8 Ethical Considerations for Responding to Social Injustice
The recent high-profile deaths of Black people at the hands of the police, in addition to reoccurring publicized examples of racism around the country within our communities and within our profession, have emboldened demands for massive social change. What action does the NASW (2017) Code of Ethics require of social workers in the face of social injustice, racism, and inequality?
1. The Pursuit of Social Justice Is Fundamental to Ethical Social Work
The preamble of the NASW Code of Ethics begins with a powerful statement that embodies the profession’s charge to actively pursue social justice:
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." (p. 5)
Six values and associated principles are outlined in the Code and serve as pillars for ethical practice. They describe activities to be taken to challenge social injustice including promoting sensitivity and knowledge about oppression and cultural and ethnic diversity; striving to ensure equality and access to needed information, services, and resources; respecting the inherent dignity and worth of all people; and recognizing the importance of human relationships as a critical vehicle for change.
2. Engage in Social and Political Action
Standard 6.04, Social and Political Action, underscores the requirement that social workers engage in action by way of promoting fair and equitable policy, opportunities, and the expansion of knowledge and resources to advance social justice in the United States and globally:
"Social workers should act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical ability." (Standard 6.04[d])
3. Stay Abreast of Current Affairs and of Social Issues
Standard 4.01, Competence, guides social workers to critically examine and keep current with emerging knowledge relevant to social work. Social workers should routinely review the professional literature and participate in continuing education relevant to social work practice and social work ethics. Many important publications, documentaries and webinars are now available to help us understand the multifaceted nature of racism. Take some time to learn more about the issues at hand to make an informed decision about how you are uniquely equipped to make change.
4. Become Knowledgeable and Self-Aware
Standard 1.05, Cultural Awareness and Social Diversity, charges social workers to understand culture and its function in human behavior and society, and to recognize the strengths that exist in all cultures.
"Social workers should obtain education about and seek to understand 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." (1.05 c)
The journey of self-discovery as it relates to social justice and anti-racism begins from the inside out and is an important starting point for building the knowledge and expertise needed to practice competently with diverse people and communities.
5. Respect Colleagues
How are ethical principles manifesting for the individual social worker and emerging in day -to-day interactions among colleagues?
The Code guides professionals to recognize the importance of human relationships and to strengthen relationships between and among people as a vehicle for change. The embodiment of this principle starts with the way we treat our colleagues and professional peers. Standard 2.01, Respect, guides social workers to:
“treat colleagues with respect . . . avoid unwarranted negative criticism of colleagues . . . criticism may include demeaning comments that refer to colleagues’ level of competence or to individuals’ attributes such as 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.” (2.01 b)
Healthy debate and differences of opinion are acceptable and can be beneficial. Unwarranted negative criticism (including racist remarks) and criticism not rooted in facts are not.
6. Do Not Condone, Facilitate, or Collaborate with Any Form of Discrimination
Turning a blind eye to inequality, injustice, racism, and discriminatory practices is unethical and can be considered condoning unethical behavior. The Code implores social workers not to practice, condone, facilitate, or collaborate with “any form of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical ability” (Standard 4.02, Discrimination).
Taking action against discrimination is the ethical response. Social workers should consider the role they can play in eliminating discrimination.
7. Prevent, Expose, and Address Racism and Discrimination and Other Unethical Practices
Calling out racism and other social injustices is an ethical responsibility. The Code provides guidance on how to do so ethically.
The Code requires social workers to prevent, expose, and address unethical conduct of colleagues per standard 2.10, Unethical Conduct of Colleagues. This charge includes addressing social injustices that are present in the social work and allied professions. Social workers should address racism, discrimination, and other forms of unethical conduct directly with the people involved, but if not feasible, or likely to resolve the issue, by exploring channels for addressing the issue such as going to the employer, licensing board, or other bodies with oversight of the professional or practice setting.
8. Meet the Moment
The NASW Code of Ethics is rooted in values that uphold social justice, equality, and respect for diversity. Social workers cannot escape this mantle inherent to ethical practice. Regardless of practice setting, according to standard 1.06, Social Welfare, we are all responsible for promoting the general welfare of society from local to global levels. Although it may look different for each professional, we all have a critical role in advocating, promoting, and impacting the realization of social justice.
The NASW Code of Ethics is not prescriptive when it comes to defining the social action that should be taken in the face of racism and injustice. Social action and how it manifests is left up to the professional. The operative word is “action.” Social workers are charged to do something. How are you meeting the moment?
National Association of Social Workers. (2017). Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Washington, DC: Author.
Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers, 2017
Additional reading on anti-racism and race relations