces

James Frey’s popular memoir stirred controversy and media attention after it was revealed to contain numerous exaggerations and fabrications.

Abramoff: Lobbying Congress

Abramoff: Lobbying Congress

Super-lobbyist Abramoff was caught in a scheme to lobby against his own clients. Was a corrupt individual or a corrupt system – or both – to blame?

Apple Suppliers & Labor Practices

Apple Suppliers & Labor Practices

Is tech company Apple, Inc. ethically obligated to oversee the questionable working conditions of other companies further down their supply chain?

Approaching the Presidency: Roosevelt & Taft

Approaching the Presidency: Roosevelt & Taft

Some presidents view their responsibilities in strictly legal terms, others according to duty. Roosevelt and Taft took two extreme approaches.

Appropriating “Hope”

Appropriating “Hope”

Fairey’s portrait of Barack Obama raised debate over the extent to which an artist can use and modify another’s artistic work, yet still call it one’s own.

Arctic Offshore Drilling

Arctic Offshore Drilling

Competing groups frame the debate over oil drilling off Alaska’s coast in varying ways depending on their environmental and economic interests.

Banning Burkas: Freedom or Discrimination?

Banning Burkas: Freedom or Discrimination?

The French law banning women from wearing burkas in public sparked debate about discrimination and freedom of religion.

Birthing Vaccine Skepticism

Birthing Vaccine Skepticism

Wakefield published an article riddled with inaccuracies and conflicts of interest that created significant vaccine hesitancy regarding the MMR vaccine.

Blurred Lines of Copyright

Blurred Lines of Copyright

Marvin Gaye’s Estate won a lawsuit against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for the hit song “Blurred Lines,” which had a similar feel to one of his songs.

Bullfighting: Art or Not?

Bullfighting: Art or Not?

Bullfighting has been a prominent cultural and artistic event for centuries, but in recent decades it has faced increasing criticism for animal rights’ abuse.

Buying Green: Consumer Behavior

Buying Green: Consumer Behavior

Do purchasing green products, such as organic foods and electric cars, give consumers the moral license to indulge in unethical behavior?

Cadavers in Car Safety Research

Cadavers in Car Safety Research

Engineers at Heidelberg University insist that the use of human cadavers in car safety research is ethical because their research can save lives.

Cardinals’ Computer Hacking

Cardinals’ Computer Hacking

St. Louis Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa hacked into the Houston Astros’ webmail system, leading to legal repercussions and a lifetime ban from MLB.

Cheating: Atlanta’s School Scandal

Cheating: Atlanta’s School Scandal

Teachers and administrators at Parks Middle School adjust struggling students’ test scores in an effort to save their school from closure.

Cheating: Sign-Stealing in MLB

Cheating: Sign-Stealing in MLB

The Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scheme rocked the baseball world, leading to a game-changing MLB investigation and fallout.

Cheating: UNC’s Academic Fraud

Cheating: UNC’s Academic Fraud

UNC’s academic fraud scandal uncovered an 18-year scheme of unchecked coursework and fraudulent classes that enabled student-athletes to play sports.

Cheney v. U.S. District Court

Cheney v. U.S. District Court

A controversial case focuses on Justice Scalia’s personal friendship with Vice President Cheney and the possible conflict of interest it poses to the case.

Christina Fallin: “Appropriate Culturation?”

Christina Fallin: “Appropriate Culturation?”

After Fallin posted a picture of herself wearing a Plain’s headdress on social media, uproar emerged over cultural appropriation and Fallin’s intentions.

Climate Change & the Paris Deal

Climate Change & the Paris Deal

While climate change poses many abstract problems, the actions (or inactions) of today’s populations will have tangible effects on future generations.

Cover-Up on Campus

Cover-Up on Campus

While the Baylor University football team was winning on the field, university officials failed to take action when allegations of sexual assault by student athletes emerged.

Covering Female Athletes

Covering Female Athletes

Sports Illustrated stirs controversy when their cover photo of an Olympic skier seems to focus more on her physical appearance than her athletic abilities.

