Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

An introduction to social work
An introduction to social work

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Ethics and professionalism: being accountable

One of the differences between just ‘doing the job’ and professional practice is knowing and thinking about what informs what we are doing. In other words, what explanation can we give for doing the job this way rather than that? Being able to explain ourselves to others is an essential skill in professional social work practice because it is central to being ‘accountable’, or in other words being able to justify and take responsibility for what we do. The concept of accountability makes explanations such as ‘we’ve always done it like this’ or ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ not good enough.

Being professional

One of the reasons for discussing accountability and the codes of practice required by care councils and regulatory bodies is to think about their implications in the context in which social workers actually operate, including their statutory (legal) responsibilities, the values of their employing organisation, service users, society at large, and their own values. What happens in the event of a conflict?

There will be many occasions, particularly in practice situations, where social workers have to exercise judgement and be accountable for their decisions. This is another important element in the values of ‘professionalism’. It implies that there are many situations in which laws, procedures, rules and guidelines reach their limits, and social workers need to exercise both discretion and professional judgement. Spicker (2008) summed up the dilemma:

Professionals reserve the areas in which they can act autonomously – the ‘clinical freedom’ of doctors, the social work relationship, or the conduct by teachers in their classes. There are tensions to be resolved; the need for flexibility and responsiveness has to be balanced against the agencies’ concerns to develop consistent practices and professional claims are mediated through a process of constant negotiation.

(Spicker, 2008, p. 161)

In other words, someone must interpret and be accountable for rules and their limits, otherwise you end up with a list of rules, another list of rules about how to apply the rules, followed by another list, and so on. Lipsky (1980) suggested many social care workers could be viewed as ‘street level bureaucrats’. In this position they used their discretion to fulfil the procedural and bureaucratic demands of their organisation in ways that were consistent with their own values and motivations to help people. Since this time there has been continued tension about how to meet managerialist demand for rationing and consistency while also allowing social workers to act with professional autonomy and within their own value base (Mcdonald et al., 2008; Ellis, 2011; Evans, 2011).

Activity 10 Personal and professional values in a practice context

Timing: Allow 30 minutes to complete

Watch this video and make notes in response to the questions. These video materials are parts of real-life social work situations which follow the work of a child protection team in Bristol, and which the OU was involved in filming with the BBC for a programme called Protecting our Children.

Download this video clip.Video player: author="Hrp44" timestamp="20210506T151359+0100"
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Show transcript|Hide transcript
Video 1 Personal and professional values
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
  • What are your personal responses to the parent who is in this situation?
  • How are your own ideas and values about parenting relevant?
  • What are the professional or social work values that the worker demonstrates?
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


This video illustrates some of the human complexities that social workers are confronted with every day. You may have had a range of emotional responses. Even though the mother in this clip was clearly unhappy and distressed by their situation, you may have found it hard to empathise, or the neglect of the child might have made you feel angry. It is important to notice and talk about your feelings and reactions, rather than ignore them. This is also a good time to think about how, as a social worker, you can maintain a professional response and respect for the humanity and dignity of service users.

In this scenario you saw the social workers demonstrating social work values in showing Biesteck’s ‘respect for the person’ and accountability to the law, their organisational context and other colleagues and organisations.

Social work is full of dilemmas and the morally active practitioner uses reflection and supervision as well as codes and protocols to think things through and arrive at the necessary decisions for action. Reflective practitioners will continue to question practice and seek improvements. In the next section, you will consider just what is meant by ‘reflective practice’ in social work.

Key points

  • Empathy is a skill which enables us to understand the lives of people with very different experiences from ourselves and it is therefore a valuable tool for social workers.
  • Social work is inextricably bound up with moral values.
  • Although social work is based on personalised moral values (such as respect for people), it also exists in a social and occupational context. Professional ethics and being professionally accountable are also intrinsic to professional social work.