Allied News Blog

NASW resources for understanding new social worker code of ethics

Michael O’Leary | February 01, 2018

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The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) adopted an updated code of ethics at the Delegate Assembly last year, which took effect Jan. 1, 2018. It is the first update to the NASW code of ethics since 2008 and the first major revision since 1996. Many practicing professionals have asked what prompted the new social worker code ethics, and why now?

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First major revision to social worker code of ethics since 1996

On August 4, 2017, the Delegate Assembly of the National Association of Social Workers approved the most substantive revision to the NASW Code of Ethics since 1996. The most substantial sections of change were aimed at the ethical considerations surrounding a variety of technologies and issues regarding privacy and confidentiality, sexual harassment, records access, and informed consent, as well as updating nearly 20 sections of the code with added language about technology concerns.

Technology drives changes to social worker code of ethics

NASW CEO Angelo McClain, PhD, LICSW, said the reason the code of ethics was revised was to address technology changes since the last revision in 2008.

"The National Association of Social Workers in partnership with other social work organizations unveiled the new standards [in 2017] for the use of technology in social work," McClain said via YouTube, "and the NASW released an updated code of ethics that gives social workers guidance in how to practice social work in light of recent technological advances." The NASW code of ethics covers the conduct of most social workers, including all NASW members, as well as licensed, employed, and student social workers.

The impetus for the revisions regarding technology stems in part from the explosion of electronic means of communication since 2008, including social media, smartphones, and tablets, which are spelled out in the code.

Some technology assisted social work practices didn’t exist in 1996

In speaking about the impetus for the changes, Dr. Frederic Reamer, who chaired the NASW ethics committee revised code in 1996 and served on the current social work ethics committee said it is remarkable how much communications between social workers and their clients and communications in general had changed.

"When we rewrote the code at [the] time [1996], Facebook did not exist; Google searches were not possible,” Dr. Reamer said in an online NASW panel discussion about the new code. “There was no such thing as video counseling or avatar counseling. LinkedIn did not exist. We were not text messaging. Technology then meant telephones, which had cords attached to them, and fax machines, answering machines, and that was pretty much it. So the world has changed and we tried to change with it."

Informed consent needs to include the client’s technological skills

Dawn Hobdy, director of the NASW’s Office of Ethics and Professional Review was also on the code revisions committee and led the panel discussion about the new social work code of ethics. She said this new 2018 version is a major revision to the code of ethics.

“We actually have 19 new standards in the code of ethics as well as 19 old standards with additional language,” she said. As an example, she added, “One of the new requirements is that in terms of informed consent, social workers need to be able to make a determination about whether the client is even able to give consent. Do they have enough understanding of the technology to give an informed consent.”

New social worker code of ethics requires verification of client identity

Another major change driven by new technology, she said, is being able to verify the identity and location of clients. This can arise from situations where the consultation is online or via a remote audio or teleconference, or in a text message situation. The new code requires that the social worker needs to be able to verify the identity and location of the person they are consulting with.

“Unfortunately, the code of ethics is not going to give you all the steps for how to do this,” Ms. Hobdy said. “But you have to take some things into consideration. You have to ask yourself, ‘How will I verify the identity? How will I make sure that the client who is receiving services through audio conferencing is the person they say they are?’”

NASW resources for understanding new social worker code of ethics

In short, technology has introduced a lot of situations that social workers must take into consideration to ensure they are acting in accordance with the new social worker code of ethics. To aid practicing social workers in understanding those considerations, NASW provides online training through its self-study educational catalog, along with chat, blogs, and code revisions consults.

In addition, copies of the new code of ethics are available for NASW members on the new website, by calling the NASW press office at 800-227-3590, or by ordering a hard copy online at a cost of $5 per copy.

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