Wednesday, January 3, 2018

2018 NASW Code of Ethics (Part 1): Interview with Allan Barsky, JD, MSW, PhD

[Episode 113] Today's episode of the Social Work Podcast is the first of a three-part series on the 2018 National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics. I spoke with Allan Barsky, JD, MSW, PhD (whom you might remember from Episode 78 on social work ethics and Episode 76 about social workers in court). In Part 1 we provide a historical overview of the NASW Code of Ethics and discusses why the NASW Code of Ethics was revised for 2018. Then, Allan and I talk about Section 1.03, Informed Consent, and specifically subsection “i” which has to do with electronic searches.

In Part 2, episode 114, we talk about Section 1.04(e) knowing the laws in your jurisdiction and the one where your client lives and how that affects practicing across state lines with or without technology.  We also talk about 1.05, cultural competence.

In Part 3, episode 115, we talk about 1.06(g) – professional affiliations, and the removal of the word “disability”. We talk about 1.15 – disruption in electronic communications. We end Part 3 with a discussion of resources for folks who want to learn more about the NASW Code of Ethics, and ethical issues in social work practice.

Download MP3 [27:00]


Allan Barsky, JD, MSW, PhD, is a professor at Florida Atlantic University where he teaches ethics, conflict resolution, addictions, generalist social work, and diversity-informed practice. His book credits include “Interprofessional Practice with Diverse Populations,” “Conflict Resolution for the Helping Professions” (Oxford University Press), “Clinicians in Court” (Guilford), and “Ethics & Values in Social Work” (Oxford).  Dr. Barsky has chaired the NASW Code of Ethics Task Force and the NASW National Ethics Committee. He has taught internationally in Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Finland. For further information, please see


Hey there podcast listeners, today is the first of a three-part series on the 2018 NASW Code of Ethics. In November 2017 I had a fabulous conversation with Allan Barsky, social work professor at Florida Atlantic, and the chair of the NASW committee responsible for the 2018 revision. You might remember Allan from Episode 76 when he talked about his relational model for ethical decision making, or Episode 78 when we talked about how social workers can prepare for court. Allan and I talked about several of the changes Section 1 of the NASW Code of Ethics – ethical responsibilities to clients. Allan provided so much good information that I’ve divided our conversation into 3 parts. Some are hot topics that you might already have an opinion about, like getting consent before doing a web search for information about your client (aka, Googling your client) which we talk about in Part 1, or removing the word “disability” from the Code, which we talk about in Part 3. We also talked about changes that you might not have thought about like, are online communities considered different cultures, which we talk about in Part 2, or planning for disruptions in electronic services, which we talk about in Part 3, or should you sext with your clients? Just kidding about that last one. No. But you knew that already. Hashtag boundary violation. But, and here’s the important thing, in 2017 online boundary violations were not explicitly part of the social work Code of Ethics. It took the 2018 revision to get the Code of Ethics up to speed on that one. Which got me wondering. What else used to be missing? It turns out – a lot.

So, before we hear from Allan, a quick, not boring, look at the thrilling history of social work ethics courtesy of Fredric Reamer’s 2013 entry in the Encyclopedia of Social Work online.

Can I get a little background music for this?

[cue: Summer Smile from YouTube Audio Library]

Ok, not that!

[cue: Battleground by Ethan Meixsell from YouTube Audio Library]

Ok. Here we go.

1946: What’s missing? Everything. No NASW, no code of ethics.

1947: The first social work Code of Ethics ratified by the American Association of Social Workers. Still no NASW (that won’t happen until 1955).

1960: NASW was a thing AND it ratifies the first NASW code of ethics. 14 promises and proclamations. like “I give precedence to my professional responsibility over my professional interests,” and “I respect the privacy of the people I serve” (Reamer, 2013). Lots of things missing: Nothing unethical about clients and social workers getting jiggy. That’s right. I just said “getting jiggy.” Also, nothing unethical about discriminating against clients based on the color of their skin, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

1967: the Code of Ethics added a pledge that social workers would not discriminate. Why 1967? Because it was middle of the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and the cusp of the gay rights movement. The Code of Ethics was responding to changing ethical norms and standards.

And while this was great, there was nothing in the Code that clearly spelled out if a social worker was acting unethically – something that consumers and social workers alike were asking for.

[cue: All Aboard by Silent Partner from YouTube Audio Library]

Fast forward to 1979: NASW published a revised code of ethics that included six brief principles and “standards for the enforcement of ethical practices among social workers.” 1979 was the first time that the Code of Ethics included aspirational AND baseline standards. One of the aspirational ideals was “social workers should promote the general welfare of society.” NASW included things that social worker should prevent, such as people practicing as social workers who were not qualified to be social workers, and things that social workers should not do, such as exploit clients for their personal advantage. It also added some very specific language, such as “The social worker should under no circumstances engage in sexual activities with clients.” So 1979 marks the “Death of Disco” and the end of dating your clients. Thank you very much.

