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What is an ethical dilemma in social work practice?

Updated April 17, 2017

The profession of social work has an ethical basis that serves as the foundation for engaging in social work practice. The National Association of Social Work (NASW) Code of Ethics delineates the ethical base upon which social work decisions are made and identifies the profession's core values and mission.

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Purpose of the Code of Ethics

Information provided by the School of Social Work at the University of Texas indicates that the NASW Code of Ethics serves 6 purposes: identifies core values; establishes ethical standards; used for ethical decision-making when dilemmas arise; accountability; socialisation of new social workers; and, specifies procedure and process for discipline and sanction.

Definition of Ethical Dilemma

Kadushin and Goldie (2001) define ethical dilemmas as occurring when it is necessary to choose between ethics that appear contradictory. Ethical dilemmas present conflicts between social workers, other staff, agencies, clients and/or regulations.

Examples of Ethical Dilemmas

Some examples of ethical dilemmas include the following: violations of the law by a social worker; having to choose between alternatives for clients that appear unsatisfactory; whether to report a client for having a job while on public assistance; and, the role of social workers in correctional settings.

Ethical Decision-Making

Ethical decision-making represents a process of dealing with ethical dilemmas in social work. This process essentially consists of the following steps: determining if there is a conflict, whether harm has occurred or will occur; and, developing a plan for resolution.


Joining the NASW represents a commitment to the profession's Code of Ethics. It is important for social workers to further their understanding of the ethical standards and how to appropriately use them in practice settings. It is also critical that social workers take advantage of opportunities to gain experience in ethical decision-making.

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About the Author

F. Anne Humphrey

F. Anne Humphrey has been a social worker for over 30 years. She has a B.S.W., an M.S.W. and has completed work towards her Ph.D. at Florida State University. She has worked as a social work educator and has presented at professional meetings.

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