Ethical Standard of the Month:
1.07 Privacy and Confidentiality

Overview

Section 1.07, “Privacy and Confidentiality,” is the longest in the NASW Code of Ethics and accordingly was subject to the most revision. In addition to substantive revisions, five new standards were added. Although the revisions primarily address technology, they also clarify and add language that has significant implications for social work practice and therefore should be examined thoroughly.

  • Standard 1.07(a) requires social workers to respect clients’ privacy by avoiding soliciting private information from or about clients, except for compelling professional reasons. The addition of this exception allows social workers who in their professional judgment determine the need to solicit private information from or about clients to do so; however, the rationale for doing so must rise to the level of “compelling.” This language is used consistently throughout the Code. Although subjective in nature, a compelling professional reason typically rises to a threshold of seriousness that other professionals would agree with.
  • Revised standard 1.07(c) introduces very significant implications to practice when exercising the exception to confidentiality that allows social workers to disclose information to prevent serious, foreseeable, and imminent harm. The new language states that an exception can be made to avoid imminent harm “to a client or others.” Previously, this standard required that the imminent harm be directed toward a client or “other identifiable person” to be able to execute this exception. As a result of this change, social workers are not required to be able to specifically identify the “other” who may be subject to harm. This is a major change that redefines when a social worker can use his or her professional judgment as a rationale for breaching confidentiality in attempts to prevent imminent harm.
  • Changes to standard 1.07(f) address how confidentiality is handled when providing services to groups. Generally, social workers should seek agreement among the parties about how confidentiality will be preserved. The revision includes the following addition: “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.” This technology-related revision spells out the need to clarify how communications outside of group sessions will be handled when individuals in the group communicate with the social worker or among themselves via e-mail, text, and other electronic means. Social workers should develop policy and procedures concerning this situation and other technology-based communications with clients.
  • In standard 1.07(i), caution regarding discussing confidential information in public is expanded to include electronic as well as in-person communications. This new language more explicitly raises issues pertaining to confidentiality when communicating on public or nonsecured technology-based platforms.
  • In standard 1.07(m), new language specifies measures that social workers must take to preserve confidentiality when communicating electronically.
  • Standard 1.07(n) introduces new guidance to social workers concerning the development and disclosure of policies and procedures for notifying clients when a breach of confidential information occurs. This applies to technological breaches and any other breach that social workers become aware of.
  • Newly included language in standard 1.07(o) guides social workers who become aware of a breach in confidentiality to inform clients consistent with applicable law and professional standards.
  • Standard 1.07(p) introduces new language consistent with other standards that guides social workers to develop policy and inform clients about the use of electronic technology.
  • Standard 1.07(q) offers new language that reiterates guidance set forth in 1.07(a) about avoiding searching information about clients without their consent unless for compelling professional reasons. This standard pertains to using online search engines to look up clients without prior consent.
  • Newly included language in standard 1.07(r) prohibits social workers from posting any identifying or confidential information about clients online. This applies to posting any information about clients including on social media sites or in chatrooms. Even if the information does not include clients’ names or details, the nature of the posting in and of itself can lead clients to recognize it as their information.