Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

Ethical Walls

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sarah Sweeney
August 19, 2019

Ethics and ethical decision making are at the cornerstone of any work done with people. What is right? How do we protect the wishes and rights of our clients while upholding their constitutional rights and public safety? Your position in public service might dictate how your opinion lands on the topic. At the end of the day, each person has the right to decide for themselves and make decisions about their lives accordingly. This is called the right to self-determination and everyone should have basic access to this principle. But when does the professional responsibility to intercede come into play? When are we required, as public servants, to intervene on a client’s behalf—because we think we know what is right or in their best interest?

As small children many of us are taught to treat others as we expect to be treated; with respect, the Golden Rule. But what happens when there are larger systems and forces at play? Depending on your field of practice, you might view ethics in a particular way or through a certain lens. It is important to understand how we view ethics when working with clients and community partners. Most people think about what’s right or in the best interest of the client, rather than from the perspective of the client and focusing on what they want. We all have rights, no matter the public opinion or whether or not we are deemed to have decisional capacity.

When clients are stripped of the ability to make their own decisions, we must recognize this can bring about a significant ethical dilemma when taking away a client’s right to self-determination. As professionals in this field we must have the courage to remind ourselves and others that clients have the right to make their own decisions, whether or not we agree with them. Just because we think we are right, and acting in the best interest of our clients, does not mean that we are necessarily following the wishes of that particular person. This would be a good time to consult colleagues or seek guidance from those who might challenge our beliefs so that we can be sure that we’ve considered all sides of the story. To challenge ourselves would only mean that we are potentially advancing our professional ability to provide bias-free representation or services to our clients.

The National Association of Social Work (NASW) code of ethics includes a number of principles and standards designed to uphold the work that professionals do with their clients; and is focused around service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity and competence. These guiding principles encourage the professional to provide effective and efficient services to clients while assisting them in navigating ethical decision making when a situation becomes murky or there are competing interests in a particular case. (See the NASW Code of Ethics).

The American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) also has Code of Ethics designed to, “Advance the science, art and practice of public administration.” The principles that guide public servants are advancing the public interest, upholding the Constitution and the law, promoting democratic participation, strengthening social equity, fully informing and advising, demonstrating personal integrity, promoting ethical organizations and advancing professional excellence.

These perspectives on ethics have similar threads of client rights to self-determination, social justice, integrity and competence in providing effective services to clients. Both social work and public administration are drawn to client-centered work and those who need community services. As professionals we are mandated through our ethical codes to do the best work for our clients that we can, and should be focused on the best interests of our clients. However there will come a time when competing perspectives challenge us in doing what’s right, and sometimes even our own personal beliefs cause hesitation in following a client’s wishes. This is when we must remind ourselves that just because we think we know what is right in a certain situation, it does not mean it is right for our clients. We must seek supervision and consultation to check our own bias and possibly revisit ethical decision making as it relates to complicated situations with clients. When in doubt, consult your Code of Ethics and allow this document to guide you through this process. Making ethical decisions when the circumstances are complicated requires diligence and courage to take that first step in questioning ourselves.

Author: Sarah Sweeney is a professional social worker and recent graduate of Seattle University’s Master of Public Administration program in Washington State. She may be contacted at [email protected]


1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *