The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human
well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with
particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are
vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature
of social work is the profession’s dual focus on individual well-being in a
social context and the well-being of society. Fundamental to social work is
attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address
problems in living.
Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on
behalf of clients. “Clients” is used inclusively to refer to individuals,
families, groups, organizations, and communities. Social workers are
sensitive to cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to end discrimination,
oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice. These activities
may be in the form of direct practice, community organizing, supervision,
consultation, administration, advocacy, social and political action, policy
development and implementation, education, and research and evaluation.
Social workers seek to enhance the capacity of people to address their own
needs. Social workers also seek to promote the responsiveness of
organizations, communities, and other social institutions to individuals’
needs and social problems.
The mission of the social work profession is rooted in a set of core
values. These core values, embraced by social workers throughout the
profession’s history, are the foundation of social work’s unique purpose
- social justice
- dignity and worth of the person
- importance of human relationships
This constellation of core values reflects what is unique to the social
work profession. Core values, and the principles that flow from them, must
be balanced within the context and complexity of the human experience.
Purpose of the NASW Code of Ethics
Professional ethics are at the core of social work. The profession has an
obligation to articulate its basic values, ethical principles, and ethical
standards. The NASW Code of Ethics sets forth these values, principles, and
standards to guide social workers’ conduct. The Code is relevant to all
social workers and social work students, regardless of their professional
functions, the settings in which they work, or the populations they serve.
The NASW Code of Ethics serves six purposes:
- The Code identifies core values on which social work’s mission is
- The Code summarizes broad ethical principles that reflect the
profession’s core values and establishes a set of specific ethical
standards that should be used to guide social work practice.
- The Code is designed to help social workers identify relevant
considerations when professional obligations conflict or ethical
- The Code provides ethical standards to which the general public
can hold the social work profession accountable.
- The Code socializes practitioners new to the field to social work’s
mission, values, ethical principles, and ethical standards, and encourages
all social workers to engage in self-care, ongoing education, and other
activities to ensure their commitment to those same core features of
- The Code articulates standards that the social work profession itself
can use to assess whether social workers have engaged in unethical
conduct. NASW has formal procedures to adjudicate ethics
complaints filed against its members.* In subscribing to this Code,
social workers are required to cooperate in its implementation,
participate in NASW adjudication proceedings, and abide by any
NASW disciplinary rulings or sanctions based on it.
The Code offers a set of values, principles, and standards to guide
decision making and conduct when ethical issues arise. It does not provide a
set of rules that prescribe how social workers should act in all situations.
Specific applications of the Code must take into account the context in
which it is being considered and the possibility of conflicts among the Code’s
values, principles, and standards. Ethical responsibilities flow from all human
relationships, from the personal and familial to the social and professional.
*For information on the NASW Professional Review Process, see NASW Procedures for
Furthermore, the NASW Code of Ethics does not specify which values,
principles, and standards are most important and ought to outweigh others in
instances when they conflict. Reasonable differences of opinion can and do
exist among social workers with respect to the ways in which values, ethical
principles, and ethical standards should be rank ordered when they conflict.
Ethical decision making in a given situation must apply the informed
judgment of the individual social worker and should also consider how the
issues would be judged in a peer review process where the ethical standards
of the profession would be applied.
Ethical decision making is a process. In situations when conflicting
obligations arise, social workers may be faced with complex ethical dilemmas
that have no simple answers. Social workers should take into consideration all
the values, principles, and standards in this Code that are relevant to any
situation in which ethical judgment is warranted. Social workers’ decisions and
actions should be consistent with the spirit as well as the letter of this Code.
In addition to this Code, there are many other sources of information about
ethical thinking that may be useful. Social workers should consider ethical
theory and principles generally, social work theory and research, laws,
regulations, agency policies, and other relevant codes of ethics, recognizing
that among codes of ethics social workers should consider the NASW Code
of Ethics as their primary source. Social workers also should be aware of the
impact on ethical decision making of their clients’ and their own personal
values and cultural and religious beliefs and practices. They should be aware
of any conflicts between personal and professional values and deal with them
responsibly. For additional guidance social workers should consult the
relevant literature on professional ethics and ethical decision making and seek
appropriate consultation when faced with ethical dilemmas. This may involve
consultation with an agency-based or social work organization’s ethics
committee, a regulatory body, knowledgeable colleagues, supervisors, or
Instances may arise when social workers’ ethical obligations conflict with
agency policies or relevant laws or regulations. When such conflicts occur,
social workers must make a responsible effort to resolve the conflict in a
manner that is consistent with the values, principles, and standards expressed
in this Code. If a reasonable resolution of the conflict does not appear possible,
social workers should seek proper consultation before making a decision.