The Code of ethics didn’t change for another 11 years. But during that time the field of professional or practice ethics grew up within and outside of social work. The 1990 revision reflected this more nuanced understanding of practice ethics. It also reflected the rise in managed care and social workers entering into the field of private practice. The 1990 revision added several principles related to how social workers can get clients and how they can get paid for services. Three years late, in 1993, the Code was revised to include language about avoiding dual-relationships and language about social workers being impaired.

[cue: Believer by Silent Partner from YouTube Audio Library]

The next major revision came in 1996. The 1996 revision included four major sections: the Preamble provided, for the first time, a mission statement for the profession. The second section, called “Purpose of the NASW Code of Ethics” provided an overview and brief guide for dealing with ethical dilemmas. The third section, “Ethical Principles” outlined the six abstract principles that are near and dear to every social worker’s heart: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. The Code provided a brief explanation of what each of these meant. It was in the fourth section, “Ethical Standards” that the Code provided 155 standards in six categories, including social workers' ethical responsibilities to clients, to colleagues, in practice settings, as professionals, to the profession, and to society at large. These were described as enforceable standards. In his 2013 article, Reamer (who, btw, chaired the 1996 revision), noted that the Code identified three different kinds of issues: mistakes, dilemmas, and misconduct. A mistake might be following agency protocol of having parents sign a release of information form, but accidentally having them sign the wrong form. A dilemma is just that: a situation in which social workers have to make decisions which privilege one ethical principle or standard over another. A dilemma might be deciding whether or not your duty is to your client or to your agency or society (as in the case of child maltreatment). Misconduct includes… you guessed it, having sex with your client, getting to eat free at your client’s restaurant, double billing, etc. The list goes on and on…

Since 1996 there have been several updates to the code, most extensively in 2008 and again in 2017.
The 2018 Code of Ethics, which is what the 2017 revision is called, has 19 new clauses but no new standards.  Mostly, the 2018 Code of Ethics reflects changes in technology, but there are some changes that reflect shifting social norms and expectations. And what’s missing from this version? When you figure it out, let us know.

Like I said, this conversation is divided into three parts.

Part 1 – that’s today’s episode – provides a historical overview of the NASW Code of Ethics and discusses WHY the NASW Code of Ethics was revised for 2018. Then Allan and I talk about Section 1.03, Informed Consent, and specifically subsection “I” which has to do with electronic searches.

In Part 2, episode 114, we talk about Section 1.04(e) knowing the laws in your jurisdiction and the one where your client lives and how that affects practicing across state lines with or without technology.  We also talk about 1.05, cultural competence.

In Part 3, episode 115, we talk about 1.06(g) – professional affiliations and the removal of the word “disability”. We talk about 1.15 – disruption in electronic communications. We end Part 3 with a discussion of resources for folks who want to learn more about the NASW Code of Ethics, and ethical issues in social work practice.

And now, without further ado, on to Episode 113 of the Social Work Podcast, The 2018 NASW Code of Ethics (Part 1): An Interview with Allan Barsky, JD, PhD.

Interview (forthcoming)
Jonathan Singer:   Allan. Thank you so much for being back on the Social Work Podcast, and talking with us again, this time about the 2018 revision of the NASW Code of Ethics. So, what prompted the revision of the Code of Ethics?

Allan Barsky:  Sure. So, if you look at the history of the NASW Code of Ethics…the first code of ethics was in 1960. And it was just a one-page statement of general principles and they actually asked people to hang on their walls in a frame and a number of social workers today still remember doing that. The next major revision was approximately 1979. The most current version is really based on the 1996 version. So that was a very major update that was led by Rick Reamer in terms of really identifying core values and principles and then being more specific in terms of what standards of practice there were. There were a lot of changes over the years in terms of legal responsibilities. And also, the recognition of social work as a profession. So, 1996 was the last very major change. There were some minor changes in 1999 and 2008. And so, what you might be recognizing is that there are increments of every 3 years, 6 years, or 9 years, we have the possibility of updating our Code of Ethics because NASW has its delegate assembly every 3 years. So, about 3 years ago there was a decision that the code really needed some updating in terms of technology issues. We had some language in the Code of Ethics from 1996 that said things like if you’re going to transfer information electronically you needed to delete or exclude any identifying information. So that was back in the day when you know the latest and greatest technology was a fax machine, so you just blot out the name of a client at the top of a file before you fax that information. Well, now there is so much electronic sharing of information, with insurance companies, and between providers, and automatic access of information to clients that the information in the Code of Ethics was really quite outdated. The other thing that happened back in 2014, 2015 is The Association of Social Work Boards began a process of developing practice regulations. And, this is for regulatory bodies, licensing bodies in states to look at how state legislation should be updated to take technology into account. And so, they began that process, not even just restricted to the United States but they had international participants from Europe and from Canada as well. They invited some members of NASW and some of those members also became members our task force to update the NASW Code of Ethics. So, there’s a number of different processes that all came together around the same time.

