Tuesday, March 1
Do the Right Thing: Celebrate the Code of Ethics, 45 Years of Service
As we celebrate Social Work Month a nd t he 50th a nnive r sary of t he NASW, it is also fitting to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the NASW Code of Ethics. In the 1920’s Mary Richmond developed a very simple, brief code of ethics for the American Association of Social Work, the precursor organization to the NASW. This was the Code of Ethics which was in place at the time the NASW was formed in 1955. In short order the NASW embarked on developing its own code of professional conduct for the membership. Our profession cannot exist with out a co de o f ethics to guide social work practice so as we celebrate our professional organization, a brief tribute to the Code seems appropriate.
History o f t he NA SW C ode of Ethics
Since 1955, the NASW has adopted and then revised the Code of Ethics only three significant times. The first NASW code, adopted in 1960, started with a preamble that set forth social workers’ responsibilities to uphold humanitarian ideals, maintain and improve social work service, and develop the philosophy and skills of the profession. Fourteen first-person statements, such as, “I give precedence to my professional responsibility over my personal interests, and, I respect the privacy of the people I serve”, followed the preamble. These first person statements served as the guidelines by which professionals were to model themselves for practice. The statements were affirmations more than standards but that was in the day where social work was the ‘altruistic’ profession and affirming commitment to social work values was sufficient. In 1967, a l5th principle pledging ‘nondiscrimination’ was added to the proclamations, though 40 years later one wonders why it took so long. The 1960 Code, with the 1969 revision, was one single page and suitable for framing no doubt.
The second Code, adopted in 1979, was far more ambitious. Consistent with the changing times, the trend was in the direction of much more professionalism and professional accountability. Once again, the Code began with a preamble that described the general purpose and a statement that the principles provided guidelines for the review of ethical practice. With this re vision, the Code was divided into six major sections: social workers’ general conduct and comportment; and social workers ethical responsibilities to: clients, colleagues, employers, employing organizations, and the social work profession, and society. The 1979 code included 76 ethical standards, under these six major sections. The standards or principles were brief statements but were a substantial change from the previous code in scope, specificity and number of standards. This code existed unchanged until 1990 when a statement on ‘solicitation of referrals’ and on ‘fees for referrals’ was added. In 1993 standards on impaired social workers and dual relationships also were added. However, by 1993 there was a growing awareness that times again were changing rapidly for the profession. With a growing emphasis on malpractice, risk management and changes in fields of practice and technology, there was need for a substantial change in the code. The association embarked on a major three year revision process which resulted in the current Code of Ethics.
The current Code w as adopted in 1996 and is clearly the most comprehensive set of ethical standards ever developed for social work. For the first time in the history of the NASW, the code of ethics includes a formal mission statement and an explicit summary of six core values on which social work’s mission is based: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance o f human relationships, integrity y, and competence. T his co de also provides a brief guide for dealing with ethical issues or dilemmas in social work practice and highlights various resources social workers should consider when they encounter challenging ethical decisions. The 1996 Code contains the same six categories of social workers’ responsibility to clients, colleagues, practice settings, as professionals, to the profession, and to society at large as found in the previous version. However, the current code greatly expands the number of specific ethical guidelines from 80 to 155 specific ethical standards. As always, these standards are designed to guide social workers’ conduct but the current code is heavily focused on reducing malpractice and liability risks as well a s providing a more clearly defined basis for adjudication of ethics com plaints filed against NASW members. This concrete focus on malpractice and peer review has moved the profession from affirmation of social work values to a more structured process for ethical decision making with some very specific ‘preferred’ outcomes of professional\ conduct. This focus on malpractice and adjudication is understandable but it sometimes results in ‘leg al’ thinking to avoid malpractice rather than ‘ethical’ reflection to do the right thing.
As the profession has evolved to be more complex in scope of clinical practice, so has the Code of Ethics evolved to require more complex ethical thinking. Social workers can be proud of the legacy of the NASW as expressed in our professional values, our service to clients and community, and the ethical standards that guide our practice. In t he year 2005, as social workers contend with ever changing duties and responsibilities to clients and people in need, it is essential to continue to challenge each other to excellence in service and in ethical thinking for it is in the dialogue that we mature as individual social workers and as a profession.
The factual information contained in the history of the Code comes largely from: Reamer, F. (1998). The evolution of social work ethics. Social Work, 43(6), 488-500.
Posted on 03/01/05 at 02:01 PM