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Updated to include the latest codes of ethics, such as the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics (2008). The bibliography has been expanded and updated.

Updated on 3 September 2013. The previous version of this content can be found here.
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Codes of Ethics

Abstract and Keywords

Social work values and ethics provide the foundation for social work practice around the world. Almost all countries where social work is a recognized profession have a Code of Ethics. Although there are many similarities among Codes of Ethics in different countries, cultural and societal differences have influenced their content and focus. The extent to which Codes of Ethics have a direct effect on social work practice has been debated. While Codes of Ethics reflect societal and national differences, what is universal and fundamental to social work practice from a human rights perspective should prevail.

Keywords: social work ethics, international ethics, social work values, comparative ethics, human rights


Similar to other professions, social workers around the world have developed Codes of Ethics to delineate important values, principles, and standards for professional conduct. Ethical codes have been viewed as essential in

  1. 1. Offering guidance to social workers in addressing ethical issues

  2. 2. Protecting consumers from incompetent practice

  3. 3. Providing opportunities for social workers to self govern their professional behavior

  4. 4. Delineating standards for ethical practice

  5. 5. Protecting social workers from litigation (Reamer, 2006)

In many countries the practice and evolution of the social work profession has usually preceded the development of specific Codes of Ethics. For example, although social work in the United States began as a profession over a hundred years ago, it was not until 1920 that American social work pioneer Mary Richmond developed the first pre-NASW Code of Ethics. Since the first NASW Code of Ethics in 1960, the Code has been revised six times, in 1967, 1979, 1990, 1993, 1996, 1999 (Reamer, 2006) and again in 2008 (NASW, 2008). The current 27-page, 155-provisions Code of Ethics looks very different from the first 1960 NASW 1-page document (Congress, 1999).

During the last century social workers from many countries around the world developed and revised their Codes of Ethics. For example, the British Association of Social Workers Code was first introduced in 1975 and revised several times until its current version was adopted in 2002 (Banks, 2006). Similarly, the Australian Code of Ethics was proposed in 1954, revised several times until the current acceptance of the Code in 1999 by the Australian Association of Social Workers (Congress & McAuliffe, 2006). The Korean Code was first developed in 1982 and revised in 1992 and 1999 until the current version was adopted in 2001 (Congress & Kim, 2007).

Most developed countries, especially where social work is a long-standing recognized profession, have Codes of Ethics. Twenty-one countries have their Codes of Ethics posted on the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) Web site: Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, United States of America, and the United Kingdom. It should be noted that the Codes of Ethics on the IFSW Web site are primarily from countries where English is a primary or strong secondary language.

In some countries a regulatory body such as the Conselho Fereal de Servigo Social (1993) in Brazil or the General Social Care Council in England (2002) has issued a Code of Ethics in addition to or in lieu of the professional organization. Some countries have a governmental organization that issues a Code of Ethics in addition to the professional association. In other countries the professional association does not have a Code of Ethics, and thus the regulatory body has issued a Code of Ethics. Other countries such as Finland rely on the IFSW General Code of Ethics (Banks, 2006).

International Code of Ethics

IFSW first developed in 1994 and revised in 2004, the Ethics in social work: Statement of principles, for social workers in cooperation with the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW). IFSW is an international professional social work organization that represents 83 professional social work organizations around the world. It has been estimated that there are 1.5 million professional social workers in practice globally (500,000 of whom belong to professional organizations) and over 2,000 undergraduate and graduate social work education programs (Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), 2001). This international ethics document developed by IFSW and IASSW and approved by member organizations has been used by many countries as a guide for developing their own codes of ethics (Banks, 2006).

An underlying assumption for this international statement of ethical principles has been that it should reflect ethical practice in developing, as well as developed countries. An ongoing concern, however, has been that the IFSW/IASSW document has an individualist perspective that may not be appropriate for social workers from countries with a greater focus on communitarian approaches. Because of this issue, the IFSW International Ethics committee (where this author is a member) is especially seeking input from social workers from developing countries in order to revise the 2004 Statement of Ethical Principles.

This document demonstrates a focus on human rights that is considered fundamental for the advancement of social work in a global world. Human rights receive varying attention in codes from different parts of the world. The NASW Code of Ethics looks at human rights in the last section under social workers' ethical responsibilities to broader society, while the largest section of the Code of Ethics is devoted to the individual social worker's responsibility to clients.

