admin 15 October, 2018 0

Social Work Practice: Values and Ethics


At its most basic social work is a consistent and organised approach to the social problems of families and individuals. It is an approach that focuses on helping people to help themselves (Moore, 2002).[1]Most practitioners enter social work because of a commitment to social justice, or at the very least a desire to help others and to see improvement and positive change in people’s lives. Modern social work, along with other public services, is being increasingly run along business lines and market principles. Today’s social worker therefore is confronted with the managerial approach, performance indicators, care managers and care packages. Given the current state of things where everything is guided by budgets and the need to satisfy those in charge by processing a case as quickly as possible one wonders whether a social worker has time to be guided by general ethical principles, let alone a specific code of practice. In the current climate it is easy to forget that social workers are committed to the view of the intrinsic human worth of each individual, and the concomitant view that each person deserves the best care and advice possible.

In 1948 the Universal Declarati[2]on of Human Rights came into being. The declaration encapsulates a view of the inherent worth and dignity of the human person. The declaration espouses the notion of individual freedom on the basis that such freedom did not infringe the rights of others, these are the rights on which much of social work practice is based. This paper will begin with a general definition of ethics. It will then look at the ethics and values which underpin social work practice. There will be an assessment of social work values and of their relevance to anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice.


Ethics are general moral principles that are intended to inform the governing of human behaviour. Thus, most people would hold to the view that some things such as cruelty and murder are always wrong, or unethical. Ethical codes, however, may be based on moral principles, but are not as generalisable or universally applicable. This is because they refer to particular professions and the way in which professional behaviour is governed. Such ethical codes cannot be said to be neutral or value free because they are contextual. They arise within a certain context and are applied to a particular purpose as such, ethical codes are influenced by the ideologies held in that context (Butler, 2000). The context being examined here, is that of social work practice. Codes of practice and ethics are often idealistic, because they may be seen as providing a blueprint for how a social worker should act when it is impossible to legislate for every situation, and this may result in a false sense of security (Banks, 2003). Social workers therefore, need to be able to recognise when the code of practice within which they are required to work, does not operate within a framework that is informed by human rights and social justice (Husband, 1995).

The Client’s Needs

Shon (1991) has argued that:

Professionals claim to contribute to social well-being, put their clients’ needs ahead of their own, and hold themselves accountable to standards of competence and morality. (Schon, 1991:11-12).

Some critics maintain that the way in which social services often operates is self-serving rather than serving the needs of the clients, yet social workers do police themselves and their profession. The way in which they do this is to think critically about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what moral implications this may have. Certainly social work ethics should not lead anyone to believe that the social work profession should serve itself, rather the needs of the client should be most important. One of the ways this is achieved is by establishing clear relationship boundaries early on. This is because involvement with a client that is too personal is contrary to what the BASW has to say about social work ethics and values.

The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work (BASW,2001). [3]

Social work practice, in order to be ethical practice must be centred on the needs of service users Social workers of necessity intervene in people’s lives and have an influence on situations, ethical decision making is therefore a vital component of social work practice (Osmo and Landau, 2001). The Association is there to give advice to social workers on what constitutes ethical decision making in different contexts.

Ethical Decision Making

Decision making has to be grounded in the values and ethics of social work. Some of the issues that social workers have to deal with and that involve them in ethical decision making centre around balancing the rights of one individual against others, around public welfare and issues of institutional and structural oppression. This can make life difficult because the social worker has then to identify when institutions and structures are being oppressive and how the values of social work may be used to combat this. Decision making is also problematic because social workers are committed to confidentiality with respect to the people they work with. Sometimes a social worker is faced with a situation where he or she may, for the greater good, be forced to break the ethic of confidentiality because the client may be a danger to themselves of someone else. This causes a conflict of values and the social worker has, with the help of his/her supervisor, to balance the needs of the individual against the needs of the greater good.

At the very least social work should begin with a clear commitment to social justice which seeks to challenge poverty and discrimination in all its forms because social work has its roots in the nineteenth century moves to eradicate poverty and unemployment.

