In class recently, we had a long discussion about how many social work students (and, I would argue, practitioners) are relatively unfamiliar with the obligations of our Code of Ethics. We may know the Code well enough to stay out of trouble, but our incomplete understanding often fails us when we face those difficult, ‘gray’ areas that predominate in macro practice, where the Code is much less explicit and ethical dilemmas abound. Here are some of the questions, none of which have clear-cut answers, that I often ask my students as we grapple with these real-life challenges. Donna Hardina and other social work authors have done some excellent work exploring ethical decision-making models with relevance for advocacy practice. A research interest of mine relates to how social workers navigate the ethical differences in macro vs. direct micro practice, and also how social work advocates encounter ethical dilemmas differently than the non-social work advocates and organizers with whom they most often work. I have included some of the ethical dilemmas, all drawn from real practice, that I ask my students to consider. Tell me, what would you do in these cases? How do you make ethical decisions in advocacy practice? How would you revise the NASW Code of Ethics (if at all) to make it more helpful to macro practitioners?
The NASW Code of Ethics includes some specific mandates to engage in advocacy—‘challenge social injustice’, ‘advocate within and outside their agencies for adequate resources to meet clients’ needs (3.07a), ‘ advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs and should promote social, economic, political, and cultural values and institutions that are compatible with the realization of social justice’ (6.01), ‘engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully’ (6.04a).
There are also implicit requirements to engage in advocacy, as it is necessary in order to ‘promote the well-being of their clients’ (1.01), and to fulfill the social work mission statement (given that the status quo creates and perpetuates social problems and human need).
What does it mean to fulfill our ethical obligation to fight oppression and discrimination, given that many of us, as privileged members of society with higher education and professional careers, have in some ways benefited from the status quo? How can we practice social work ethically without engaging in radical practice?
How do we fulfill these mandates (given limited time and resources) and our other social work obligations simultaneously (like commitment to clients, supervision, recording)?
A. Means vs. Ends
1. Does our ethical obligation to respect the dignity of all persons mean that adversarial tactics that could harm opponents must never be utilized by community/advocacy practitioners? What does this mean for promoting clients’ interests, if these are the best/surest way to win?
2. What does cultural competency mean in terms of adopting strategies that may be comfortable for one community but not for another?
3. Given that ethical dilemmas really only exist when there are legitimate, available alternative actions, and that macro practitioners are often highly limited in their options, should ‘unethical’ means be employed when they are the only ones available? Are there some actions which are inherently unethical, always, or are ethics in community/advocacy practice by definition situational ethics? If the latter, what guides us?
B. Informed consent, paternalism, self-determination
1. How does one obtain informed consent on behalf of a large class of potential beneficiaries?
2. How do social work advocates reconcile the pursuit of the most expedient/effective means with the obligation to ensure that ‘clients’ (question about exactly who this is in advocacy/community practice) self determine the course of action? Again, what about in the context of our ethical obligations to advocate and to advance client interests (especially when the Code allows for advocacy ‘on behalf of’ rather than ‘with’)?
3. If one gives testimony or media interviews or other public communication ‘on behalf of’ an affected community, is this indefensible paternalism?
4. What should social workers do if community members’ self-determined goals are contrary to social work values?
5. Given that so much of the advocacy process is impossible to predict, how can a participant ever really give truly informed consent? (we can never say what the effects or outcomes will be, either on individuals or in terms of results)
1. Given that few social work schools adequately prepare practitioners to engage in community/advocacy practice (because, indeed, it is difficult to do so in an academic context), is it unethical for macro practitioners to ‘learn on the job’ if doing so means that they are practicing before being completely competent?
2. How is competency to be judged, given that there is no uniform opinion about what makes good advocacy practice and that so much of the success of macro practice depends on external variables (and on context)? There’s no universal standard for competency, and the environment changes so rapidly that we’re trying to ‘stand on shifting sands’.
D. Tensions between clients’ needs and those of the employing agency (or general society)
1. Is it unethical to carve out one group of beneficiaries in order to increase the likelihood of legislative passage (if all need the solution)? If no, how are we ever to work on incremental policies when a complete overhaul is what’s needed (which is almost always the case)?
2. Is it unethical to represent, as an organizer, the needs of one community over another? If not, how do we build solidarity and group identity?
3. What should an ethical community practitioner do when the employing organization’s policies or interests are opposed to those of the client/community (given that social workers have an obligation to both)? Is this different when an organization is trying to develop?
E. Integrity (related to means and ends, but also somewhat distinct b/c social workers have a specific obligation to act with integrity that is not present in all professional codes of ethics)
1. Is it unethical to work in coalition with organizations that have behaved in ways contrary to the NASW Code of Ethics? How far back should we look? What about blemishes in our own organizational history?
2. Is it unethical to lead decision makers to believe that a problem is more severe than we can prove it is (even if we really believe it to be so)?
3. Is it unethical to lead policy makers to believe that a solution is surer than we can prove it is (even if we really believe it to be so)? This isn’t necessarily misrepresentation, but there are questions regarding the level of certainly required.
F. Privacy and Confidentiality
1. How can macro practitioners ‘put a human face’ on community/policy problems without compromising client confidentiality?
2. How can clients be spokespersons for the issues on which they’re working without (in addition to their voluntary disclosure about their situations) also disclosing that they are working with the social worker/agency?
Limitations of the NASW Code of Ethics for Advocacy/Community Practice
• Definition of ‘client’ as primarily individually focused
• Dual relationship prohibitions/cautions presume more ‘traditional’ clinician role rather than one of community practitioners—this does NOT mean no boundaries, but the boundaries and roles are different in community practice
• Nature of social work relationship different—mutual impact assumed, and more reciprocal relationship for community practitioners than clinicians
• Conflict of interest more fluid, given that many organizers come from the same communities where they are working
• Given that some macro practitioners engage in advocacy on their ‘own time’, unclear how NASW Code of Ethics applies to this volunteer practice