1. Home
  2. / Blog
  3. / Social Work: Core Values and Ethics

Social Work: Core Values and Ethics

Two pairs of hands holding each other

Every day, social workers stand up for human rights and justice and give voice to unheard and marginalized populations. They contribute to bettering individuals’ lives, and by doing so, they improve society as a whole. Social workers are employed by nonprofits, the government, and private practices.

There are nearly 700,000 social workers nationwide as of 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and that number is expected to increase by more than 100,000 before 2026. Each of those social workers, regardless of the setting in which one chooses to provide services, must adhere to the professional code of ethics established in 1996 by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Delegate Assembly and revised in 2017.

The NASW Code of Ethics “is intended to serve as a guide to the everyday professional conduct of social workers,” according to the NASW website. It outlines six ethical principles that “set forth ideals to which all social workers should aspire.” This article will explore those six social work core values, which comprise service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.


Addressing social ills and helping others is a primary goal of all social workers. Service is the value from which all other social work values stem. Social workers regularly elevate the needs of others above their own personal interests and use their skills and knowledge (from education and experience) to help people. Social workers often volunteer their time — in addition to their paid services — with no expectation for financial reward.

Social Justice

Social workers advocate on behalf of the oppressed, the voiceless, and others who are unable to advocate for themselves. They often focus on issues such as poverty, homelessness, discrimination, harassment, and other forms of injustice. Social workers provide information, help, and other resources to people seeking equality, and they educate people who may not directly experience discrimination about the struggles of the less fortunate.

Dignity and Worth of the Person

Every person is different, with different cultural and social values. Social workers are mindful of those differences, treating each person with dignity and respect and promoting their clients’ capacity and opportunity to address their own needs and improve their personal situations. Social workers must be cognizant of their duties to both individual clients and to society as a whole, and seek solutions for their clients that also support society’s broader interests.

Importance of Human Relationships

Social workers connect people who need assistance with organizations and individuals who can provide the appropriate help. Social workers recognize that facilitating human relationships can be a useful vehicle for creating change, and they excel at engaging potential partners who can create, maintain, and enhance the well-being of families, neighborhoods, and whole communities.


In order to facilitate these relationships and improve others’ lives, social workers must exhibit trustworthiness at all times. Each social worker must be continually aware of the profession’s mission, values, and ethical principles and standards, and set a good example of these components for their clients. By behaving honestly and responsibly, social workers can promote the organizations with which they’re affiliated while also creating the most value for the populations they serve.


Professional social workers often hold undergraduate or Master’s degree in Social Work, but a fair amount of their knowledge comes from gaining on-the-job experience. As part of the social work values outlined in the NASW Code of Ethics, each social worker must practice within his or her scope of competence and avoid misrepresenting his or her skills or experience to potential clients. Social workers must continually strive to expand their knowledge base and competence in order to make meaningful contributions to the profession.

The importance of ethics and values in social work is more than just compliance with regulations and requirements. In a profession in which the clients are often vulnerable and unable to advocate for themselves, it’s necessary that those advocating for them be passionate about empowering those who are vulnerable, oppressed, or poverty-stricken.

If you’re interested in upholding and supporting these values in your future career, a bachelor’s degree in social work can open up many professional opportunities, and an advanced degree can help professional social workers to pursue leadership or administrative positions within an ever-expanding field.

Recommended readings:

How Social Workers Make a Difference

5 Specializations in Social Work Careers

15 Inspirational Quotes for Social Workers


Houston Chronicle

National Association of Social Workers

Oxford University Press

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics


Download a brochure and learn more about Tulane University's School of Social Work.