Everyone has the right to be protected from abuse and to be treated with respect. This is not easy when Government discourses express concern for inclusion and equality e.g. for those with mental health problems, then employ discourses which ignore factors such as race, gender and class and social circumstances, that are pertinent to any proper understanding of a person’s condition. The Human Rights Act of 1998 makes it mandatory for local authorities to act in ways that are conversant with the Act. Social workers help with the problems faced by people with disabilities. Social workers have a duty to be conversant with the Human Rights Act and the Community Care Act of 1990. Social workers are faced with making decisions concerning what defines a person with disabilities and also how to assess their needs. If the wrong form of care is prescribed, e.g. detainment under the Mental Health Act for a person who does not fulfil the specified criteria, then this could be an infringement of human rights.

Social workers are duty bound to base their practice on concepts of human rights and social justice but at the same time they need to be more aware of how the inequalities that they see in society might affect their practice (Cemlyn and Briskman 2003). Society does not always operate in the best interests of the individual person, furthermore, the introduction of market principles into social care can mean that the legal framework within which a social worker has to act may also (however much it is unintended) work against individual rights. Some commentators e.g. Challis (1990) maintain that prior to market principles and managerialism being introduced into social care, social workers operated with a much greater degree of freedom. It is arguably the case that the social worker is duty bound to act in accordance with a process that is informed by the valuing of the human person and the concept of human rights, and may, therefore, need to be prepared to work outside of a framework that (albeit unintended) prevents them from working according to this ethic (Cemlyn and Briskman, 2003). Wolff (2002) speaks of virtue ethics being the root of social work practice because of its concern with a just society and justice for individuals. Bearing this in mind social workers seek to engage in anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice in all that they do.

Anti-discriminatory and Anti-oppressive Practice

An emancipatory and anti-oppressive attitude is a critical component of ethical social work, social workers should be people enablers, enabling people to stand up for their rights and giving them a voice. Horton and Pattapen (2004) argue that in contemporary society individuals are often disempowered in numbers of ways and feel unable to cope with the rules that guide their lives. Social workers deal with the distress that results from this and in their practice should question social systems wherein an increasing number of people suffer from injustice, oppression, and exclusion from mainstream society. Anti-discriminatory practice means taking account of structural disadvantages i.e. how the structures of society often work against certain groups e.g. those with disabilities, women, and ethnic minorities. It also means that the social worker takes care not to use discriminatory language and to do their best to promote the dignity and self-worth of service users.

The ethos of the worth of individual human persons is often counteracted by current social work practice. Under the guidelines for social care social workers help individuals to choose what is best for them, in practice however, care managers are the people who hold the budgets and budgetary concerns can often be discriminatory disenfranchising the person that the social worker is trying to help (Postle, 2000). Social workers try to avoid this happening but they work in a state institution that often inadvertently works against the best interests of service users. This is why social workers need to be trained to view the world from the perspective of others so that they more easily recognise how the system oppresses (Moore, 2002)..


The ethics and values that underpin social work practice are dedicated to social justice and recognition of the inherent worth of each and every individual. Social workers do their best to work in partnership with service users and to do this in a way that includes and empowers people. Social workers are dedicated to help people move forward and take control of their lives, the idea is to shift the power balance away from the social worker and towards the person that needs help. The structures of society are, in some ways, discriminatory and oppressive and social workers recognise that white masculine values disadvantage people and they are therefore committed to anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice in their work.


Banks, S. 2003 From oaths to rulebooks: a critical examination of codes of ethics for the social professions European journal of Social Work Volume 6 No. 2 July 2003 p. 133-144

British Association of Social Workers (2002) The Code of Ethics for Social Work.

Butler, I 2000. A Code of Ethics for Social Work and Social Work Research

Cremlyn, S and Briskman L. 2003 “Asylum, Children’s Rights and Social Work” Child and Family Social Work 8 (3) pp. 163-178

Husband, C. (1995) The morally active practitioner and the ethics of anti-racist social work. In: Ethical Issues in Social Work (eds R. Hugman & D. Smith), pp. 84–103. Routledge, London

Ife, J. (2001) Human Rights Social Work: Towards Rights-Based Practice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Postle, F. (2000) ‘The social work side is disappearing. I guess it started with us being called care managers’, Practice, 13(2), pp. 13-27.

Ring, C. 2001 “Quality assurance in mental-health care: A case study from social work” Health and Social Care in the Community 9(6) 2001 pp. 383-390

Schon, D. A. (1991) The Reflective Turn: Case Studies In and On Educational Practice, New York: Teachers Press, Columbia University

Slote, Michael. From Morality to Virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992

Wolff, J. 2002 “Contractualism and the virtues” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy Volume 5 No. 2 June 2002 p. 120-132



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