Ethics in Social Work Practice



This study explored front-line social workers’ day-to-day struggles to act ethically in their work lives. We examined the constraints and paradoxes experienced by practitioners

  • to widen the lens of what constitutes professional social work ethics to a much broader range of issues than have been traditionally employed
  • to understand the connection between social work identity, what is constructed as problematic ethically and how the workers resolved these issues
  • to illuminate what impedes workers’ abilities to provide ethical and socially just services
  • to bring together socio-political and individual aspects of ethics
  • to make visible how inequities between providers and clients are fostered and/or resisted and
  • to aid in mobilizing this knowledge for practitioners, educators and policy makers.

Funding for this project was provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada.

Theoretical Foundations

The study employed a critical, feminist, postmodern theoretical framework that begins from the premise that society, as it is currently constructed, supports and reproduces inequitable social arrangements and that there is a responsibility in the profession of social work to analyze these arrangements and to work towards social justice. Postmodern concepts emphasize the connection between power and discourse to constitute individuals, their understandings of the world, and their relationships. Language is the medium for making truth claims, so our focus was on practitioners’ narratives. Discourse analysis was used to analyze the workers’ accounts.



This was a qualitative study with front-line workers in two provinces in Canada: Ontario and Nova Scotia. A total of 26 front-line practitioners were interviewed. 52 individual semi-structured interviews were conducted, with a range of one to four interviews per participant.

There were 18 focus group participants for a total of 44 participants for the project. Six focus-groups were also held with three populations of social workers: workers of African descent, Aboriginal social workers and rural social workers. The practitioners represented a broad cross-section in fields of practice including health, child welfare, mental health, addictions, education, for-profit organizations, and family service associations. The socio-demographics of the group included workers who were white, Aboriginal, people of colour, rural and urban participants, LGBTQ participants, and individuals with disabilities. The average age of the participants was 44.  All participants had at least one social work degree and most had completed their MSW. The average number of years in social work practice was 15.

The Team

The team consisted of Dr. Merlinda Weinberg, principal investigator, and three co-applicants: Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard, Dr. Brenda Beagan, and Dr. Marshall Fine who took the lead in Ontario.  For complete information on the team please see the team’s own page here.

It felt very isolated, although we have these great teams that are supportive in many aspects, not really talking about practice and how we’re doing.

Key Findings

The Individual Worker

  • For many workers, social work was viewed as a mission that went beyond their job. This had significant implications for both trying to be the “good” practitioner, but also being open to burnout and exploitation.
  • Generally, workers felt quite isolated in having any opportunities to process ethical struggles, even those for whom there were defined structures within their own organizations for meeting that need.


We’re working with organizational policies that often intercept and collide and look like a big, bad traffic accident.

My job is not to understand the word no.

The Workplace

  • Almost all spoke about the impacts of the neo-liberal environment and the ways in which the erosion of the social safety net has affected their work.
  • Consequently, the theme of resources was very prevalent. How often workers perceived these inadequacies as ethical issues was more mixed.
  • As a result of increased managerialism there has been a proliferation of rules. While there was a split between those participants who were comfortable with rules and those who saw them primarily as a means to an end (and therefore bendable) at times workers moved outside of their traditional response to rules to manage the significant complexity and volume of rules in their settings.
  • The importance of the context in which participants were working was often as significant to the ethical issues as anything else discussed. Some work environments were very toxic and led to the most difficult issues workers confronted.
  • Multiple instances of physical and sexual violence or danger for participants were reported.
  • A surprisingly high number of participants were fired, disciplined or were involved in whistle-blowing activities.
  • Many participants had ideas for fighting the system in creative ways, both overt and covert, using ‘street-level bureaucracy’ to interpret policies and procedures.
  • With increased managerialism there was also a contradictory effect of both more and less surveillance- namely, the use of more and more management tools like software and forms which increased the surveillance, but at the same time, less clinical supervision, fewer performance appraisals as examples of trends in the opposite direction.


So for Aboriginal[s], … those boundaries become more fluid out of necessity … we’re used to doing much more with less.

[From a Black social worker] I come into the room and people think that I’m the cleaner.


  • Difference was a key dimension in what ethical concerns arose for participants.
  • This was especially clear in the way people of colour as opposed to those who identified as white saw ethical issues and sought to resolve them.
  • The same was true for the Indigenous workers in the sample. They too perceived ethics in ways that were very discreet from the white workers, but it is unclear how much this paralleled that of other workers of colour.
  • But ethno-cultural diversity was not the only salient difference. The rural/urban divide was very important as well.
  • Other marginalities also had a bearing on the way ethics was understood and handled (such as for the LGBTQ participant or person with a disability).
  • As would be expected, it seemed the seniority /experience /length of service were also crucial to how ethical concerns were handled.
  • The extent of prejudice towards non-white workers was extensive and represented a significant ethical concern for workers for themselves and at times for service users.
  • Being a minority in an agency (whether African Canadian in a white setting, white in an Indigenous setting, or a BSW in a setting that had primarily MSWs as examples) were stressful and complex situations to navigate.
  • Responsibility around adoption was particularly emotionally fraught and complex as an aspect of the job for workers of colour in Child Welfare.
  • There was considerable silence or absence of recognition of racialization and discrimination by the white workers.
  • One key discrepancy in values centred on boundaries and dual relationships as framed in the codes, particularly for rural, African-Canadian and Aboriginal workers.

The Ethical Issues

  • Two opposing discourses seemed to have an important influence on how workers viewed what constituted an ethical issue and how it should be tackled. They were a discourse that was more client-centered and strengths based, while the other was more expert-oriented and medical-model focused.
  • There was a great deal of emotional content in the interviews and we believe that participants’ emotions and intuitions were significant in both the identification of what constituted ethical issues and the resolution of those issues. This leads to the importance of moving beyond the rationalist/ principle based means of understanding ethics in the field.
  • Participants infrequently referred to the codes of ethics as strategies for resolving ethical tensions.

optical illusion

Dilemmas and Paradoxes

  • Two important themes that emerged in the data were risk and self-preservation and how these impacted the ethical concerns and stances for workers.
  • Needing to go the extra mile in order to meet the demands of the neo-liberal environment whilst protecting oneself from burnout was a common dilemma for the workers.
  • Being non-judgmental in order to engage clients and to empower while at the same time being required to render judgments as agents of the state was a key paradox for workers.
  • A few spoke about the paradox of case versus cause advocacy, namely, finding ways around the system which, while it helps individual service users, actually often keeps the broader needs from being addressed.

How do you be a change agent when you’re part of the very system and … your livelihood depends on you being compliant to that system?

Balancing Act

Broader Societal/Structures Issues 

  • The macro structures available to practitioners such as the College, Association and ethics committees were viewed generally as unhelpful or inadequate in providing support to resolving ethical issues.
  • Anxiety about risk and liability in the neo-liberal environment was high and often contributed to the way ethical issues were resolved.

So when you work in a structure it’s always about … the ethical stances in …the best … interest of the patient and family. But in all honesty… it’s about how do we mitigate liability? How do we not get sued?

Other areas of research:
Ethical Challenges during COVID-19
Processes of Inclusion and Exclusion The Experiences of ‘Minority’ Professionals in Law, Social Work and Academia
Structural Barriers The Impact on Ethics for Social Work Practice
Pregnant with Possibility Reducing ethical trespasses in social work practice with young single mothers.