Introduction to Social Work Values and Ethics

Social workers advocate for disadvantaged individuals, groups and families by serving as a voice for equality. This is in part because of social work values and ethics.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 700,000 social workers across the country—a number that is expected to grow 11% from 2018 to 2028. Each of those social workers must follow the National Association of Social Workers' (NASW) professional code of ethics.

While the field offers many benefits to the greater community, it is also important to recognize and identify its core values. To help you better understand these key principles in social work, we’ve put together a brief overview.

What is the Social Work Code of Ethics?

The NASW Code of Ethics is a guide for the day-to-day conduct of a social worker. The NASW Delegate Assembly set up the first version in 1960. It has been revised several times but much of it remains as originally written.

The moral framework is based on these social work core values:

  • Service
  • Integrity
  • Social justice
  • Competence
  • The importance of human relationships
  • Dignity and worth of the client

Why is there a code of ethics?

The code of ethics clearly defines laws, regulations and policies for people in the field to follow, and to hold them accountable if the rules are broken.

The code serves six purposes:

  • Provides core values upon which the social work occupation is based.
  • Creates distinct ethical standards that should direct social work practices and represent the core values.
  • Guides social workers in their professional considerations and obligations when ethical uncertainties occur.
  • Provides ethical standards to which the social work profession can be held liable.
  • Establishes the profession’s mission, values and ethical principles and standards for new social workers.
  • Makes standards by which the social work profession can assess if a social worker has engaged in unethical practices. Social workers who pledge to abide by this code must comply with its provisions and disciplinary rulings.

The NASW promotes these ethical objectives for social workers to consider and practice. That said, social work research, policies and agency regulations should be used at all times.

Core Values in Social Work

Professional ethics are rooted in the heart of social work. Core values have ethical requirements each social worker should strive to follow. These legal provisions help social workers identify professional obligations and legal conflicts of interest.

The code is composed of six core values:

  1. ServiceThe main focus of social workers is to uphold exemplary public service by helping people in need address and overcome their social issues. They must elevate public service above self-interest or personal gain. Because of this belief, social workers often volunteer their professional skills—in addition to their full-time work—with no expectation for compensation.
  2. Social justiceSocial workers advocate on behalf of those who have no voice in society. They usually target problems related to poverty, unemployment, discrimination, harassment and other forms of oppression. They also educate the public on sensitive matters that correspond with social justice by encouraging the public to embrace opportunities for diversity and inclusion. Social workers ensure their clients have the right resources, services and information they need to thrive.
  3. Dignity and worth of the individualSince everyone has their own social and cultural values, professionals in this line of work have to be mindful of them. Social workers must treat each person with dignity and respect to help them reach their full potential. For example, a social worker might encourage a client to address their personal challenges in the hope they will become more socially responsible. Social workers have to be mindful of their role to the people they serve and to society as a whole and seek out fair solutions for all parties.
  4. Importance of human relationshipsBuilding positive, meaningful relationships lie at the core of social work. Professionals understand that human connection is critical when it comes to change. Social workers engage clients with individuals, groups or organizations in the community to provide the appropriate help. They aspire to restore functionality between clients and their loved ones and society. Considering that social work relies heavily on the ability to maintain good relationships with people who may be averse and doubtful, social workers must be patient.
  5. IntegrityTo facilitate successful relationships and strengthen the lives of others, social workers need to be trustworthy. They should always be aware of the profession’s core values and ethical principles. By setting a good example for their clients, social workers may help progress their career competency, further support the organizations they’re affiliated with, and create the best value for the people they serve.
  6. CompetenceAlthough many social workers hold an undergraduate or master’s degree in social work, a fair share of their knowledge comes from real-world experience. In accordance with the social work values in the NASW Code of Ethics, each social worker must practice within his or her scope of competence. Social workers must expand their knowledge for the benefit of the people.

Social work ethics and core values are more than just following rules, regulations and protocols. In a profession where the clients are often vulnerable, it’s necessary for social workers to be passionate about empowering those who are defenseless, oppressed or impoverished.

Resources for Further Learning

To advance your knowledge in social work, we put together some resources that may be useful. This list includes state licensing boards and social work organizations and associations. We also included career guides, articles and other occupational information for students enrolled in a social work degree program.

Organizations and regulatory boards for social workers

There are many benefits to joining a social work organization or regulatory board. From professional networking and internship opportunities to education beyond the classroom, membership can help jump-start your career.

Some national organizations include:

Test prep guides for the social work licensing exam

Passing the Association of Social Work Board (ASWB) exam is a vital step in the licensing process. To help you prepare for the big day, here’s a list of social work practice tests and study guides.

Scholarly journals and articles for social workers

If you’re curious about a topic or need more clarity, consider reading in-depth articles from experts in the social work profession. Take a look at these top picks:

Career sites for social workers

Social work spans all levels of society, from the medical field to the military. Explore hundreds of social work careers with this list.

Key Takeaways

Through the social work profession, we can help bring a positive social impact, supporting individuals of all ages to thrive in their environment. Social work not only fosters individuals and communities but also helps them mend and recover from adversity. Three key takeaways from social work values and ethics are:

  • The prime responsibility of a social worker is to enhance and promote the well-being of their clients above all.
  • The purpose of the NASW Code of Ethics and Core Values is to set forth the principles and policies that guide a social worker’s direction. This code should be used and followed by all social workers, including students.
  • Social workers must continue to learn, but should be aware of their limitations and practice within their scope of intelligence.

The demand for social work grows more each day, giving professionals a chance to humbly advocate for the people and groups who are in need. If you wish to support these core values and ethics in your career, you will have opportunities to inspire change.

Interested in a career in social work? Find out how to become a social worker!

Last updated: May 2020