1. Social Workers' Ethical Responsibilities to Clients
NASW Code of Ethics: Ethical Standards
1.01 Commitment to Clients
Social workers’ primary responsibility is to promote the well-being of
clients. In general, clients’ interests are primary. However, social
workers’ responsibility to the larger society or specific legal obligations
may, on limited occasions, supersede the loyalty owed clients, and
clients should be so advised. (Examples include when a social worker
is required by law to report that a client has abused a child or has
threatened to harm self or others.)
Social workers respect and promote the right of clients to
self-determination and assist clients in their efforts to identify and clarify
their goals. Social workers may limit clients’ right to self-determination
when, in the social workers’ professional judgment, clients’ actions or
potential actions pose a serious, foreseeable, and imminent risk to
themselves or others.
1.03 Informed Consent
(a) Social workers should provide services to clients only in the context
of a professional relationship based, when appropriate, on valid informed
consent. Social workers should use clear and understandable language to
inform clients of the purpose of the services, risks related to the services,
limits to services because of the requirements of a third-party payer,
relevant costs, reasonable alternatives, clients’ right to refuse or
withdraw consent, and the time frame covered by the consent. Social
workers should provide clients with an opportunity to ask questions.
(b) In instances when clients are not literate or have difficulty
understanding the primary language used in the practice setting, social
workers should take steps to ensure clients’ comprehension. This may
include providing clients with a detailed verbal explanation or arranging
for a qualified interpreter or translator whenever possible.
(c) In instances when clients lack the capacity to provide informed
consent, social workers should protect clients’ interests by seeking
permission from an appropriate third party, informing clients consistent
with their level of understanding. In such instances social workers should
seek to ensure that the third party acts in a manner consistent with
clients’ wishes and interests. Social workers should take reasonable steps
to enhance such clients’ ability to give informed consent.
(d) In instances when clients are receiving services involuntarily, social
workers should provide information about the nature and extent of
services and about the extent of clients’ right to refuse service.
(e) Social workers should discuss with clients the social workers’ policies
concerning the use of technology in the provision of professional services.
(f) Social workers who use technology to provide social work services
should obtain informed consent from the individuals using these services
during the initial screening or interview and prior to initiating services.
Social workers should assess clients’ capacity to provide informed
consent and, when using technology to communicate, verify the identity
and location of clients.
(g) Social workers who use technology to provide social work services
should assess the clients’ suitability and capacity for electronic and remote
services. Social workers should consider the clients’ intellectual, emotional,
and physical ability to use technology to receive services and ability to
understand the potential benefits, risks, and limitations of such services.
If clients do not wish to use services provided through technology, social
workers should help them identify alternate methods of service.
(h) Social workers should obtain clients’ informed consent before making
audio or video recordings of clients or permitting observation of service
provision by a third party.
(i) Social workers should obtain client consent before conducting an
electronic search on the client. Exceptions may arise when the search is
for purposes of protecting the client or others from serious, foreseeable,
and imminent harm, or for other compelling professional reasons.
(a) Social workers should provide services and represent themselves
as competent only within the boundaries of their education, training,
license, certification, consultation received, supervised experience, or
other relevant professional experience.
(b) Social workers should provide services in substantive areas or use
intervention techniques or approaches that are new to them only after
engaging in appropriate study, training, consultation, and supervision
from people who are competent in those interventions or techniques.
(c) When generally recognized standards do not exist with respect to an
emerging area of practice, social workers should exercise careful judgment
and take responsible steps (including appropriate education, research,
training, consultation, and supervision) to ensure the competence of their
work and to protect clients from harm.
(d) Social workers who use technology in the provision of social work
services should ensure that they have the necessary knowledge and skills to
provide such services in a competent manner. This includes an understanding
of the special communication challenges when using technology and the
ability to implement strategies to address these challenges.
(e) Social workers who use technology in providing social work services
should comply with the laws governing technology and social work
practice in the jurisdiction in which they are regulated and located and,
as applicable, in the jurisdiction in which the client is located.
1.05 Cultural Competence
(a) Social workers should demonstrate understanding of culture and its
function in human behavior and society, recognizing the strengths that
exist in all cultures.
(b) Social workers should demonstrate knowledge that guides practice with
clients of various cultures and be able to demonstrate skills in the provision
of culturally informed services that empower marginalized individuals
and groups. Social workers must take action against oppression, racism,
discrimination, and inequities, and acknowledge personal privilege.
