Reflecting on ethics and social work practice

We all think we act ethically. Whatever the context, we are able to justify our actions to ourselves. As part of my research, I am interested in understanding the different ways that we interpret values, as well as our personal values and where they come from, the professional values which are more explicitly expressed. I have done some reading about this but wanted to write about the thoughts I have had rather than referencing particular articles and books which have led to my thinking. This is not the ‘academic’ way to write but I think by expressing these thoughts and where I am at the moment, I can take my ideas through as more of a ‘work in progress’.

Personal ethics

What makes us who we are? We draw our values from our biographies – our upbringing. Thinking of this, as someone who was raised in a religious background, part of my ethical make up is very much based on my living and learning about Jewish culture, heritage and history. I took religious studies (because it was compulsory) in my school and it was exclusively learning about the Old Testament, Talmud, Mishnah and the other, more recent commentaries and debates. There is a Jewish tradition of ‘argument’ which I don’t think I understood fully, as being ‘different’ until I left home and studied philosophy, including philosophy of religion, at university. There is no one line that can’t be improved by arguing it out.

This was around how my ethics were formed and why I moved away from religion after school as well. I disliked hypocrisy and the religion that birthed me and raised me is couched, like many, I suppose but don’t know better, in contradictions that didn’t make sense to me.

How could religious people, who really believed and had faith, be (objectively in my child-like eyes) be ‘bad’ people. Surely, the purpose of religious codes of ethics is to teach people to be ‘good’ but then going to the religious services and hearing the same people gossip about who was wearing the nicest clothes/house and who was going through relationship difficulties etc, didn’t strike me as a ‘good’ thing.

While the religion no doubt, formed a basis of personal values, this was augmented by experiential knowledge. I saw that people who told webs of lies, got caught out. I knew that when I was mean or did things that did not link with my personal ethical code, I felt guilty which was not a feeling I enjoyed. There was a selfishness in my personal ethical values and there still is. I don’t want to feel bad about myself so I try not to do things that will make me feel bad. This isn’t altruism, it’s selfishness. I think it’s possible to extrapolate this to my working life as a social worker. I went into this line of work because I want to make the ragged edges of state intervention in the most personal and difficult moments of that person’s life to be as gentle and as clearly explained as possible. It won’t always be possible to soften the pain and it isn’t always my job to do so but it is my role to make the interaction with social work as straightforward and as clear as I can. When I do ‘good’ pieces of work, which make someone’s life easier or less harsh, I go home feeling better.

Saying that, I don’t know if my values are the ‘right’ ones. Indeed, to many people they would not be. I am sure I do make many mistakes of judgement that can have hideous or painful consequences and fundamentally at work, in a resource and time-limited world, I have to prioritise some work over other work. Which means prioritising some people over others. That is why my values are important to my work.

Professional ethics

When we learn to practise our trade, specifically with other people who will not, for the most part, choose to be in a room with us and will not have a choice of which social workers they are allocated – although there are areas of social work outside statutory settings, and those who may have more scope – there are few people who would decide, if all options were available, to engage with social work (fostering and adoption may be an exception).

I tend to see this as an additional responsibility as our role is very much linked, intrinsically to the power we wield with an ID badge around our necks. We can be representatives of The State or The Agency including those of us working in the third sector. Our professional forebears were the religious communities, the benevolent societies, the ‘saviours’ of those who had fallen on bad times or misfortunes. This is the root of social work and it is very much key to the way we need to interpret our roles today and how we are perceived. This power relationship with people who work with us is unavoidable. We cannot work ethically if we do not acknowledge our power. I have written about this previously but it is the core of what social work ethics are.

Looking at the definition of social work and the way that ethics interact with practice, we have this from the International Federation of Social Workers as a definition:

“Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.  Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social workengages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing. The above definition may be amplified at national and/or regional levels.”

International Federation of Social Workers (accessed 26/12/19)

And this from the British Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics

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 those 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.

