Core Values in Social Work

Reviewed By Paula Hannon, LCSW

Social workers help people handle day-to-day challenges and overcome behavioral, emotional, and mental health issues. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), an organization that supports social workers and develops professional standards and social policies, social work’s primary mission is to enhance the well-being of all people, with a focus on those suffering the effects of oppression, poverty, and vulnerability.

As COVID-19, economic uncertainty, and social and political unrest continue to impact individuals, the demand for social workers grows. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites child abuse prevention, an aging population, and mental health and substance abuse treatment as factors supporting a projected 13% growth rate for social worker positions during 2019-2029.

What is the Social Work Code of Ethics?

The 1996 NASW Delegate Assembly approved the social work Code of Ethics, with revisions made in 2017. Codified as a resource for social work values and professional conduct, the code consists of four sections: a summary of the core values and mission of social work; a guide to navigating ethical dilemmas and issues; a description of the ethical principles that inform social work practice; and an outline of the ethical standards binding social worker conduct.

The Code of Ethics sets a high standard of conduct for social workers and provides the basis for the public and profession to hold social workers accountable.

The Importance of a Code of Ethics in Social Work

The NASW places social work ethics at the profession’s core and lists six purposes of its Code of Ethics:

  • Identification of core social work values
  • Summary of broad ethical principles and specific ethical standards that should be used to guide social work practice
  • Identification of conflicting professional obligations and ethical uncertainties
  • Provision of ethical standards to which the public can hold social workers accountable
  • A pathway for new social workers to the profession’s ethical principles and standards, mission, and values
  • Articulation of standards to which members of the profession can hold social workers accountable

The Code of Ethics applies to all practitioners, along with students, who learn about social work values while pursuing their bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees on campus or through distance education.

NASW Core Values in Social Work

Like most professionals, social workers adhere to a set of core values that guide their interactions with clients, help practitioners understand their obligations to their clients, and assist in resolving conflicts and ethical dilemmas that may arise. The six social work values contained in the code’s ethical principles provide the framework.

  • 1. Service

    Social workers use the knowledge, skills, and values acquired through training and experience to address social problems and help people in need. Social workers place service for their clients above their self-interests, which may include offering pro bono assistance from time to time.

  • 2. Social Justice

    Social workers are often tasked with challenging social injustices, particularly for clients living in poverty and facing such issues as discrimination and unemployment. Social workers must exhibit sensitivity to culturally and ethnically diverse populations and assist them in accessing resources, services, access to opportunities, and information that helps combat oppression.

  • 3. Dignity and Worth of the Individual

    Social workers treat each client with dignity, care, and respect, while enabling clients’ abilities and opportunities to improve their own circumstances. Social workers also hold an obligation to the broader society and strive to resolve conflicts and remove obstacles through social responsibility.

  • 4. Importance of Human Relationships

    The importance of human relationships guides social work and affects personal progress and societal change. Social workers take a purposeful approach to building partnerships that promote positive interactions, strong relationships, and well-being at the individual, family, social group, organization, and community levels.

  • 5. Integrity

    Trust occupies a central and crucial role in social work. Clients and society alike benefit most when social workers act in concert with their profession’s ethical principles and standards, mission, and values. By adhering to ethical practices, social workers conduct themselves with honesty and integrity.

  • 6. Competence

    Social workers carry a responsibility to act within their competency level and pursue continuous professional development. The NASW provides numerous resources for social workers to increase their professional knowledge, enhance and apply their skills, and contribute to the knowledge base of social work.

Reviewed by:

Paula Hannon, LCSW, received her Master’s in Social Work degree at Florida Gulf Coast University in 2004. She interned with the Department of Children and Families. She has been a School Social Worker for the past 17 years proactively advocating for child welfare. She has worked 16 of those years at an alternative dropout prevention school. She has maintained a Florida Professional Educator’s Certificate since 2004 and is a Certified Advanced Social Work Case Manager (C-ASWCM), 2019.