May 19, 2024

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The Code of Ethics as a guide for social workers’ conduct

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has a Code of Ethics that sets out in detail what conduct is expected of every social worker and encompasses the values and beliefs of the profession. The Code remains the most important tool in social work and sets out guidelines, values, principles, and standards of conduct that are crucial to maintaining a positive relationship with the people social workers serve. 

In recent years, the Code also sets out requirements for social worker self-care to prevent burnout on the job. The Code of Ethics contains four distinct sections: the preamble, the purpose, the principles, and the standards of the Code. 

The preamble, the purpose, the principles, and the standards

The preamble of the NASW Code of Ethics sets out the core values of social work and defines how social workers interact with clients. Clients encompass individuals and their families and can extend to their communities as well. Social workers engage in activities with and for clients that help with issues such as education, oppression, poverty, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. 

The purpose of the Code of Ethics is to lay out the ethical standards expected of social workers and to guide their conduct. These can be found in a set of core values that have been followed by the profession throughout history. These core principles include service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. They are important because they encompass the belief that all people are equal and deserving of social justice, fair treatment, kindness, and compassion. 

Finally, the ethical standards concern social workers’ responsibility to their clients, colleagues, in practice settings, as professionals, to the social work profession, and to the broader society.

The above core competencies are what aspiring social workers are taught when they apply for the CSWE accredited program with a reputable school such as Keuka College. This online program offered ensures that social workers are trained to deal with complex issues such as mental health and poverty effectively. 


Service is the value from which the other values come into being. It is in serving the individual and community that social workers find their calling and enhance the wellbeing of their clients. Social workers take service very seriously and often put their clients ahead of their own needs, which can result in burnout. 

The ability of social workers to move away from multitasking and focus on one issue at a time while giving themselves some downtime is crucial to being a competent and effective social worker. The Code of Ethics includes language that helps social workers recognize the need for self-care while still providing the very best care for their clients. 

Social justice

Committed social workers have a very strong sense of social justice and this guides their work with individuals and communities. Social workers use their knowledge and experience to fight injustice for those who do not have a voice. They have experience in resources in their communities and can offer helpful advice or be advocates for their clients when a need occurs. Homelessness, poverty, discrimination, and harassment are just some areas of focus for most social workers, and they provide meaningful expertise and advocacy for those who are marginalized.

Dignity and worth of the person

Rather than impose their own beliefs and values on their clients, social workers must strive to understand the distinct differences in their clients and respect those differences. By recognizing the dignity and worth of their clients, they can provide the necessary help to individuals without degrading them by forcing them into a situation that may be against their beliefs. 

Importance of human relationships

Nobody is an island, and the ability to connect clients with different individuals and build those relationships is invaluable. Creating relationships outside of the social worker-client dynamic provides independence for clients and opens their world up to other people. There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child, but that can be said of adults as well. It takes a village of relationships to help an individual find the comfort, compassion, help, and guidance that they need. 


This value should be a no-brainer when it comes to working with clients who are marginalized and vulnerable. A social worker must always act in the best interests of the client and society, and never take advantage of their position for personal gain. 


For a social worker, competence means always striving to learn new ways of helping clients, reading up on new approaches, new resources, and skills. They must never misrepresent their skill levels or pretend to be knowledgeable in an area they are not. Lifelong learning is part of the job in social work and workers must always be willing to accept a new point of view or theory that may be different from what they are used to.  

Fair treatment

Fair treatment is a core value that spans a wide range of instances. For example, a community not having access to a supermarket means residents must take public transportation. Fair treatment can include issues such as not being paid a fair wage for work or being discriminated against because of ethnicity. Fair treatment can mean many things, but it always comes down to a marginalized individual not being given the opportunity that another might have. 

Kindness and compassion

Kindness and compassion are the driving forces behind competent social workers. They must always show empathy, regardless of the client.  

The NASW Code of Ethics is a crucial guide that helps social workers navigate their challenging and rewarding positions. While the Code does not provide details on how to act in specific situations, it does give the social worker a place to turn when they have questions or are faced with a dilemma. The Code of Ethics is an important tool that helps social workers achieve the best results for their clients and communities.