Social Workers and the NASW Code of Ethics: Belief, Behavior, Disjuncture

Article excerpt

The major purpose of the study was to examine the NASW Code of Ethics and the problems it causes social workers in terms of the discrepancies between belief in its tenets and behaviors in implementing it. If belief in the tenets of the code is not matched by behavior that is congruent with the code, social work could face a problem of accountability, especially if such discrepancies are not experienced or recognized as negative stressors.


Social work ethics literature is extensive. However, one can focus this vast array by concentrating on the research that relates to the NASW Code of Ethics itself, the teaching of social work ethics, beliefs about the code, and behaviors in relation to the code. Existing studies distributed within these broad categories assess the adequacy of the code as a guide to professionals, the teaching of social work ethics and the code, utilization of the code, beliefs about ethical and unethical practice, code violations, critiques of the NASW code, descriptive ethical decision-making processes, and prescriptive ethical decision-making models. Reamer (2001) said that in recent years ethicists in all professions have developed ethical decision-making models. Such decision-making models, which prescribe frameworks to assist social workers in making ethical decisions, have become central to our profession.

Absent from the literature, however, is any research on social workers' beliefs in the tenets of the code. Existing literature about belief and the code focuses on beliefs about the adequacy or helpfulness of the code (Ain, 2001; Felkenes, 1980; Gordon, 1984; Reamer, 1987). Congress (2001) studied beliefs about the appropriateness of code-prohibited dual relationships, and others (Jayaratne, Croxton, & Mattison, 1997) have studied broad social work values embedded in the code. Grodney (1990) studied beliefs about behaviors but did not focus on discrepancies between belief and behavior.

The literature reveals that discrepancy between belief in the code and behavior that implements the code is an unexamined area. Although studies have been done that examine code violations (Bullis, 1995; Strom-Gottfried, 2000) and use of the code in resolving ethical dilemmas (Ain, 2001; Kugelman-Jaffe, 1990), nothing has focused on belief in the code and behavior that reflects the tenets of the code.

Also unexamined is the relationship between disjuncture (dilemma-induced distress) and work setting, although Kurzman (1984) suggested there might be differences in "constraints and supports" in different settings. Likewise, there is no study of disjuncture and training in ethics.

Finally, no one has looked at whether social workers agree with Lewis's (1987) contention that ethical teaching can model the teaching of ethics. Rather, the literature focuses on the adequacy of ethics education (Conrad, 1988; Dodd, 2000; Felkenes, 1970) and on how to teach social work ethics (Ain, 2001; Congress, 1993; Joseph & Conrad, 1983; Mishne, 1981; Reamer, 2001). A recent working group assembled at NASW for a Social Work Ethics Summit has concluded that the emphasis in social work ethics should be about ways to incorporate education about the code and its application into the curriculum (Stoesen, 2006). Lewis's concept of ethical teaching that models the teaching of ethics could become one means of incorporating ethics into the curriculum, although such a model might not specifically address education about the NASW Code of Ethics.



The following four hypotheses were inferred from the unexamined areas that relate to the NASW Code of Ethics identified by the literature review:

1. Social workers experience disjuncture when belief in the code and behaviors that reflect the code are discordant.

2. Higher levels of disjuncture are associated with employment in non-social work or host settings rather than in social work or nonhost settings. …


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