Covering Yourself? Journalists and the Bowl Championship

Covering Yourself? Journalists and the Bowl Championship

Can news outlets covering the Bowl Championship Series fairly report sports news if their own polls were used to create the news?

Cyber Harassment

Cyber Harassment

After a student defames a middle school teacher on social media, the teacher confronts the student in class and posts a video of the confrontation online.

Defending Freedom of Tweets?

Defending Freedom of Tweets?

Running back Rashard Mendenhall receives backlash from fans after criticizing the celebration of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in a tweet.

Dennis Kozlowski: Living Large

Dennis Kozlowski: Living Large

Dennis Kozlowski was an effective leader for Tyco in his first few years as CEO, but eventually faced criminal charges over his use of company assets.

Digital Downloads

Digital Downloads

File-sharing program Napster sparked debate over the legal and ethical dimensions of downloading unauthorized copies of copyrighted music.

Dr. V’s Magical Putter

Dr. V’s Magical Putter

Journalist Caleb Hannan outed Dr. V as a trans woman, sparking debate over the ethics of Hannan’s reporting, as well its role in Dr. V’s suicide.

East Germany’s Doping Machine

East Germany’s Doping Machine

From 1968 to the late 1980s, East Germany (GDR) doped some 9,000 athletes to gain success in international athletic competitions despite being aware of the unfortunate side effects.

Ebola & American Intervention

Ebola & American Intervention

Did the dispatch of U.S. military units to Liberia to aid in humanitarian relief during the Ebola epidemic help or hinder the process?

Edward Snowden: Traitor or Hero?

Edward Snowden: Traitor or Hero?

Was Edward Snowden’s release of confidential government documents ethically justifiable?

Ethical Pitfalls in Action

Ethical Pitfalls in Action

Why do good people do bad things? Behavioral ethics is the science of moral decision-making, which explores why and how people make the ethical (and unethical) decisions that they do.

Ethical Use of Home DNA Testing

Ethical Use of Home DNA Testing

The rising popularity of at-home DNA testing kits raises questions about privacy and consumer rights.

Flying the Confederate Flag

Flying the Confederate Flag

A heated debate ensues over whether or not the Confederate flag should be removed from the South Carolina State House grounds.

Freedom of Speech on Campus

Freedom of Speech on Campus

In the wake of racially motivated offenses, student protests sparked debate over the roles of free speech, deliberation, and tolerance on campus.

Freedom vs. Duty in Clinical Social Work

Freedom vs. Duty in Clinical Social Work

What should social workers do when their personal values come in conflict with the clients they are meant to serve?

Full Disclosure: Manipulating Donors

Full Disclosure: Manipulating Donors

When an intern witnesses a donor making a large gift to a non-profit organization under misleading circumstances, she struggles with what to do.

Gaming the System: The VA Scandal

Gaming the System: The VA Scandal

The Veterans Administration’s incentives were meant to spur more efficient and productive healthcare, but not all administrators complied as intended.

German Police Battalion 101

German Police Battalion 101

During the Holocaust, ordinary Germans became willing killers even though they could have opted out from murdering their Jewish neighbors.

Head Injuries & American Football

Head Injuries & American Football

Many studies have linked traumatic brain injuries and related conditions to American football, creating controversy around the safety of the sport.

Head Injuries & the NFL

Head Injuries & the NFL

American football is a rough and dangerous game and its impact on the players’ brain health has sparked a hotly contested debate.

Healthcare Obligations: Personal vs. Institutional

Healthcare Obligations: Personal vs. Institutional

A medical doctor must make a difficult decision when informing patients of the effectiveness of flu shots while upholding institutional recommendations.

High Stakes Testing

High Stakes Testing

In the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act, parents, teachers, and school administrators take different positions on how to assess student achievement.

In-FUR-mercials: Advertising & Adoption

In-FUR-mercials: Advertising & Adoption

When the Lied Animal Shelter faces a spike in animal intake, an advertising agency uses its moral imagination to increase pet adoptions.

