Introduction to ethical considerations in social work

This Ethical Considerations section is designed to support good practice in the implementation of the Digital Capabilities Statement for Social Workers. It is derived particularly from the Professional Standards (Social Work England, 2019) which are regulatory requirements, and the Code of Ethics (British Association of Social Workers, 2020) which applies to social workers across the UK.

Social Work England summarises ethical expectations on social workers in this way:

Ethics in the context of social work is about the professional responsibilities and values social workers have and how they conduct themselves inside and outside the workplace. Social workers respect the distinct beliefs and lifestyles of people, their families, communities and networks. They consider their own personal values, views and preferences and take measures to prevent them from impacting on their work with people. Many social workers follow ethical values or principles to guide their work. The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and the International Federation of Social Work (IFSW) both have codes of ethics that social workers in England follow.

Professional Standards Guidance, p7 (Social Work England, 2019)

The BASW Code of Ethics summarises the ethical responsibilities of social workers as:

Ethical awareness is fundamental to the professional practice of social workers. Their ability and commitment to act ethically is an essential aspect of the quality of the service offered to people who engage with social workers. Respect for human rights and a commitment to promoting social justice are at the core of social work practice throughout the world.

Code of Ethics (British Association of Social Workers, 2020)

The ethical expectations on social workers as defined by Social Work England and BASW apply to digital contexts as much as to any other, inside and outside the workplace. This should be the starting point for the use and engagement of digital technology by social workers.

There is a wide range of digital technology used in social work and social care and they are not all covered here as the intention is not to provide an overall coverage. The focus is on how social workers can recognise and operationalise the ethical implications of the Digital Capabilities Statement for Social Workers.

Social workers often work in multi-agency and multi-professional contexts. Therefore an awareness of the professional and ethical principles of allied professions is also important to work through ethically complex issues with diverse colleagues in practice.

Social workers recognise that social relationships have an intrinsic ethical and therapeutic value. The use of digital technology can sometimes be seen as antithetical or a hindrance to relationship-based practice which is most often defined as face to face/in person. Digital capabilities promote the idea that used properly and ethically, social workers can draw on digital technology to initiate, maintain and enhance relationship-based practice. More broadly, digital technology can be used to sustain peoples’ social networks and the quality of social relations without the limitation of time or people being physically present together. It is also a vital source of information, including for people who are physically isolated, and is part of democratising access to information, rights and power.

For this to be a reality, people using services and social workers need to have access to useful technologies and the training to use them, and this is increasingly an ethical responsibility upon commissioners and employers. The ethical principles outlined below are for social workers and health and care organisations. Organisations have ethical duties in the development, procurement, use and management of digital technologies for their staff, including social workers, and the people who use services.

However, digital technologies – like all technologies – can be misused for harm in ways that are well recognised and understood (such as the complex and highly significant safeguarding risks online for children and adults) and also throw up novel ethical and moral dilemmas in the fast-paced development of platforms and functionalities.

It is an ethical responsibility of social workers to be increasingly familiar with this broad landscape as the digital landscape increasingly shapes practice and people’s day-to-day experiences and expectations.