(c) Social workers should demonstrate awareness and cultural humility
by engaging in critical self-reflection (understanding their own bias and
engaging in self-correction), recognizing clients as experts of their own
culture, committing to lifelong learning, and holding institutions
accountable for advancing cultural humility.
(d) Social workers should obtain education about and demonstrate
understanding of the nature of social diversity and oppression with
respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation,
gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief,
religion, immigration status, and mental or physical ability.
(e) Social workers who provide electronic social work services should be
aware of cultural and socioeconomic differences among clients’ use of
and access to electronic technology and seek to prevent such potential
barriers. Social workers should assess cultural, environmental, economic,
mental or physical ability, linguistic, and other issues that may affect the
delivery or use of these services.
1.06 Conflicts of Interest
(a) Social workers should be alert to and avoid conflicts of interest that
interfere with the exercise of professional discretion and impartial
judgment. Social workers should inform clients when a real or potential
conflict of interest arises and take reasonable steps to resolve the issue in
a manner that makes the clients’ interests primary and protects clients’
interests to the greatest extent possible. In some cases, protecting clients’
interests may require termination of the professional relationship with
proper referral of the client.
(b) Social workers should not take unfair advantage of any professional
relationship or exploit others to further their personal, religious, political,
or business interests.
(c) Social workers should not engage in dual or multiple relationships with
clients or former clients in which there is a risk of exploitation or potential
harm to the client. In instances when dual or multiple relationships are
unavoidable, social workers should take steps to protect clients and are
responsible for setting clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive
boundaries. (Dual or multiple relationships occur when social workers
relate to clients in more than one relationship, whether professional, social,
or business. Dual or multiple relationships can occur simultaneously or
(d) When social workers provide services to two or more people who have
a relationship with each other (for example, couples, family members),
social workers should clarify with all parties which individuals will be
considered clients and the nature of social workers’ professional obligations
to the various individuals who are receiving services. Social workers
who anticipate a conflict of interest among the individuals receiving
services or who anticipate having to perform in potentially conflicting
roles (for example, when a social worker is asked to testify in a child
custody dispute or divorce proceedings involving clients) should clarify
their role with the parties involved and take appropriate action to
minimize any conflict of interest.
(e) Social workers should avoid communication with clients using
technology (such as social networking sites, online chat, e-mail, text
messages, telephone, and video) for personal or non-work-related purposes.
(f) Social workers should be aware that posting personal information on
professional Web sites or other media might cause boundary confusion,
inappropriate dual relationships, or harm to clients.
(g) Social workers should be aware that personal affiliations may increase
the likelihood that clients may discover the social worker’s presence on
Web sites, social media, and other forms of technology. Social workers
should be aware that involvement in electronic communication with
groups based on race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, gender
identity or expression, mental or physical ability, religion, immigration
status, and other personal affiliations may affect their ability to work
effectively with particular clients.
(h) Social workers should avoid accepting requests from or engaging in
personal relationships with clients on social networking sites or other
electronic media to prevent boundary confusion, inappropriate dual
relationships, or harm to clients.
1.07 Privacy and Confidentiality
(a) Social workers should respect clients’ right to privacy. Social workers
should not solicit private information from or about clients except for
compelling professional reasons. Once private information is shared,
standards of confidentiality apply.
(b) Social workers may disclose confidential information when appropriate
with valid consent from a client or a person legally authorized to consent
on behalf of a client.
(c) Social workers should protect the confidentiality of all information
obtained in the course of professional service, except for compelling
professional reasons. The general expectation that social workers will keep
information confidential does not apply when disclosure is necessary to
prevent serious, foreseeable, and imminent harm to a client or others. In
all instances, social workers should disclose the least amount of confidential
information necessary to achieve the desired purpose; only information
that is directly relevant to the purpose for which the disclosure is made
should be revealed.
(d) If social workers plan to disclose confidential information, they
should (when feasible and to the extent possible) inform clients about
the disclosure and the potential consequences prior to disclosing the
information. This applies whether social workers disclose confidential
information on the basis of a legal requirement or client consent.
(e) Social workers should discuss with clients and other interested
parties the nature of confidentiality and limitations of clients’ right to
confidentiality. Social workers should review with clients circumstances
where confidential information may be requested and where disclosure
of confidential information may be legally required. This discussion
should occur as soon as possible in the social worker–client relationship
and as needed throughout the course of the relationship.