Krogh & the Watergate Scandal

Krogh & the Watergate Scandal

Egil Krogh was a young lawyer working for the Nixon Administration whose ethics faded from view when asked to play a part in the Watergate break-in.

Limbaugh on Drug Addiction

Limbaugh on Drug Addiction

Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh argued that drug abuse was a choice, not a disease. He later became addicted to painkillers.


U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte’s “over-exaggeration” of an incident at the 2016 Rio Olympics led to very real consequences.

Meet Me at Starbucks

Meet Me at Starbucks

Two black men were arrested after an employee called the police on them, prompting Starbucks to implement “racial-bias” training across all its stores.

Myanmar Amber

Myanmar Amber

Buying amber could potentially fund an ethnic civil war, but refraining allows collectors to acquire important specimens that could be used for research.

Negotiating Bankruptcy

Negotiating Bankruptcy

Bankruptcy lawyer Gellene successfully represented a mining company during a major reorganization, but failed to disclose potential conflicts of interest.

Pao & Gender Bias

Pao & Gender Bias

Ellen Pao stirred debate in the venture capital and tech industries when she filed a lawsuit against her employer on grounds of gender discrimination.

Pardoning Nixon

Pardoning Nixon

One month after Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency, Gerald Ford made the controversial decision to issue Nixon a full pardon.

Patient Autonomy & Informed Consent

Patient Autonomy & Informed Consent

Nursing staff and family members struggle with informed consent when taking care of a patient who has been deemed legally incompetent.

Prenatal Diagnosis & Parental Choice

Prenatal Diagnosis & Parental Choice

Debate has emerged over the ethics of prenatal diagnosis and reproductive freedom in instances where testing has revealed genetic abnormalities.

Reporting on Robin Williams

Reporting on Robin Williams

After Robin Williams took his own life, news media covered the story in great detail, leading many to argue that such reporting violated the family’s privacy.

Responding to Child Migration

Responding to Child Migration

An influx of children migrants posed logistical and ethical dilemmas for U.S. authorities while intensifying ongoing debate about immigration.

Retracting Research: The Case of Chandok v. Klessig

Retracting Research: The Case of Chandok v. Klessig

A researcher makes the difficult decision to retract a published, peer-reviewed article after the original research results cannot be reproduced.

Sacking Social Media in College Sports

Sacking Social Media in College Sports

In the wake of questionable social media use by college athletes, the head coach at University of South Carolina bans his players from using Twitter.

Selling Enron

Selling Enron

Following the deregulation of electricity markets in California, private energy company Enron profited greatly, but at a dire cost.

Snyder v. Phelps

Snyder v. Phelps

Freedom of speech was put on trial in a case involving the Westboro Baptist Church and their protesting at the funeral of U.S. Marine Matthew Snyder.

Something Fishy at the Paralympics

Something Fishy at the Paralympics

Rampant cheating has plagued the Paralympics over the years, compromising the credibility and sportsmanship of Paralympian athletes.

Sports Blogs: The Wild West of Sports Journalism?

Sports Blogs: The Wild West of Sports Journalism?

Deadspin pays an anonymous source for information related to NFL star Brett Favre, sparking debate over the ethics of “checkbook journalism.”

Stangl & the Holocaust

Stangl & the Holocaust

Franz Stangl was the most effective Nazi administrator in Poland, killing nearly one million Jews at Treblinka, but he claimed he was simply following orders.

Teaching Blackface: A Lesson on Stereotypes

Teaching Blackface: A Lesson on Stereotypes

A teacher was put on leave for showing a blackface video during a lesson on racial segregation, sparking discussion over how to teach about stereotypes.

The Astros’ Sign-Stealing Scandal

The Astros’ Sign-Stealing Scandal

The Houston Astros rode a wave of success, culminating in a World Series win, but it all came crashing down when their sign-stealing scheme was revealed.

The Central Park Five

The Central Park Five

Despite the indisputable and overwhelming evidence of the innocence of the Central Park Five, some involved in the case refuse to believe it.