Comparative Values Around the World

Since the first section of national Codes of Ethics usually includes a statement of social work values, it is important to look at the common values of social workers around the world.

Do all social workers share the same values? IFSW and IASSW include the following description of common social work values in their 2000 Statement about Social Work Practice:

Social work grew out of humanitarian and democratic ideals, and its values are based on respect for the equality, worth, and dignity of all people. Since its beginnings over a century ago, social work practice has focused on meeting human needs and developing human potential. Human rights and social justice serve as the motivation and justification for social work action. In solidarity with those who are dis-advantaged, the profession strives to alleviate poverty and to liberate vulnerable and oppressed people in order to promote social inclusion. Social work values are embodied in the profession's national and international codes of ethics. (IFSW, 2000, p. 1)

There has been limited research on the values of social workers around the world or how they integrate values into their actual practice. In a recent study Dominelli (2004) found that most social workers believe in values such as promoting self-determination (96%) and creating a just society (72%), while a surprising 16% reported that social work values do not “underpin their practice” (p. 163).

After identifying universal social work values as respect for basic rights, sense of social responsibility, commitment to individual freedom (social justice), and support of self determination, Abbott (1988, 2002) compared social workers from different sections of the world, including North America, Asia, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. Using the four value categories listed above, Abbott learned that social workers from around the world support the values of respect for basic rights and support of self-determination, while a sense of social responsibility and commitment to individual freedom were not shared universally.

Research on different values among European social workers looked at the similarities and differences between the values of welfare professionals in Denmark and Britain (Hatton, 2001). English social workers adopt a value base that opposes discrimination and oppression as manifested in racism and xenophobia, while Danish social workers focus more on social solidarity and cohesion whereby newcomers are encouraged to assimilate into Danish society (Hatton, 2001).

Healy (2007) discussed the issue of universalism and cultural relativism as applied to ethical decision-making in social work and concludes that given social work's commitment to human rights a moderate universalist approach is best.

In every country social work values are related to prevailing societal values. To understand values as they relate to professional practice, social workers are encouraged to become aware of societal values as well as the professional values in the country where they practice (Congress, 1999). Social work values in the United States have been viewed as firmly rooted in societal emphasis on individualism and self-reliance (McDonald, Harris, & Wintersteen, 2003). The fact that privacy and confidentiality receives the most attention in the NASW Code of Ethics may be some evidence of this.

Value Differences in Codes of Ethics

Around the world, there seem to be many similarities in the values delineated in national Codes of Ethics. For example, the U.S. National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics (NASW, 2008) lists the following six principles (values): service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence, while in a similar fashion, the Korean Code of Ethics (2001) lists human dignity and worth, the principle of equality, the right of freedom, right to live, social justice, and democracy, autonomy and self-determination, development of professional knowledge and skills, and preservation of competence and dignity. The Australian Code of Ethics (1999) lists five values: human dignity and worth, social justice, service to humanity, integrity, and competence. While the U.S. Code describes its values as ideals toward which all social workers can aspire and does not rank them, the Australian Code considers human dignity and worth and social justice as equal and overarching and that the pursuit of these values is demonstrated through service to humanity, integrity, and competence in professional practice. Of course, it is not known whether social workers in different countries ascribe different meanings and interpretations to these terms.

Although an examination of available national Codes of Ethics demonstrates much congruence of values, our understanding of this may be limited because Codes of Ethics from developing countries are not readily available or may be just taking shape.

Common Principles Across Countries

There has been limited comparative work on Codes of Ethics in different countries. Exceptions include Banks's (2003) study of the Codes of Ethics in England, South Africa, and the United States, Banks's (2006) study of 33 Codes of Ethics, Congress and McAuliffe's (2006) study of the Australia and U.S. Codes of Ethics, and Congress and Kim's (2007) study of the Korean and the U.S. Codes of Ethics.

To learn more about the Codes of Ethics from all countries Banks (2006) looked at the 17 Codes of Ethics posted on the IFSW Web site in January 2005 and also asked the 63 countries not included on the Web site to submit their Codes of Ethics. The Codes of Ethics she received from 33 countries differed in length, ranging from the 1-page code from the South Africa Black Social Work Association (n.d.) to the 27-page code from the United States (1999). Longer codes, such as that of the United States, were much more detailed and often included more content on professional practice standards in terms of dual relationships and informed consent.