Jonathan Singer: It sounds like it was both procedural, in the sense that NASW has a timeline for updating the Code of Ethics, but also it was prompted by a recognized shift in the practice landscape, specifically around technology. But, I assume there were other things that changed as well. Now, as I read through the 2018 Code of Ethics, it seemed like the basic structure and principles hadn’t changed from that 1996 document, but that it was mostly the section that talks about the standards, right, the ethical standards where the majority of changes took place. Is that correct?

Allan Barsky: Absolutely. So, if you read the section on ethical principles, it’s the same six values and the same six ethical principles that were there before. We tried not to change the structure of the code very much, because people are familiar with it and we didn’t want people to have to make major shifts. A lot of states actually incorporate the Code of Ethics into their legislation and, so it’s also got some legal issues to it. So, we did not have the mandate to try to redraft or rewrite the entire code. When we talked about the basic principles, it wasn’t as if there was any glaring issues that we needed to change the language or change the values or the principles. So, primarily we were asked to focus on technology issues, but there were a number of other areas where there were some needed updates. Some of that just in terms of language that didn’t really have a big impact on practice, you know. For instance, there was the reference to the committee on inquiry from the NASW. Well, the committee on inquiry was changed to The Nationals Ethics Committee a number of years ago and we’ve nationalized and changed that process, so it’s really just an updating of language that doesn’t really affect people’s practice.

Jonathan Singer: So there’s just some text revision items in there as well as some actual additions for technology and some other things.

Allan Barsky: Absolutely.

Jonathan Singer: Okay. As a practicing Social Worker that’s great to know that my basic understanding of the structure and the principles that social work ethics are based on has not changed. [laughter]

Allan Barsky: Exactly. So, there’s actually 19 new clauses within the code, but no actual new standards. So, for instance, under informed consent it’s still the same basic standard but we’ve added some additional subsections to that. There are also 19 amendments to existing standards but there isn’t, there aren’t any completely new standards.

Jonathan Singer: So you mentioned informed consent and one of the things that I saw when
I was reading through there was, in informed consent section 1.03 and then there’s section i. And it talks about Social Workers should obtain client consent before conducting an electronic search on the client. Exceptions may arise when the search is for the purpose of protecting the client or other people from serious, foreseeable, and imminent harm, or for other compelling professional reasons. Could you talk about this idea of obtaining consent before conducting an electronic search and then also that idea of what is a compelling professional reason.

Allan Barsky: Excellent questions. So, 1.03(i) is a subsection of 1.03, it’s still framed within the same parameters and so the concept of informed consent, letting clients know the nature of our services and what we’re planning to do with them, making sure that they have choices, that there are options, and making sure they understand the risks and the benefits. All of that remains the same. Now, historically we would never think of doing an online search, because Google and Bing and other electronic search engines didn’t exist when the original Codes of Ethics were being developed. So, if you want to look at a parallel, if I’m going to conduct an assessment with a client, I should let the client know what types of information I’m gathering, am I going to meet with the client in my office and ask them questions, am I going to speak with their physician, with their doctor, with their child’s teacher. I wouldn’t go talking to any of those people unless I had their consent first. Similarly, if I wanted to observe them at home or in the community, I would ask them for consent first. I wouldn’t go over to someone’s house and peer into the window to see what’s going on or follow them around the public market to see what’s going on with them unless I had their permission first. So, similarly, even though there is a lot of public information out there about people, I wouldn’t do an online search about a client unless I had their consent first. And, so, the basic idea of respect for clients and respect for their privacy is that we should have their permission before we gather certain types of information about them. And under 1.07(a), confidentiality and privacy, it even talks about the notion that we don’t gather information about clients unless it’s something that is relevant to the type of work that we are doing with them. So, some of it just builds on the same types of principles. Now, there could be exceptions to doing online searches without client consent. So, for example, if you had a situation where a client was threatening other people and you needed to be able to contact them or you needed to be able to access what the level of risk was, then it might be ethically justifiable to go online and to gather information, to see what else is going on. On their social networking sites are there specific threats? Are you able to identify the potential victims and be able to warn those potential victims? So, we didn’t want to say that there was no reason for having an electronic search on a client without their permission, but there needed to some compelling professional reasons. Now, so certainly imminent, serious harm to the client or others would be an example. And we’ve got that sort of language as an exception to confidentiality, so it should certainly be an exception here. Whatever other compelling professional reasons are really may depend on the particular circumstances. So, it may be, for example, that you’re a forensic social worker working with criminal justice system and the client is an involuntary client and is part of your probation work or your corrections work, you need to gather some additional information online and there isn’t a requirement or perhaps you’re even legally authorized to gather information. Child protection workers may also have the authority to gather certain information online about clients, even though they don’t have the client’s consent. But, that would depend on, you know, state laws and agency policies as well.