The CIA Leak

The CIA Leak

Legal and political fallout follows from the leak of classified information that led to the identification of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

The Collapse of Barings Bank

The Collapse of Barings Bank

When faced with growing losses, investment banker Nick Leeson took big risks in an attempt to get out from under the losses. He lost.

The Costco Model

The Costco Model

How can companies promote positive treatment of employees and benefit from leading with the best practices? Costco offers a model.

The FBI & Apple Security vs. Privacy

The FBI & Apple Security vs. Privacy

How can tech companies and government organizations strike a balance between maintaining national security and protecting user privacy?

The Miss Saigon Controversy

The Miss Saigon Controversy

When a white actor was cast for the half-French, half-Vietnamese character in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon , debate ensued.

The Sandusky Scandal

The Sandusky Scandal

Following the conviction of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky for sexual abuse, debate continues on how much university officials and head coach Joe Paterno knew of the crimes.

The Varsity Blues Scandal

The Varsity Blues Scandal

A college admissions prep advisor told wealthy parents that while there were front doors into universities and back doors, he had created a side door that was worth exploring.


Providing radiation therapy to cancer patients, Therac-25 had malfunctions that resulted in 6 deaths. Who is accountable when technology causes harm?

Welfare Reform

Welfare Reform

The Welfare Reform Act changed how welfare operated, intensifying debate over the government’s role in supporting the poor through direct aid.

Wells Fargo and Moral Emotions

Wells Fargo and Moral Emotions

In a settlement with regulators, Wells Fargo Bank admitted that it had created as many as two million accounts for customers without their permission.

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Key Components for Effective Social Work Assignments

Posted By Laurel Hitchcock on Jan 26, 2023

social work ethics assignment

As social work educators, we create assignments to give our students opportunities to learn about the profession and develop competencies needed for social practice. Assignments also offer a way to assess if students are growing in their understanding of how to be professional social workers. Assignments can range from reading a chapter in the course textbook to a 20-page research paper and more. I have shared many assignments on this blog that I have used in various classes. What I have learned over the years is that it takes effort and structure to create a quality assignment that will help students connect what they are learning in the classroom to their field experience and beyond. In this blog post, I share my thoughts on how to structure an assignment that is clear and contextualized for the social work profession, using three simple questions – Why?, What?, and How?

The Power of Words: Using Poetic Analysis in a Social Work Research Course

Posted By Laurel Hitchcock on Apr 29, 2022

Editor’s Note:   This blog post was written by Amber Sutton, LICSW, ABD, a social work instructor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in collaboration with students from her undergraduate social work research course during the Spring 2022 semester.   The students are (in alphabetical order): Iva Burdette, Jackie Chavez-Martinez, Jennifer Dussich, Courtney Kramer-Williams, Katie Kramer, Hannah Marsh, Rachel Shunnarah, Natalie Trammell, Ahmia Vain, and Ella Wolfe.  In this blog post, Amber and the students share how they used poetic analysis to answer some age-old questions – What does it mean to be a social worker, and what is research?  You can also read their two poems.

When agreeing to teach SW 320 Research Methods to BSW students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), I knew I wanted to highlight alternative ways to conduct research that add an element of humanity to the data and encourage the students to use research to share power.

We started the class by reading Ann Hartman’s 1990 article, The Many Ways of Knowing .  This article remains just as relevant today as it did then and has played a fundamental role in developing my relationship with research.  Hartman’s editorial essay calls on social workers to recognize that each contribution adds to our knowledge and deepens our understanding.  She boldly states, “there are many truths, and there are many ways of knowing” (p. 3).  This article served as the foundation of the course because I wanted the students to understand that quantitative and qualitative methods are an integral part of social work research.  Our profession misses out when we center on quantitative research as the only valid way of knowing.

social work ethics assignment

During our very first class, I provided large post-it notes and markers.  Then, allotting 20 minutes, I asked the students to answer these two questions in a way that felt most comfortable to them (words, drawings, etc.):

  • What does being a professional social worker mean to you?
  • How do you define research?

