Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the NASW Code of Ethics But Were Afraid to Ask: What Truths the Code Reveals

I am frequently asked by students why I recommend a law-based system for decision makin in the mental health professions, including social work, psychology and counseling. The answer, without oversimplifying it, is that professional codes of ethics impart very limited assistance to professionals and students who face important practice decisions every day in their professional lives.

As a primary example of the NASW Code of Ethics’ failure to render adequate assistance, let’s start with the statement made in the Code’s preamble, which warns us that only some of the standards contained in the code are enforceable! The rest are only aspirational principles that we should try to uphold. This is an amazing abdication of any responsibility for holding social workers accountable for certain basic standards of practice.

Consider also the NASW Code’s announcement in its opening pages that it declines to define what it means when it uses the term client. We’re left without any understanding of the responsibilities that emanate from the social worker-client relationship and are led to believe instead that social workers have unlimited responsibilities to persons, communities, and society without any limitation. Indeed, according to the NASW Code, the world is our client! This is obviously ridiculous and unenforceable.

I’ll be commenting in future posts about weaknesses in professional ethical codes and that we can do to ensure that our professional decision making is law based, rational and reasonable, and, moreover, that it advances the real ethical values of our variuos mental health professions. In the meantime, please examine other posts on this blog, together with the rest of the website http://mentalhealthlaw.us, to learn more about law-based decision making.

This blog and the website associated with it present a law based strategy for the resolution of practice dilemmas in the mental health professions. One of those professions is social work, whose members are bound by the tenets of the NASW Code of Ethics. Why do we reject the usefulness of the NASW Code as a decision making tool? One of the reasons is the abject failure of NASW to plainly and unequivocally explain exactly what social work is. Indeed, as NASW’s explanation of the “definition” of social work shows, it is unwilling to inform social workers in simple, plain, succinct language exactly what the specific parameters of social work practice are:

“The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well­being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession’s focus on individual well­being in a social context and the well­being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living.

Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients. “Clients” is used inclusively to refer to individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Social workers are sensitive to cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice. These activities may be in the form of direct practice, community organizing, supervision, consultation administration, advocacy, social and political action, policy development and implementation, education, and research and evaluation. Social workers seek to enhance the capacity of people to address their own needs. Social workers also seek to promote the responsiveness of organizations, communities, and other social institutions to individuals’ needs and social problems.”

The above definition is broad enough to encompass any profession know to humankind. In its overbreadth it expresses no clear meaning. As we make the case in this blog and website, without a concrete, working definition of social work practice, it is impossible to bind social workers to the standards expressed in the NASW Code of Ethics. In contrast, the law defines social work in terms of the tasks performed by social workers: providing direct mental health treatment, investigating allegations of child and elder abuse and neglect, and related responsibilities. Therefore, we urge that social work practitioners, together with other mental health professional, have much to gain from considering a law-based decision making strategy to address everyday practice dilemmas.

The website and blog frequently discuss the importance of coming to an understanding about what it means to be the “client” of a mental health provider. Specifically, a mental health practitioner cannot lawfully provide services to a person unless and until a professional-client relationship has been formed. This means voluntary acceptance of the relationship by both parties (or, in some instances, substituted acceptance of the relationship by someone acting on the client’s behalf).

What does the NASW Code of Ethics say about the meaning of the term “client”? In a word, nothing. Here’s what the NASW Code does say about clients in its preamble:

‘Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients. ‘Clients’ is used inclusively to refer to individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.’

Without the most minimal effort to define the meaning of the term “client,” the NASW Code of Ethics leaves social workers with little or no understanding of what the legal ramifications of initiating a client-professional relationship are. For that matter, the NASW Code leaves social workers without any enforceable guidelines explaining the impact of clienthood on clients and the corresponding duties that it places on professionals. This fact provides yet another reason for mental health practitioner to adopt the law based decision making system advocated by this website and blog in every aspect of daily practice.

More about the weaknesses of ethical codes in mental health decision making

One general weakness of ethical codes is that they often are better at articulating overarching and general, aspirational ideals, i.e., values, than they are at setting standards that prescribe or proscribe particular behavior, i.e., ethics. Thus, the NASW Code broadly espouses the promotion of client well-being (Ethical Standard 1.01), the development of people, communities, and environments (Ethical Standard 6.01), and the advancement of client self-determination (Ethical Standard 1.02), as social work aspirations, but offers only a handful of enforceable standards in the pursuit of these ideals. For example. as already noted, the NASW Code clearly proscribes conduct specifically in the case of social worker-client sexual relationships. Interestingly, in the very portion of the NASW Code in which ethical standards are set forth (Introduction to Ethical Standards), The Code warns readers that only �some of the standards that follow are enforceable guidelines for professional conduct, and some are aspirational.� The Introduction to Ethical Standards goes on to explain that �the extent to which each standard is enforceable is a matter of professional judgment to be exercised by those responsible for reviewing alleged violations of ethical standards.� This extraordinary lack of certainty by NASW itself as to the binding quality of its own �standards� raises serious questions about whether any relied upon in disciplinary proceedings against social workers would be enforceable in subsequent litigation by the subjects of such proceedings. The reason for the cautionary stance by NASW regarding enforceable standards may well be that the framers of the NASW Code have remained somewhat ambivalent about how they envision the Code�s purpose; when drafting the present Code they may have regarded the imposition of stricter standards as an undesirable substitute for allowing flexibility. In the NASW Code, Ethical Standards 1.06 and 3.01, respectively, social workers are cautioned to avoid social relationships and conflicts of interest with clients and colleagues, but only where there is a �risk of harm or exploitation.� The ambiguity inherent in this standard may serve the purpose of ensuring flexibility in its interpretation, but it also unfortunately makes it virtually meaningless in the absence of a situational, regional, cultural, or some other subjective context unique to every practice situation.