Codes of Ethics around the world are usually principle-based rather than utilitarian focused. In other words, Codes consist more of absolute statements, such as in the U.S. Code, “Social workers should protect the confidentiality of all information … ,” whereas a utilitarian approach looks primarily at consequences. For example, confidentiality would only be maintained if it did not have negative consequences for others. While Codes that are most detailed such as the U.S. Code often list some utilitarian (consequential) exception, as for example, confidentiality can be violated “when disclosure is necessary to prevent, serious, foreseeable, and imminent harm.” (1.07c), the principle is usually presented first. In countries with much shorter less-detailed codes, principled statements are often the only content.

A common model is an initial general statement of values or principles and then a more detailed delineation of standards. National codes usually “do not provide a set of rules that prescribe how social workers should act in all situations” (NASW, 2008). Only one code, the South African Black Social Work Association (SABSWA) takes the form of an oath (“I swear”) (Banks, 2006, p. 83.) There is a tendency for codes to become longer over time and most codes include content on the responsibility of social workers to clients, colleagues, agency, society, and profession (Banks, 2006).

Part of the reason why codes look similar may be that social workers in different countries have often looked to other countries as models for development or revision of their codes. Banks (2006) suggested that Australia and Korea both reviewed the U.S. Code of Ethics in developing the revised Australian Code in 1999 and the most recently revised Korean Code in 2001.

Because of this fact, Banks (2006) argues that differences in codes do not reflect actual variations in practice, legal standards, or cultural differences. It should be noted, however, that Banks primarily examined Codes of Ethics from 33 developed countries where social work is an established profession and there was much congruity in values. In many developing countries social work is an emerging vocational field where social workers have limited professional education or where it was formed as an offshoot of another profession or discipline, for example sociology or psychology. There may not be a written Code of Ethics, but one can speculate that if there were, practice standards as enumerated in a Code of Ethics might be somewhat different than existing national Codes of Ethics.

In the Australian and Korean Codes, as well as that of the United States, confidentiality receives much attention, possibly because of the societal focus in all three developed countries on individual rights (Congress & Kim, 2007; Congress & McAuliffe, 2006). However, developing countries may pursue a more collective approach to ethical practice as evidenced in consulting extended family or village elders, rather than protecting an individual's right to privacy and confidentiality (Healy, 2001).

Application of Codes of Ethics to Practice

How do social workers use the Code of Ethics in their practice? Reamer's book (2006) is helpful to social workers in understanding different sections of the NASW Code of Ethics and its application to practice in the United States. There has been ongoing debate about whether social workers use the Code of Ethics in direct practice (Jayaratne, Croxton, & Mattison, 1997) or administrative practice (Congress & Gummer, 1996). Congress (1992) has argued that social workers are knowledgeable about the Code of Ethics and apply it in ethical decision making, while other research has suggested that the U.S. Code of Ethics had limited use in ethical decision making (Holland & Kilpatrick, 1991). More recently a study conducted by McAuliffe (1999) found that Australian social workers, although relatively familiar with the Code of Ethics, did not consider using it as a resource to assist decision making when confronted with an ethical dilemma. The Code was seen primarily as “a useful construct in laying down the basic values of the profession” (McAuliffe, 1999, p. 19). Jayaratne et al. (1997) noted that while social workers may be aware of major code provisions (for example, avoiding sexual contact with current clients), they are less knowledgeable of and less likely to adhere to Code provisions in regard to controversial issues such as nonsexual dual relationships with former clients.

Different countries have various ways of monitoring adherence to the Code of Ethics. The United States probably has the most developed system, in which each chapter of NASW has an Ethics Committee (formerly Committee of Inquiry) that adjudicates or mediates cases in which NASW members violate the Code of Ethics. Sanctions vary depending on the seriousness of the violation. Sometimes additional education may be required or the public may be informed through the NASW News. If the NASW Code violation is also considered a state licensing violation, the social worker will be referred to the State Board for appropriate action. An ultimate sanction administered by the state might be suspension or loss of license, which may have serious employment consequences for the social worker.

