In recent years, social work's knowledge base related to professional ethics has expanded significantly. However, most practicing social workers concluded their formal professional education at a time when comprehensive ethics education was not a critical or mandated component of the curriculum. This article integrates current knowledge on social work ethics and introduces the concept of a social work ethics audit to aid social workers in their efforts to identify pertinent ethical issues; review and assess the adequacy of their current ethics-related practices; modify their practices as needed; and monitor the implementation of these changes.
Key words: ethical standards; ethics; malpractice; NASW Code of Ethics; risk management
Especially since the early 1980s, social work's knowledge base related to professional ethics has burgeoned. Social work's literature on the subject has expanded considerably in several key areas: the nature of social work's core values and conflicts between personal and professional values; conflicts among social workers' professional duties and obligations (ethical dilemmas); ethical decision making; ethical misconduct and social worker impairment; and ethics-related malpractice and liability risks (leading to strategies to prevent lawsuits alleging negligence related to, for example, confidentiality, informed consent, social work interventions, boundary issues, and termination of services) (Barker & Branson, 1993; Besharov, 1985; Bullis, 1995; Gambrill & Pruger, 1997; Houston-Vega & Nuehring, 1997; Joseph, 1989; Loewenberg & Dolgoff, 1996; Reamer, 1990, 1994, 1999; Rhodes, 1986).
As a result, contemporary social workers, supervisors, and administrators have access, in principle, to more sophisticated information than any previous generation of practitioners. In practice, however, many social workers completed their formal professional education at a time when comprehensive ethics education was not a critical component of the social work curriculum (Reamer, 1999). Consequently, social workers who wish to examine ethical issues germane to their practice settings have had to locate, peruse, and synthesize a wide range of literature on the subject, construct their own list of relevant issues and topics, and design their own ethics-related quality assurance strategies--a very labor-intensive, daunting process for most practitioners.
The primary purpose of this article is to integrate current knowledge on social work ethics to aid social workers in their efforts to identify pertinent ethical issues in their practice settings, review and assess the adequacy of their current practices, modify current practices as needed, and monitor the implementation of these changes. I refer to this process as a social work ethics audit--a process that can be conducted by individual practitioners and social services agencies to enhance quality assurance and promote ethics-related risk management.
The Concept of an Ethics Audit
Audits of various types are conducted in many organizations. Ordinarily, an audit entails an "official examination and verification" of records and other organizational practices (Webster's College Dictionary, 1991). Both proprietary and nonprofit organizations routinely conduct audits for accounting purposes, quality control and assurance, and utilization review. Audits typically focus on essential aspects of an organization's functioning, such as its bookkeeping procedures, service delivery, personnel and financial records, and billing practices (Courtemanche, 1989; Russell & Regel, 1996).
This concept and practice can be extended easily and fruitfully to the subject of professional and social work ethics. A social work ethics audit should focus on what currently is considered to be essential or core knowledge in the profession. Social work's literature suggests two key knowledge areas that should form the foundation of the audit: (1) the extent of social workers' familiarity with known ethics-related risks in practice settings, based on empirical trend data summarizing actual ethics complaints and lawsuits filed against social workers and summarizing ethics committee and court findings and dispositions; and (2) current agency procedures and protocols for handing ethical issues, dilemmas, and decisions (Please eliminate some of these citations, preferably the older works. Barker & Branson, 1993; Bullis, 1995; Gambrill & Pruger, 1997; Houston-Vega & Nuehring, 1997; Loewenberg & Dolgoff, 1996; Reamer, 1990, 1994, 1999; Rhodes, 1986).
Traditional organizational audits are conducted using structured outlines and inventories. Accountants and other auditors typically follow structured guides, listing critically important aspects of organizational functioning, when they examine various aspects of an organization's operations. A comparable tool can similarly facilitate social workers' efforts to conduct ethics audits.
As noted earlier, a social work ethics audit should include two major sections, reflecting current knowledge about social work ethics and their relevance to practice settings: ethical risks and ethical decision making. The audit should address a number of topical items to guide social workers as they examine ethics-related practices in their work settings. In the audit each topic can be assessed and assigned one of four risk categories: (1) no risk--current practices are acceptable and do not require modification; (2) minimal risk--current practices are reasonably adequate; minor modifications would be useful; (3) moderate risk--current practices are problematic; modifications are necessary to minimize risk; and (4) high risk--current practices are seriously flawed; significant modifications are necessary to minimize risk.
A comprehensive ethics audit should assess the extent to which social workers and agencies have procedures in place to identify ethics-related risks and prevent ethics complaints and ethics-related litigation. This form of risk management is an essential function of an ethics audit. In tort law (a tort involves a private or civil wrong, from the Latin "tortus' or 'twisted'), a risk entails a "hazard, danger, or peril, exposure to loss, injury, disadvantage, or destruction.... The risk that should be reasonably perceived and avoided defines the common law duty concerning the probability or foreseeability of injury to another" (Gifis, 1991, p. 426). This section of the audit should highlight a number of risks germane to ethical issues encountered in typical social work practice settings. Consistent with longstanding social work principles and values, priority should be given to ethical risks involving imminent and foreseeable harm to clients and others (NASW, 1996). Currently available data and professional sta ndards suggest that there are a number of key risk areas that should be addressed in an ethics audit in an effort to protect clients and prevent ethics complaints and ethics-related lawsuits (Austin, Moline, & Williams, 1990; Barker & Branson, …