Two Ways to Decolonize a Social Work Research Course

Posted By Laurel Hitchcock on Mar 17, 2022

Photo of Amy Werman at a lecturn

Editor’s Note: Dr. Amy Werman, DSW, LCSW ,  is a Lecturer in Discipline at the Columbia School of Social Work , with over 20 years of teaching experience in social work education. In this blog post, she shares two practical suggestions for social work research courses, focusing on ways to decolonize traditional content and integrate an anti-racist/anti-oppressive approach to teaching about research methodology.

For the past 20 years, I have been educating MSW students. The first course I ever taught was Research Methods, an “interesting” initiation into the field of teaching considering that most students would never choose to take this first-year course were it not required. How do I know this? It is a question on a survey that I give my research students at the beginning of every semester. And, consistently, 50% of students say that, given a choice, they would not take the course. 

It’s understandable. If we’re being completely honest, social workers are in the business of “doing,” whether that’s providing concrete services, administering programs, writing policy, or ameliorating a host of micro-level to macro-level problems on the local and global level. Students struggle to comprehend how studying research relates to their endgame of “doing.” Moreover, many students report having a fear of research, viewing it as something to get through. Incoming students offer words like “boring,” “overwhelming,” “statistics,” and “intimidating” when I ask them to free-associate to the term “research.” 

Re-Capping Teaching & Learning in SWK for 2021

Posted By Laurel Hitchcock on Dec 30, 2021

social work ethics assignment

One of my academic favorites is Dr. Katie Linder who produces a podcast called You’ve Got This , where she offers advice and examples for other academics as they navigate the world of higher education. Frequently, Katie talks about goal setting and how she works to accomplish her own goals. As I listened to her end-of-the-year podcast about her 2021 goals, all I could think about was my blog.

You see, every year, I set goals for this blog, and rarely do I accomplish these goals. Here is some of the evidence:

Review of Teaching & Learning in Social Work for 2019

Review of Teaching & Learning in Social Work for 2018

Review of Teaching & Learning in Social Work for 2017

Review of Teaching & Learning in Social Work Blog Posts for 2016

I even tried to set goals for the first quarter of 2020 and publish only seven blog posts. Sigh! Here they are:

Developing a Personalized Social Media Policy for Social Work Practice

Posted By Laurel Hitchcock on Jul 14, 2021

Editor’s Note : This blog post is adapted from the Second Edition of the Social Media Toolkit for Social Work Field Educators .

social work ethics assignment

There are many reasons for social workers to have a personalized social media policy – to maintain boundaries, protect privacy and confidentiality, and model professional behavior.  To be clear, I am not referring to the policy that your organization or institution might have, directing the faculty, staff, and students on when it is okay to use social media, but one that you develop and follow as an individual practitioner, student, and/or educator. The purpose of a social media policy is to inform clients, students, colleagues, and others about when, how, and why you use social media in a professional capacity.  From an ethical lens, this is a recommended practice per National Association of Social Worker’s (NASW) Technology in Social Work Practice Standard 2.10 – Social Media Policy and fits with the NASW Code of Ethics  standards of informed consent with clients (1.3e-i), respect with colleagues (2.1), and when conducting supervision and consultation (3.1).  

The following steps provide a guide for developing a social media policy that can be used as an assignment in a classroom with students or adapted for practitioners:  

A review of Teaching & Learning in Social Work for 2020

Posted By Laurel Hitchcock on Jan 6, 2021

social work ethics assignment

2020 was a strange year with many firsts for me – first global pandemic, first sabbatical, first live sessions in an online course, etc. Because of all these firsts, blogging took a bit of back seat to some of my other projects and goals for the year. I had four goals for the blog over the year, and some minor successes. They were:

#1 – Publish 30 posts – only published 19

#2 – Enhance the reach of the blog – there were almost 45,500 visitors from 153 different countries with each visitor spending an average of 1 minute on the blog.

#3 – Build a culture of engagement – only had 10 comments for the year.

#4 – Publish content in other places – there will be two articles in 2021 with content from the blog.

