The National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics is a set of values, principles and standards for social workers to adhere to and reference in order to guide decision making and conduct. Because ethical decision making arises frequently in social work, there are not always easy answers. Any given situation can have nuances and idiosyncrasies that bring a social worker from black and white to the grayest of areas. Ideally, a social worker can apply this set of ethics to a situation in order to make an informed and appropriate decision or judgment.

If the primary goal of a social worker is to help people improve the quality of their lives and meet their basic human needs, then a social worker’s essential task is personal, social, political, economic and more. Social workers are advocates for social justice and change, working on behalf of their clients to improve the environmental forces that create, contribute to and address quality of life.

Social Work Core Values

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) defines the mission of the Code of Ethics as being rooted in a set of core values. The core values are:

  • Service
  • Social Justice
  • Dignity and Worth of the Person
  • Importance of Human Relationships
  • Integrity
  • Competence

The NASW uses the core values to build a balance that responds to and aims to improve on the complexity of the human experience.

The code is divided into different sections that outline the specific responsibilities of a social worker. This includes social workers’ ethical responsibilities: to clients, to colleagues, in practice settings, as professionals, to the social work profession and to the broader society.

It’s important for social workers to have the Social Work Code of Ethics because the nature of their work can be very personal and directly plants them into the lives of their clients.

Applying the Social Work Code of Ethics

At the heart of social work is the idea of responsibility. Social workers help their clients to take responsibility for their own lives and respond to or get out of bad situations. Though the NASW’s Code of Ethics doesn’t guarantee ethical behavior from social workers, it does provide a set of guidelines and language that other social workers, employers, organizations and agencies can use in order to judge a social worker’s behavior or response to a situation.

In this way, the Social Worker Code of Ethics can be used in a peer-review process. The Code of Ethics in social work is used by professionals as a landmark and touchstone of ethical practice. Social workers’ commitment to the code ideally results in upholding it and performing their duties according to the core values.

Most of the standards explained by the NASW are enforceable guidelines for professional conduct. However, some are aspirational and can be interpreted in different ways based on any number of influences. It’s important to have guidelines spelled out and agreed upon by the social work profession so that every individual social worker can behave and react accordingly.