The NASW Code of Ethics is to be used by NASW and by individuals,
agencies, organizations, and bodies (such as licensing and regulatory boards,
professional liability insurance providers, courts of law, agency boards of
directors, government agencies, and other professional groups) that choose
to adopt it or use it as a frame of reference. Violation of standards in this
Code does not automatically imply legal liability or violation of the law.
Such determination can only be made in the context of legal and judicial
proceedings. Alleged violations of the Code would be subject to a peer
review process. Such processes are generally separate from legal or
administrative procedures and insulated from legal review or proceedings to
allow the profession to counsel and discipline its own members.
A code of ethics cannot guarantee ethical behavior. Moreover, a code of
ethics cannot resolve all ethical issues or disputes or capture the richness
and complexity involved in striving to make responsible choices within a
moral community. Rather, a code of ethics sets forth values, ethical
principles, and ethical standards to which professionals aspire and by which
their actions can be judged. Social workers' ethical behavior should result
from their personal commitment to engage in ethical practice. The NASW
Code of Ethics reflects the commitment of all social workers to uphold the
profession’s values and to act ethically. Principles and standards must be
applied by individuals of good character who discern moral questions and,
in good faith, seek to make reliable ethical judgments.
With growth in the use of communication technology in various aspects
of social work practice, social workers need to be aware of the unique
challenges that may arise in relation to the maintenance of confidentiality,
informed consent, professional boundaries, professional competence, record
keeping, and other ethical considerations. In general, all ethical standards in
this Code of Ethics are applicable to interactions, relationships, or
communications, whether they occur in person or with the use of technology.
For the purposes of this Code, “technology-assisted social work services”
include any social work services that involve the use of computers, mobile
or landline telephones, tablets, video technology, or other electronic or
digital technologies; this includes the use of various electronic or digital
platforms, such as the Internet, online social media, chat rooms, text
messaging, e-mail and emerging digital applications. Technology-assisted
social work services encompass all aspects of social work practice, including
psychotherapy; individual, family, or group counseling; community
organization; administration; advocacy; mediation; education; supervision;
research; evaluation; and other social work services. Social workers should
keep apprised of emerging technological developments that may be used in
social work practice and how various ethical standards apply to them.
Professional self-care is paramount for competent and ethical social
work practice. Professional demands, challenging workplace climates, and
exposure to trauma warrant that social workers maintain personal and
professional health, safety, and integrity. Social work organizations,
agencies, and educational institutions are encouraged to promote
organizational policies, practices, and materials to support social workers’
The following broad ethical principles are based on social work’s core
values of service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person,
importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. These
principles set forth ideals to which all social workers should aspire.
Ethical Principle: Social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need
and to address social problems
Social workers elevate service to others above self-interest. Social workers
draw on their knowledge, values, and skills to help people in need and to
address social problems. Social workers are encouraged to volunteer some
portion of their professional skills with no expectation of significant
financial return (pro bono service).
Value: Social Justice
Ethical Principle: Social workers challenge social injustice.
Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of
vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social
workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty,
unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. These
activities seek to promote sensitivity to and knowledge about oppression
and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers strive to ensure access to
needed information, services, and resources; equality of opportunity; and
meaningful participation in decision making for all people.
Value: Dignity and Worth of the Person
Ethical Principle: Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth
of the person.
Social workers treat each person in a caring and respectful fashion, mindful
of individual differences and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers
promote clients’ socially responsible self-determination. Social workers
seek to enhance clients’ capacity and opportunity to change and to address
their own needs. Social workers are cognizant of their dual responsibility to
clients and to the broader society. They seek to resolve conflicts between
clients’ interests and the broader society’s interests in a socially responsible
manner consistent with the values, ethical principles, and ethical standards
of the profession.
Value: Importance of Human Relationships
Ethical Principle: Social workers recognize the central importance of
Social workers understand that relationships between and among people are
an important vehicle for change. Social workers engage people as partners
in the helping process. Social workers seek to strengthen relationships
among people in a purposeful effort to promote, restore, maintain, and
enhance the well-being of individuals, families, social groups,
organizations, and communities.
Ethical Principle: Social workers behave in a trustworthy manner.
Social workers are continually aware of the profession’s mission, values,
ethical principles, and ethical standards and practice in a manner consistent
with them. Social workers should take measures to care for themselves
professionally and personally. Social workers act honestly and responsibly
and promote ethical practices on the part of the organizations with which
they are affiliated.
Ethical Principle: Social workers practice within their areas of competence
and develop and enhance their professional expertise.
Social workers continually strive to increase their professional knowledge
and skills and to apply them in practice. Social workers should aspire to
contribute to the knowledge base of the profession.