(f) When social workers provide counseling services to families, couples,
or groups, social workers should seek agreement among the parties involved
concerning each individual’s right to confidentiality and obligation to
preserve the confidentiality of information shared by others. This agreement
should include consideration of whether confidential information may be
exchanged in person or electronically, among clients or with others
outside of formal counseling sessions. Social workers should inform
participants in family, couples, or group counseling that social workers
cannot guarantee that all participants will honor such agreements.
(g) Social workers should inform clients involved in family, couples,
marital, or group counseling of the social worker’s, employer’s, and
agency’s policy concerning the social worker’s disclosure of confidential
information among the parties involved in the counseling.
(h) Social workers should not disclose confidential information to
third-party payers unless clients have authorized such disclosure.
(i) Social workers should not discuss confidential information, electronically
or in person, in any setting unless privacy can be ensured. Social workers
should not discuss confidential information in public or semipublic areas
such as hallways, waiting rooms, elevators, and restaurants.
(j) Social workers should protect the confidentiality of clients during legal
proceedings to the extent permitted by law. When a court of law or other
legally authorized body orders social workers to disclose confidential or
privileged information without a client’s consent and such disclosure
could cause harm to the client, social workers should request that the
court withdraw the order or limit the order as narrowly as possible or
maintain the records under seal, unavailable for public inspection.
(k) Social workers should protect the confidentiality of clients when
responding to requests from members of the media.
(l) Social workers should protect the confidentiality of clients’ written
and electronic records and other sensitive information. Social workers
should take reasonable steps to ensure that clients’ records are stored in a
secure location and that clients’ records are not available to others who
are not authorized to have access.
(m) Social workers should take reasonable steps to protect the
confidentiality of electronic communications, including information
provided to clients or third parties. Social workers should use applicable
safeguards (such as encryption, firewalls, and passwords) when using
electronic communications such as e-mail, online posts, online chat
sessions, mobile communication, and text messages.
(n) Social workers should develop and disclose policies and procedures
for notifying clients of any breach of confidential information in a
(o) In the event of unauthorized access to client records or information,
including any unauthorized access to the social worker’s electronic
communication or storage systems, social workers should inform clients of
such disclosures, consistent with applicable laws and professional standards.
(p) Social workers should develop and inform clients about their policies,
consistent with prevailing social work ethical standards, on the use of
electronic technology, including Internet-based search engines, to gather
information about clients.
(q) Social workers should avoid searching or gathering client information
electronically unless there are compelling professional reasons, and when
appropriate, with the client’s informed consent.
(r) Social workers should avoid posting any identifying or confidential
information about clients on professional Web sites or other forms of
(s) Social workers should transfer or dispose of clients’ records in a
manner that protects clients’ confidentiality and is consistent with
applicable laws governing records and social work licensure.
(t) Social workers should take reasonable precautions to protect client
confidentiality in the event of the social worker’s termination of practice,
incapacitation, or death.
(u) Social workers should not disclose identifying information when
discussing clients for teaching or training purposes unless the client has
consented to disclosure of confidential information.
(v) Social workers should not disclose identifying information when
discussing clients with consultants unless the client has consented to
disclosure of confidential information or there is a compelling need for
(w) Social workers should protect the confidentiality of deceased clients
consistent with the preceding standards.
1.08 Access to Records
(a) Social workers should provide clients with reasonable access to
records concerning the client. Social workers who are concerned that
clients’ access to their records could cause serious misunderstanding or
harm to the client should provide assistance in interpreting the records
and consultation with the client regarding the records. Social workers
should limit clients’ access to their records, or portions of their records,
only in exceptional circumstances when there is compelling evidence
that such access would cause serious harm to the client. Both clients’
requests and the rationale for withholding some or all of the record
should be documented in clients’ files.
(b) Social workers should develop and inform clients about their policies,
consistent with prevailing social work ethical standards, on the use of
technology to provide clients with access to their records.
(c) When providing clients with access to their records, social workers
should take steps to protect the confidentiality of other individuals
identified or discussed in such records.
1.09 Sexual Relationships
(a) Social workers should under no circumstances engage in sexual
activities, inappropriate sexual communications through the use of
technology or in person, or sexual contact with current clients, whether
such contact is consensual or forced.
(b) Social workers should not engage in sexual activities or sexual
contact with clients’ relatives or other individuals with whom clients
maintain a close personal relationship when there is a risk of exploitation
or potential harm to the client. Sexual activity or sexual contact with
clients’ relatives or other individuals with whom clients maintain a
personal relationship has the potential to be harmful to the client and
may make it difficult for the social worker and client to maintain
appropriate professional boundaries. Social workers—not their clients,
their clients’ relatives, or other individuals with whom the client
maintains a personal relationship—assume the full burden for setting
clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive boundaries.
