Because of the nature of their work, social workers encounter many complex and difficult ethical dilemmas in assisting clients. For this reason, the National Association of Social Work (NASW) provides extensive guidance to guide social workers in meeting their clients’ needs ethically and effectively.
The social work profession operates under NASW’s Code of Ethics, which sets the standard for social workers’ ethical conduct and provides a framework for principled decision-making. While not a legal code, this evolving document helps social workers set aside personal values and focus on professional ethics. These guidelines help social workers silo their beliefs and self-interest so they don’t interfere with their decision-making process regarding clients.
Indeed, social work’s ethics and values are so vital to the profession that it is taught in required foundational social work survey courses in all master’s of social work programs. In this article, we discuss the six values of social work by answering the questions:
The Code of Ethics consists of six core social work values and their corresponding ethical principles. These broad principles represent the professional values and ethical standards to which all professional social workers should aspire.
“Social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems.” This specific type of service must include volunteer and pro bono work and is focused on and committed to serving others ahead of any self-interest.
“Social workers challenge social injustice.” Social injustice includes poverty, homelessness, prejudice, and other direct forms of discrimination. A social worker’s focus should be on promoting efforts to combat these forces and encourage cultural sensitivity, inclusion, and fairness.
“Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person.” While acting responsibly with awareness and cultural competence, social workers should support a client’s self-determination by empowering them to address their own needs and sense of well-being.
“Social workers recognize the central importance of human relationships.” Social workers should employ positive relationships between people as a force for personal and social change. They should also support the connections among individuals, families, and larger groups to promote and contribute to societal well-being.
“Social workers behave in a trustworthy manner.” Social work practice must be guided by the principles outlined in the social work Code of Ethics. Social workers should act honestly as a reflection of their profession’s mission.
“Social workers practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise.” Social workers should not only commit to continuing education and adding to their professional knowledge base but also strive to contribute and inform their profession of what they learn and observe in practice.
There are a couple of significant practical considerations:
- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification
Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:
- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. ( )
A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. ( )
- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees
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The six NASW values and principles set the standards for social work advocacy and the ethical responsibility social workers have to their clients, colleagues, practice settings, the social work profession, and society.
Social workers’ ethical responsibility toward their clients is of primary importance. The standards outlined in the code address issues like self-determination, informed consent, cultural competence, conflicts of interest, privacy and confidentiality, sexual relationships and physical contact, harassment, language, access to records and payment, and termination of services.
The values and professional obligations outlined in this text provide a roadmap for ethical practices and professional conduct in a field where human rights and the well-being of individuals are paramount and commitment to professional responsibility is critical.
A career in social work is defined by an individual’s commitment to the values and standards set by this very detailed code of ethics. This involves a lifelong journey of social work education and reading and writing about lessons learned in practice. For anyone who sees themselves in this role, a master’s in social work is a natural course of study that may even lead one to a doctorate or a PhD.
There are several entry-level positions in social work that don’t require a Master of Social Work (MSW) and can facilitate an entry into the field. However, a master’s degree is required for most advanced and higher-paid positions at social work organizations or to practice as a clinical social worker.
A social work master’s degree prepares social work students for licensure and certification to practice in their state. Much like the standards required in law and medicine, all master’s in social work programs in the US must be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
Pursuing a master’s in social work requires a significant commitment of time and money. If you see yourself making this kind of commitment to lifelong learning and the care of others, investing in an MSW might be the right next step for you.
There are many ways to earn your master’s degree. The traditional route is an on-campus, full-time, in-person program format. Typically, this takes two years to complete. However, there are several options available, and each one can provide some flexibility for people who are already juggling a full schedule.
Some programs offer an accelerated route, which compresses coursework and fieldwork and may allow you to graduate in as little as 18 months. Other schools offer an advanced standing option where you can apply credits earned from an accredited Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) toward your master’s degree. Both of these programs are designed to allow graduate students to move more quickly toward their goals, saving both time and money.
It is important to research each MSW program you are interested in so that you can meet any specific admission requirements and prerequisites. Programs differ, but some requirements are near-universal: an undergraduate transcript with a GPA of 3.0 or higher, resume, letters of recommendation from mentors, professors, or supervisors who can describe you and your commitment to social work and the Code of Ethics, and an essay that illustrates how the program will help you achieve your career goals.
Some schools also want to see Graduate Records Examination (GRE) scores. This is less and less common, but may be required if you are presenting an undergraduate transcript with a GPA below 3.0.
Researching a school’s curriculum should be part of your dive into MSW programs, as curricula vary. Candidates should expect to study the NASW Code of Ethics and the core values of social work, macro, mezzo, and micro levels of social work, social work theories, the history of race and gender in practice, cultural competence, human rights and social justice, and law.
Researching curriculum should also include checking out the specializations offered by a school’s programs. Some offer specialization in areas like clinical work, community organizing, substance abuse counseling, political action, immigration advocacy, and disaster response.
There are a number of top schools that offer a master’s of social work, including:
Many schools also offer online and hybrid options for study, providing students the opportunity to participate in the program that is just right for them from wherever they live. These programs can save you time and money and might provide the flexibility you need to earn your master’s in social work while continuing to work full-time. That can be a big plus.
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