Outside of these goals, I did update content on the blog and created an archive page. The two most popular blog posts of 2020 were:

A Love Letter to Social Workers on the Front Lines of COVID-19 (4/10/20) by Melanie Sage with over 24,000 visits

The Power of Lighting in a Virtual Classroom: Tips on Improving Webcam Lighting for Online Educators (3/16/20) by Agata Dera with over 3,000 visits

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Online Exclusive • 03/8/2022 • Essay

Ukraine: An Ethical  Response

Nikolas gvosdev.

With the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Russian president Vladimir Putin resumed his use of force against Ukraine that began with the seizure of Crimea in 2014. As we examine the question of ethical policy responses to the invasion, we must first address Russia’s justifications for acting.

Putin and other senior Russian leaders have reached back to Russia’s nineteenth and early twentieth century philosophical traditions for inspiration, appealing to the Orthodox understanding of the “justifiable war” tradition , in which war is seen as a tragic but sometimes necessary action to avoid a worse evil from triumphing. As Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church recently declared, action needed to be taken in Ukraine in order to “ combat evil .” The Russian government has argued that it needed to violate the sovereignty of Ukraine because genocide was taking place, because an illegitimate government had been taken over by extremists, and because this government was a threat to peace and security (the twin calls for “demilitarization” and “de-Nazification.” ).

None of this remotely coincides with realities on the ground, but the Kremlin needed to create a narrative to provide an ethical justification.

As part of its justification, the Russian government invoked the principle of preemptive war: that Russia has the right to violate the sovereignty of another country because it believes that actions taken by the country pose an imminent threat. Putin argued that Ukraine was moving closer to Western countries and increasing its cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), preparing to host Western military bases and missiles near Russia's borders. According to Putin, this was an unacceptable and existential threat to Russia: he had to act. Though NATO countries were providing weaponry and training to the Ukrainian military, there is no evidence that there was an imminent or existential threat to Russian state survival that required a military invasion of Ukraine. In short, none of the ethical justifications for Russian action hold water.

Formulating an Ethical Response

We—starting with the United States, but indeed all countries that have signed and ratified the Charter of the United Nations — have an ethical duty to respond—not only to protect the “right to life” for individual residents of Ukraine (the freedom to live without fear of being killed by military action or economic blockade) but also to preserve the territorial integrity and sovereignty of every state, which is the cornerstone of the international order. And respecting the rights of peoples to self determination is a cornerstone of an ethical international order. Therefore, that we ought to respond is not, to my mind, in question.

The question is this: What does an ethical response look like as we consider both the fate of Ukraine and of the stability of the world order? Russia’s nuclear arsenal throws the latter part of the question into stark relief, with Putin seeming to have threatened nuclear strikes to counter overt Western intervention. Any proposed response must be evaluated through the prism not of the morality of intentions but the morality of expected results: will the action likely create conditions that produce a better or worse outcome? In other words, the tradeoffs for different degrees of action or inaction must be assessed against the likelihood of successful outcomes and the probabilities of catastrophe—and between “do nothing” and “do everything possible” there is an entire spectrum of options.

The first wave of international responses to the invasion came in the form of moral/political support for Ukraine. These largely rhetorical actions demonstrated an ethical condemnation of Russia’s actions but had little power to compel Moscow to change course. Within forty-eight hours, the next level of responses was to impose a series of non-intercourse acts with Russia: travel bans, closing airspace, preventing ships and planes from docking and landing rights; cutting off access to international financial markets, boycotting Russian goods and services and imposing restrictions on items which can be sold to Russia. Non-intercourse acts such as sanctions are an attempt to bring about a change in Russian actions by imposing costs on Moscow that may prove prohibitive, either by denying the Russian government the wherewithal—not only financial capacity but even tools, such as advanced technologies—to wage the invasion, or by putting pressure on the Russian people so as to induce them either to pressure the government for a change in policy or to change the regime itself.

