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6 Core Social Work Values and Ethics

A smiling social worker interacts with a client.

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 were 713,200 social workers nationwide as of 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and that number is expected to increase by 13 percent between 2019 and 2029. Each of those social workers, regardless of the setting in which they choose 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 the six social work core values, which comprise:

  1. Service
  2. Social justice
  3. Dignity and worth of the person
  4. Importance of human relationships
  5. Integrity
  6. Competence

Professionals working as social workers understand the importance of these values. Individuals who are interested in pursuing a career in social work can earn an advanced degree, such as Tulane University’s Online Master of Social Work, to prepare for the role, including learning more about social work values.

6 Ethical Principles of Social Work

Social workers devote themselves to serving their communities. They advocate for human rights through the following six social work core values:

1. Service

Empowering individuals, families, and communities 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 their communities above their own personal interests and use their skills and knowledge (from education and experience) to enhance the wellbeing of others. In addition, social workers often volunteer their time or expertise above and beyond their professional commitments.

For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many social workers coordinated mutual aid, community meals, and PPE drives.

2. Social Justice

Social workers advocate on behalf of the oppressed, the marginalized, and anyone who needs their voice amplified. 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 others who may not have the same level of privileges in our society.

Social workers’ efforts to address injustices includes examining their own biases and encouraging others to do the same. They work to create more equitable support systems and identify structural conditions that contribute to disparities in the health and well-being of individuals and communities.

3. Dignity and Worth of the Person

Social workers are mindful of individual differences in thinking and behavior, as well as cultural and ethnic diversity. Only by treating each person with dignity and respect can social workers promote 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.

Social workers seek to eliminate factors that threaten the dignity and worth of individuals, but they do so with a decentered approach that respects differences and honors self-determination. Rather than imposing their own values, social workers leverage the values of their clients and the communities they serve.

4. 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.

Challenging social conditions, such as those created by the COVID-19 pandemic, highlight the essential role of human relationships in supporting health and healing. Social workers not only build and maintain strong relationships with individuals and communities, they also help their clients identify relationships that are helpful to them and let go of relationships that are not

5. Integrity

To facilitate these relationships and empower others to improve their lives, social workers must act in a way that engenders trust. 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 demonstrating personal integrity, social workers can promote the organizations with which they are affiliated while also creating the most value for the populations they serve.

One relevant trend in social work is the profession’s use of and interest in social media. A study published by Social Sciences & Humanities Open in 2020 reports that the social work profession seeks to “regard data privacy protection as a human and civil rights issue” and “support inclusion of social media information in social work.”

6. Competence

Professional social workers often hold undergraduate or graduate degrees 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 their scope of competence and avoid misrepresenting skills or experience to potential clients.

Social workers must constantly strive to expand their knowledge base and competence in order to make meaningful contributions to the profession and those they serve. Social work is a lifelong learning commitment, and continuing education can take the form of any activity that expands a social worker’ knowledge and skill set: conducting personal study and research, attending webinars and conferences, or pursuing additional licenses or degrees.

Pursue a Career in Social Work

Ethics and values in social work encompass far more than compliance with regulations and requirements. The core beliefs that guide social workers ensure that while they work on behalf of their clients, they also work with clients, constantly learning as they empower others.

Whether you’re new to the field of social work or a practicing professional looking to expand your knowledge and career options, Tulane University’s Online Master of Social Work program can teach you the skills you need to enhance human well-being and provide basic human needs for all individuals and communities. Visit the Online Master of Social Work program to learn more about a curriculum that serves clients within their environments and builds upon individual and community strengths.

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