The Social Work Ethics Audit: A Risk-Management Strategy

By Reamer, Frederic G. | Social Work, July 2000 | Go to article overview

The Social Work Ethics Audit: A Risk-Management Strategy


Reamer, Frederic G., Social Work


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. …

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