Implementing effective and wide-ranging sanctions on a country is difficult even when the state in question is small or relatively unimportant to the global economy. In the case of Russia, it is extremely difficult. While sanctions themselves are grounded in a moral assessment that non-intercourse is the only ethical option in response to a grievous violation of international norms, the second- and third-order effects of sanctions also carry ethical dilemmas. Russia is a major supplier of energy, vital raw materials, and food for the world. Other countries cannot make up the deficits should supplies of these resources from Russia be completely cut off. Thus, we have seen policymakers balancing the ethical imperative to deprive Russia of as much income as possible while continuing to allow for purchases of some items, including natural gas, to avoid imposing heavier burdens both on developing countries and low-income populations in the developed world.

Turning the Tide

With the first two waves of responses having crested (at least for now), states must assess what they should do to assist in the actual reversal of the invasion. Even before Russian forces attacked, some countries, such as the United States and Turkey, were actively supplying defense articles in order to bolster Ukrainian military capabilities. Since fighting began, other states have joined in sending arms to allow the Ukrainians to better defend themselves against attack and even be in a position to reverse Russian gains. This includes Germany which, prior to February 2022, had argued that increasing shipments of weapons destabilized the situation . There are three ethical considerations here to address; the first, the challenge of the pacifist, is whether meeting violence with violence produces an ethical outcome. This, implicitly, was the position of some of the European states right up to the Russian invasion—that sending weapons would not really change the balance of forces and only prolong the fighting. In the end, most of these states concluded that Ukraine was entitled to act in self-defense. This was a determination that self-defense would prevent a worse outcome, and so be the lesser evil. Not only Germany but also countries including Norway reversed long-standing policies not to send weapons to countries that are engaged in armed conflict . Yet, this decision to supply arms creates new challenges. The increasing humanitarian catastrophe brought about by the invasion calls for redress—and many of the countries that are providing arms are also being asked to provide relief assistance. However, it can be difficult to determine when a flight is carrying food and medicine or is carrying arms; whether civilians are being evacuated, or military forces deployed.

The second ethical question that emerges from the arming of Ukraine is whether providing arms can lead to a speedy end to the violence, or whether it makes the conflict longer and bloodier—increasing the damage done to the country and the number of civilian casualties. Yet if the goal is to bring the hostilities to a swift conclusion, should not stronger powers be prepared to directly intervene? Either by using their militaries to deny air or maritime space to Russian forces, changing the balance of power on the battlefield, or by more direct involvement in the fighting—either through proxies or use of their regular armed forces? The assumption here is that direct involvement would more quickly resolve the conflict, preventing greater losses of life. However, the risk here is that a direct armed clash between nuclear powers could escalate: even a small-scale use of nuclear weapons would produce much worse outcomes—not just for Ukraine but for the world.

Finally, there are competing ethical considerations at work in reaching an agreement that would end the invasion. From the ethicist’s perspective, there are two sets of issues: political leaders have an obligation to protect life (not only in terms of preventing people from being killed but also in terms of the destruction of the economy and infrastructure that sustains life). On the other hand, surrendering sovereignty, surrendering self-determination, and conceding to demands made under the threat and use of force (both of which are explicitly forbidden by Article 2 of the United Nations Charter) also carries grave ethical risks. Diplomacy must also navigate the security dilemma: steps taken by one state to ensure its security may be viewed as extremely threatening to the security of another state. One of the diplomatic roadblocks in the run-up to this crisis was that the demands Russia and Ukraine were making to each other and to the NATO countries exacerbated the security dilemma. Under those conditions, there was no acceptable diplomatic compromise and Russia, ultimately, chose to use force.

We have accepted the ethical obligation that we must respond to assist Ukraine, but how we assist has to be balanced against both the ethical and strategic consequences of dealing with a power that has nuclear capabilities. This is not merely a fear lurking in the background: Putin has threatened that Russia would be prepared to deploy nuclear weapons if it felt its own existence was existentially threatened. This threat must be a consideration in any ethical and strategic calculations. The North Star of the statesman must always be prudence—not emotionalism, but prudence—and we have a terrifying reason to proceed cautiously.

—Nikolas Gvosdev

Nikolas Gvosdev is a senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and co-host of The Doorstep podcast.

The views and opinions expressed in the media, comments, or publications on this website are those of the speakers or authors and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions held by Carnegie Council.


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