(c) Social workers should not engage in sexual activities or sexual
contact with former clients because of the potential for harm to the
client. If social workers engage in conduct contrary to this prohibition
or claim that an exception to this prohibition is warranted because of
extraordinary circumstances, it is social workers—not their clients—who
assume the full burden of demonstrating that the former client has not
been exploited, coerced, or manipulated, intentionally or unintentionally.
(d) Social workers should not provide clinical services to individuals
with whom they have had a prior sexual relationship. Providing clinical
services to a former sexual partner has the potential to be harmful to the
individual and is likely to make it difficult for the social worker and
individual to maintain appropriate professional boundaries.
1.10 Physical Contact
Social workers should not engage in physical contact with clients when
there is a possibility of psychological harm to the client as a result of the
contact (such as cradling or caressing clients). Social workers who
engage in appropriate physical contact with clients are responsible for
setting clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive boundaries that govern
such physical contact.
1.11 Sexual Harassment
Social workers should not sexually harass clients. Sexual harassment
includes sexual advances; sexual solicitation; requests for sexual favors;
and other verbal, written, electronic, or physical contact of a sexual nature.
1.12 Derogatory Language
Social workers should not use derogatory language in their written, verbal,
or electronic communications to or about clients. Social workers should use
accurate and respectful language in all communications to and about clients.
1.13 Payment for Services
(a) When setting fees, social workers should ensure that the fees are fair,
reasonable, and commensurate with the services performed. Consideration
should be given to clients’ ability to pay.
(b) Social workers should avoid accepting goods or services from clients
as payment for professional services. Bartering arrangements, particularly
involving services, create the potential for conflicts of interest,
exploitation, and inappropriate boundaries in social workers’ relationships
with clients. Social workers should explore and may participate in
bartering only in very limited circumstances when it can be demonstrated
that such arrangements are an accepted practice among professionals in
the local community, considered to be essential for the provision of
services, negotiated without coercion, and entered into at the client’s
initiative and with the client’s informed consent. Social workers who
accept goods or services from clients as payment for professional
services assume the full burden of demonstrating that this arrangement
will not be detrimental to the client or the professional relationship.
(c) Social workers should not solicit a private fee or other remuneration
for providing services to clients who are entitled to such available
services through the social workers’ employer or agency.
1.14 Clients Who Lack Decision-Making Capacity
When social workers act on behalf of clients who lack the capacity to
make informed decisions, social workers should take reasonable steps to
safeguard the interests and rights of those clients.
1.15 Interruption of Services
Social workers should make reasonable efforts to ensure continuity of
services in the event that services are interrupted by factors such as
unavailability, disruptions in electronic communication, relocation,
illness, mental or physical ability, or death.
1.16 Referral for Services
(a) Social workers should refer clients to other professionals when the
other professionals’ specialized knowledge or expertise is needed to serve
clients fully or when social workers believe that they are not being
effective or making reasonable progress with clients and that other
services are required.
(b) Social workers who refer clients to other professionals should take
appropriate steps to facilitate an orderly transfer of responsibility. Social
workers who refer clients to other professionals should disclose, with
clients’ consent, all pertinent information to the new service providers.
(c) Social workers are prohibited from giving or receiving payment for a
referral when no professional service is provided by the referring social
1.17 Termination of Services
(a) Social workers should terminate services to clients and professional
relationships with them when such services and relationships are no
longer required or no longer serve the clients’ needs or interests.
(b) Social workers should take reasonable steps to avoid abandoning
clients who are still in need of services. Social workers should withdraw
services precipitously only under unusual circumstances, giving careful
consideration to all factors in the situation and taking care to minimize
possible adverse effects. Social workers should assist in making
appropriate arrangements for continuation of services when necessary.
(c) Social workers in fee-for-service settings may terminate services to
clients who are not paying an overdue balance if the financial contractual
arrangements have been made clear to the client, if the client does not
pose an imminent danger to self or others, and if the clinical and other
consequences of the current nonpayment have been addressed and
discussed with the client.
(d) Social workers should not terminate services to pursue a social,
financial, or sexual relationship with a client.
(e) Social workers who anticipate the termination or interruption of services
to clients should notify clients promptly and seek the transfer, referral, or
continuation of services in relation to the clients’ needs and preferences.
(f) Social workers who are leaving an employment setting should inform
clients of appropriate options for the continuation of services and of the
benefits and risks of the options.