British Association of Social Workers (accessed 26/12/19)

Of course, I moved immediately from this to the ‘social justice’ phrase, I’ll come back to human rights later, but I think, I try to adhere to this. But if there’s something this last electoral cycle has taught me, it’s that my interpretation of ‘social justice’ is something that is specific to me. I think I am committed to social justice but don’t we all? This is part of my concern about the way that professional ethics are held up as being something specific to social work – my hope and, to be fair, my experience is, that many nurses, doctors, occupational therapists and psychologists I work with are committed to these values, as much, if not more than social workers.

What is it about this definition that specifically makes it about social work? Promoting social change and development? How do I do that in my role with individuals? Do I do this? Am I a social worker at all, or am I someone who undertakes social work tasks that actually can be trained. Am I paid for the tasks I complete or the learning and experience I have in order to make decisions about how to prioritise my tasks? When I undertake a social work task, am I making different decisions to another social worker? In that case, why is ‘my’ social work decision-making better or worse?

We need to be able to broaden and not restrict social workers to those who define social work ethics narrowly. I know I believe I work ethically. but anyone would say that if asked – and if they wouldn’t, they shouldn’t be anywhere near a person who needs social work interventions.

Lipsky’s Street-level bureaucracy first published in 1980, reflects on the importance of the power left in the hands of individual practitioners, like social workers and the impact the those ‘small’ decisions of prioritisation can have on practice and impact on individuals who have far less power in the world which is defined by actions and interactions with organisations that hold power. Any social worker who feels disempowered should pick up a copy of this book where much of it still holds true, despite talk of levelling hierarchies.

I don’t have an answer to what it means to practice ethically and the influence that professional ethics and our understanding and interpretation of these ethical standards, but I am interested in the way that these values and ethics, impact on our practice. Will a person get a different service to someone who interprets their professional responsibilities in a different way from me? How do our conscious and unconscious biases come into play?

I’m going to veer into politics briefly here and say that Corbyn doesn’t believe he’s ever been anti-racist in his life. Ask the majority of the British Jewish community and they might have a different opinion. Is this about understanding unconscious bias, perhaps? This is why we always need to question our own values and ethics and be constantly challenged on the biases we may not be aware we have.

Organisational ethics

This is a difficult one to see, sometimes from the outside, especially if you haven’t had experiences in different organisations. Most large organisations will be able not reel off lists of values that they claim to live by. I went for an interview at an NHS trust (I didn’t get the job) about a year ago and I was asked, in the interview, what the trust values were – I hadn’t remembered, so I invented some of the usual ones, like involvement, excellence, integrity – because they can be a bit ‘cut and paste’ but how do organisations evidence ethical practice, especially large organisations? From the view of the service user/patient, it will be the impact of the individual member of staff.

From the member of staff working within the organisation, it’ll be their immediate manager and possibly more senior management staff. But one part of an organisation can have very different values to another. One ward of a hospital can have a different ethical approach to another ward next door. It might be about interpretations of guidance and policies, it might be about individual interpretations of values in practice. This is why good governance processes are essential within a well-run organisation.

How does this inform and change our practice as social workers? It’s about the value placed on professional development, supervision, training needs and space to reflect and understand how to improve our practice. It’s about the value placed on the voices of people who use services and how well-embedded co-production is, beyond a tick box which needs to be completed to meet a need.

Good governance is something that perhaps isn’t something that comes into our focus as social workers in direct practice but it is the key to establish an organisational culture that works.

Final thoughts

I have no answers. The thing I learnt in my studies of philosophy is that sometimes the value of questions isn’t finding answers, as there may be no answers, but it is asking the right questions in order to aid enquiry. And this leads me back to the previous post about research questions. Currently, I think I’m where I want to be with some of my questions but when I go to work tomorrow with the aim of ensuring ethics guide my practice, I’ll not ever know if I am getting it right or not.

Social work is not a profession which has sufficient confidence to challenge itself regarding the fundamental ethics of some of the practices that have persisted, although some of it happens around the edges. While I hope this will inform some of my research work, I hope that I don’t ever end a day or a week, without thinking, how did I ensure that I thought about the actions and priorities I took and considered this within an ethical framework, whether utilitarian, Kantian or virtue ethics.

We have to understand the decisions we make, ethically, in the context of the decisions we don’t make but we have to know that our values can never be pure, perfect or altruistic. We wobble and we need to know, for the sake of those who rely on us, how to wobble less.

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