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An introduction to social work
An introduction to social work

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Values and ethical practice

You have already started to think about two significant areas of values: the importance of being aware of individual biography and recognising ascribed identities and the potentially damaging impact that they can have. In this section you will consider a specific area of values: the relationship between personal and professional social work values and ethical practice.

‘Values’ is a term that is used frequently in social work and the profession has had many debates about what it means. Values refer literally to the choices and actions that you think are important. Values provide you with some personal guidance in the way you understand any situation and affect the way you respond. You do not often have to express or articulate what you value because most of the time it is an implicit part of your motivation and thinking. For this reason, understanding what you value becomes an important element in exploring the way you work with people.

The term ‘ethics’ is used to refer to the norms or standards of behaviour people follow concerning what is regarded as good or bad, right or wrong. In social work, the term a ‘code of ethics’ is used to denote a set of principles, standards or rules of conduct for ethical practice. It is also used to talk about ethical dilemmas – i.e. difficult questions about the best course of action to take which incorporates social work values.

Walmsley (2012) summed the difference between ethics and values:

  • Ethics is about deciding what is the right thing to do in a particular situation.
  • Values are the beliefs individuals have as to what they consider is right or wrong.

Each of the regulatory bodies for each of the four nations of the UK makes clear the centrality of professional values in social work practice, and all social workers are expected to practice in accordance with these and the law. In Wales, for example, Social Care Wales requires that social workers behave at all times within its Code of Professional Practice for Social Care, and that their practice is informed by the National Occupational Standards (NOS) for social work. In Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Social Care Council set the standards of conduct that describe the values, attitudes and behaviours expected of social workers in their day-to-day work and the standards of practice that outline the knowledge and skills required for competent practice. Together, both sets of standards combine to provide a baseline against which a social worker’s conduct and practice will be judged.

The various bodies make broad statements, but how they are interpreted in practice will vary. There is no one right value set, and there are many ways of being ‘right’, but there are undoubtedly wrong and inappropriate stances and value positions. A good understanding of how social inequalities are produced and reproduced within social worker and service user relationships is central to being a competent social worker.

This is why you need to identify your own values, learn what values you are expected to work to as a social worker, and decide how you situate yourself in relation to the ethical issues you will face in practice.