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Violations of Ethical Boundaries in Social Work

by Ashley Miller, studioD

The main goals of social workers are to improve their clients' quality of life and to fight injustice, poverty and oppression, according to the code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). The code of ethics is based around these principles and a set of fundamental values, which include service, social justice, the importance of human relationships, integrity and competence. All practicing social workers are expected to adhere to the code of ethics. But a code of ethics cannot guarantee that violations of ethical boundaries won't occur.

Violations with Clients

The code of ethics includes a certain set of standards for client interactions. There are a number of ethical violations that can occur in this area. An example of an ethical violation with clients can include betraying confidentiality, such as discussing a client's treatment with another person without the client's prior consent. Violations might also include engaging in dual -- or personal -- relationships with clients. Additionally, social workers are supposed to respect their client's right to self-determination. A violation of this area could include instructing or advising the client to take a specific action that the client feels is not correct or helpful. Social workers should also respect multicultural issues. Violations can occur if a social worker has a strong prejudice against working with individuals from certain backgrounds and is unable to keep her feelings in check.

Violations with Colleagues

Ethical violations can also occur with colleagues. Social workers are expected to be respectful of colleagues and should avoid gossip or unwarranted criticism -- such as making comments about the personal background or opinions of their colleagues. Unfortunately, this occurs from time to time in almost all workplaces. Social workers are also expected to keep professional information shared by colleagues confidential. A difficult ethical consideration with colleagues involves incompetence. Social workers are expected to help and/or report colleagues whom they believe are incompetent practitioners. They are also expected to report colleagues who engage in unethical conduct. If any of these issues are not addressed, a social worker can be said to be in violation of the code of ethics.

Violations in Practice

Social workers who provide supervision or education to other social workers need to make sure that they are actually qualified to do so. Sometimes, unqualified social workers might hold positions of authority in which they must advise colleagues or students about social work issues or appropriate courses of action. If they don't have enough experience or expertise, they are violating the code of ethics. Other potential ethical violations in the area of practice can include not keeping current with changes to practice guidelines or not participating in ongoing continuing education.


While challenges are inevitable, most, if not all, violations to ethical boundaries are avoidable, says social work professor Frederic G. Reamer in an article for Social Work Today. Ethical violations are not usually intentional; rather, they often stem from slip-ups, oversights or mistakes. Social workers who violate the code of ethics may be reported to their state's licensing board or the NASW. In such cases, and depending on the extent of the violation, they may be at risk for disciplinary action, job loss or losing their license to practice.

About the Author

Ashley Miller is a licensed social worker, psychotherapist, certified Reiki practitioner, yoga enthusiast and aromatherapist. She has also worked as an employee assistance program counselor and a substance-abuse professional. Miller holds a Master of Social Work and has extensive training in mental health diagnosis, as well as child and adolescent psychotherapy. She also has a bachelor's degree in music.

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