What Is the Social Work Code of Ethics?

All social workers are beholden to the Social Work Code of Ethics —otherwise known as the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics — during their studies and vow to abide by its standards and principles throughout their careers. The following is an outline of the etiology of its creation and major points. The full text is available at the NASW website.

Why There Is a Social Work Code of Ethics

The National Association of Social Workers Delegate Assembly created the first version of the Code of Ethics in October 1960. It has since been revised several times, but it maintains many of the original principles.

The code serves six purposes:

  1. To establish the core values upon which the social work profession is based.
  2. To create specific ethical standards that should guide social work practice and reflect the core values.
  3. To help social workers navigate professional considerations and obligations when ethical uncertainties arise.
  4. To provide ethical standards to which the social work profession can be held accountable.
  5. To initiate new social workers to the profession’s mission, values, and ethical principles and standards.
  6. To create standards by which the social work profession can assess if a social worker has engaged in unethical conduct. Social workers who pledge to abide by this code must cooperate with its implementation and disciplinary rulings based upon it.

The code is also based on the six core values of the social work profession:

  1. Service
  2. Social justice
  3. Dignity and worth of the individual
  4. Importance and centrality of human relationships
  5. Integrity
  6. Competence

Major Points from the Social Work Code of Ethics

The code is composed of thematic sections that outline a social worker’s responsibility to clients, colleagues, employers, and the profession in general. Following is a summary of some of the major points from a few of the sections.


Social workers must:

  • Maintain high standards of personal conduct.
  • Aim to maintain a high degree of professionalism throughout their careers.
  • Hold service to be the most important element of social work.
  • Maintain a high level of professional integrity.
  • Engage in lifelong learning to maintain competence.
  • Guide practice according to scholarly inquiry and use evidence to inform best practices.

Responsibility to Clients

Social workers must:

  • Make clients their primary responsibility.
  • Foster maximum self-determination in clients.
  • Respect the privacy of clients and keep information that has been shared during the course of their duties confidential.
  • Charge fees for services that are fair and considerate to clients.

Responsibility to Colleagues and Employers

Social workers should:

  • Treat colleagues with respect, fairness, and courtesy.
  • Adhere to professional obligations as determined by their employers.

Responsibility to the Social Work Profession

Social workers should:

  • Uphold, represent, and advance the values of the social work profession.
  • Help the profession make social services available to the general public.
  • Educate themselves to become culturally competent and understanding of diversity.

At its most basic level, social work is about promoting the general welfare of society by representing those who are most vulnerable. Providing social services can sometimes be a difficult task, wrought with ethical uncertainties and challenges. The Social Work Code of Ethics helps social workers navigate these challenges throughout their careers and provides a framework for the principles and standards that they must uphold.