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Introducing Professional Ethics

Introducing Professional Ethics


At the conclusion of the lesson, the student will be able to:

  1. Demonstrate     the ability to use ethical principles in determining best practice.
  2. Evaluate     how one’s values impact their professional role.
  3. Recognize     the relationship between ethics and the law.
  4. Identify     the six ethical principles of the National Association of Social Workers.
  5. Discuss     the meaning of informed consent.
  6. Identify     how self-awareness affects the requirements for the helping professional.


In an area in which helping professionals feel most in need of guidance – ethics – the literature resists giving definitive answers to specific questions, offering instead resources that assist one in logically arrive at guidelines for ethical practice.  Reamer (2005) suggests that questions of ethics regularly evolve into ethical dilemmas as practice, ethical codes and law intersect. The task of the competent and ethical helping professional is to clearly delineate between the “musts” of practice, outlined in the law, and the “shoulds” of practice, those actions that demonstrate the practitioner’s ability to evaluate each situation in light of ethical standards and act accordingly. Corey, Corey and Callanan (2007) suggest the terms “mandatory ethics” – those encompassing actions required for adherence to minimal standards, and “aspirational ethics” – those following the highest possible ethical standards.

Each helping profession has a code of ethics to which it conforms and to which it holds its members accountable. Each helping profession struggles with the nuances of practice calling for ethical decision making in situations in which there may be no specific answers. For example, the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) Code of Ethics reads, in part, “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” (National Association of Social Workers,  2007, para. 7).

Ethics and the Law                  

The helping professional may find him/herself in a quandary when attempting to do that which is both ethical and legal. The most logical course of action when faced with an ethical dilemma may be some variation of the following steps.

  1. When     faced with a situation involving the ethics of the profession, look first     to the applicable laws surrounding the question at hand. If appropriate     and necessary, consult an attorney well-versed in the laws governing     practice in the helping profession.
  2. Consult     the applicable code of ethics. Although many such codes refrain from     providing substantive answers to specific questions in practice, it may be     possible to find a suitable solution in the applicable code.
  3. Consult     with a supervisor or a colleague in whom you have trust. Situations     arising in agency practice may be appropriately discussed with a     supervisor. In those instances in which the practitioner is in private or     solo practice, the need for a consultive relationship with a colleague is     highlighted.
  4. Remember     the most important element of this situation in which you find yourself –    the client. As Corey, Corey and Callanan (2007) point out, “…the basic     purpose of practicing ethically is to further the welfare of your clients”    (p. 9).

Reiterating the notion of maintaining the needs of the client as paramount, in “Beyond the Code of Ethics,” Freud and Krug (2002) outline three elements they suggest may inform and complement the NASW Code of Ethics.

  • Increased attention to our moral intuitions and emotions
  • Institutionalized opportunities for dialogue about ethical concerns
  • Open acknowledgment of, and respect for, moral diversity within a shared body of basic values

As one might suspect,  even when keeping the well-being of the client at the forefront of one’s consciousness, anticipating all possible situations in which ethical considerations might appear is impossible. Consider this:

During the initial meeting with a new client, one referred by the Employee Assistance Program of his company, the gentleman being interviewed says, “I’m so mad that they sent me here!  It just shows how little respect they have for people like me who have worked so hard for them all these years.”  The new client glances at the counselor to gauge the reaction and continues by saying, “Sometimes I just feel like taking my hunting rifle and mowing down everyone in the front office!”

Think about how this situation would best be handled,  balancing concern for the client, and attention to the law and ethical codes of conduct.

In a famous court case, Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California (1976), the courts established the helping professional’s duty to warn and protect clients perceived to be in danger (North Central Regional Educational Library, n. d.). Decisions made by helping professionals involving the duty to warn and protect present some of the clearest conflicts faced.

For example, in the brief case example cited above, the client has made a comment that might be perceived as a threat. The helping professional in a case such as this one might be torn between accepting the responsibility to safeguard confidentiality and the legal responsibility to warn and protect. Even the seasoned helper will be cautious in considering a situation such as this one and will likely seek consultation and supervision before making a decision and taking action.        

In the end however, the ethical helping professional will opt for following the law if in doubt, remembering that ethical codes are for guidance, not prescriptions.

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