Future of Social Work Codes of Ethics

As social work has become a recognized profession in countries all over the world, national Codes of Ethics have helped to delineate practice standards for social workers. To be applicable to a variety of practice situations, Codes of Ethics have been by necessity general and abstract. Some have pointed out that the NASW Code of Ethics cannot always resolve complex ethical dilemmas (Jayaratne et al., 1997; Reamer, 2001). Yet most models of ethical decisions make reference to using the Code of Ethics in addressing ethical dilemmas (Congress, 1999; Lowenberg, Dolgoff & Harrington, 2008; Reamer, 2006). Furthermore the Council on Social Work Education Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS) addresses the need for social work students to learn about using the NASW Code of Ethics and the IFSW Statement of Ethical Principles in ethical decision making (Council on Social Work Education, 2008). Critiques of the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) Code of Ethics have looked at the Code's failure to address and support issues of cultural awareness (Thorpe, 1996) and political activism (De Maria, 1997).

It has been suggested that Codes of Ethics should reflect the diversity of social workers and clients rather than the individualistic philosophical statement of prescribed social work values. In other words, a variety of values, both individualistic as well as communitarian, that would be appropriate for a Code of Ethics, rather than one very prescribed model could be presented in a Code of Ethics. Briskman and Noble (1999) argue that by “using a community development model, it might be possible to include the many service users in reframing a code that speaks to their perception of what social work is about and how their many realities can be included” (p. 67).

With increasing globalization and professionalization, social workers will continue to look to other national Codes for revision and modification of their existing Codes. Thus as Banks (2006) suggests there may be less attention given to national or cultural practice differences. Given the increasing diversity of social workers and clients, Codes of Ethics may not reflect the multiple social work voices within different countries. There is always the risk that ethics codes will serve to perpetuate the dominant ideological position (even if it is a conservative one) both within a country as well as globally. Already there is some evidence of this in national Codes of Ethics and the IFSW international ethics document. The ideal national Code of Ethics should be reflective of specific ethical practice unique to the country, but also focus on what is universal about social work values and practice. Including a human rights perspective in a Code of Ethics often serves to provide a universal foundation for ethical social work practice around the world.


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                                Healy, L. (2001). International social work: Professional action in an interdependent world. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                  Healy, L. (2007). Universalism and cultural relativism in social work ethics. International Social Work, 50(1), 11–26.Find this resource:

                                    Holland, T. P., & Kilpatrick, A. C. (1991). Ethical issues in social work: Toward a grounded theory of professional ethics. Social Work, 36(2), 138–144.Find this resource:

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                                        Lowenberg, F., Dolgoff, R., & Harrington, D. (2008). Ethical decisions in social work practice (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Brooks Cole.Find this resource:

                                          McAuliffe, D. (1999). Clutching at codes: Resources that influence social work decisions in cases of ethical conflict. Professional Ethics, 7(3/4), 9–24.Find this resource:

                                            McDonald, C., Harris, J., & Wintersteen, R. (2003). Contingent on context? Social work and the state in Australia, Britain, and the USW. British Journal of Social Work, 33(2), 191–208.Find this resource:

                                              National Association of Social Work (NASW). (2008). Code of ethics. Washington, DC: Author.Find this resource:

                                                Reamer, F. (2001). Ethics education in social work. Alexandria, VA: CSWE.Find this resource:

                                                  Reamer, F. (2006). Ethical standards in social work: A review of the NASW code of ethics (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: NASW.Find this resource:

                                                    Thorpe, R. (1996, October 3–6). Indigenous challenges to the social work and welfare work: Codes of ethics in Australia. Third National Conference for Australian Association for Professional and Applied Ethics, Charles Stuart University, Wagga Wagga.Find this resource:

                                                      Further Reading

                                                      International Federation of Social Workers. (IFSW). (2004). Statement of ethical principles. Berne, SW: Author.Find this resource:

                                                        National Association of Social Work (NASW).

                                                        NASW Code of Ethics.

                                                        Council on Social Work Education.

                                                        CSWE EPAS Accreditation Standards (p. 8—Ethics).

                                                        International Federation of Social Workers.

                                                        Ethics in Social Work: Statement of Principles.

                                                        Ethics Codes from different countries.

                                                        International Association of Schools of Social Work.

                                                        Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics (online).