Jonathan Singer: I love the metaphor of looking through somebody’s window. I don’t know that I usually think about Google searches as looking through someone’s window. I sort of think about, you know if somebody has posted something online and it’s public or if their Facebook page permissions are set to public. I sort of think about them as just sort of leaving things out on the street, but the way that you’re framing it really says this private stuff and you can have access to it. Kind of like it’s in their house, Facebook is their house, and then the public permissions means that the shades are pulled back and you can look in. But, there are ethical considerations about when and how you peer into that window. Even though you can and even though the information is there, there is still an ethical responsibility for Social Workers to be conscientious and to, in this situation, obtain consent with a few exceptions from clients before peering into that window.

Allan Barsky: Yeah, no. That’s a great way that you’ve explained it. So, physically and technically it’s possible to gather that information, there may be no laws from the general public to not look into other people’s publicly posted Facebook information, or social networking information, or online blogs, or whatever. But, we hold ourselves to a higher standard, so we are restricting our own civil rights when we step in that role. Also, think about what you would do with the information you’ve gathered. I’ve gone around speaking to a number of different groups. Some people would say well they go online to search about the client to see if they want to work with that client. That makes me really nervous about, well, who are they not serving because they’ve got some information from online. Are they doing racial profiling? Are they looking at information that they could discriminate against people? The information that’s online may be information that is inaccurate. So, you know, you’re not even giving the client the opportunity to respond to the information that’s out there and it could be inaccurate, so you’ve got all sorts of fake news these days and people intentionally posting false information to mislead people. I think I want to be really careful about it, so if you give the client to opportunity for informed consent that gives them the possibility of saying you know, I know there’s some information out there or could you please show me the information you’re relying on and we can talk about it to see if it’s real or do I have a reason why that information may be out there and may be giving an inaccurate picture of my family or my friends, etc.

Jonathan Singer: Yes, because my Facebook is a perfect reflection of who I am. [chuckles] There’s nothing filtered about that.

Allan Barsky: And then you’d mentioned, people could set their privacy settings differently. A lot of times people are not really sure how to set their privacy settings appropriately and sometimes the systems intentionally try to encourage people to share information that they never had the intention to share. Or you post something on your closed Facebook but a dear friend of yours decides to share with the rest of the world. So, in terms of levels of informed consent and understanding what people are keeping private or intending to share, I think we have to look at protecting people in their most vulnerable states.

Jonathan Singer: Yeah, just to put a fine point on it, I think it’s really clarifying to say that even if your client is searching for you online, it doesn’t mean that you can then search for your client. Because we are held to a higher standard. I’ve heard people say, well they’re going to look for me, so I should be able to do the same thing for them.

Allan Barsky: Right, and clients have a right to self-determination, clients have a right to confidentiality. We as Social Workers don’t. So, it isn’t a relationship that goes exactly the same both ways. We are not friends with our clients. We have a higher fiduciary duty, so we have some obligations to them that they don’t have towards us. On the other hand, we may also be modeling some good pro-social behavior. So, maybe they will follow some of our higher ideals and values.

Jonathan Singer: Hey there podcast listeners. Part one is done. Don’t forget to listen to parts two and three of this conversation. In Part Two, when Alan and I talk about Section 1.04 (e), knowing the laws in your jurisdictions and the ones where your client lives. How that affects practicing across state lines with or without technology. We also talk about 1.05, cultural competence. In Part Three, Episode 115, we talk about 1.06 (g), professional affiliations and the removal of the word disability from the Code of Ethics. We talk 1.15, disruptions in electronic communications. And we end Part Three with a discussion about resources for folks who want to learn more. Thanks for listening. Keep up the good work.

Jonathan Singer: I’m Jonathan Singer and thanks for being with me today for another episode of the Social Work Podcast. If you missed an episode or have suggestions for future episodes, please visit If you’d like to support the podcast, please visit our online store at To all the Social Workers out there, keep up the good work. We’ll see ya next time at the Social Work Podcast.



Transcription generously donated by: Dedrick Perkins, Student, University of Oklahoma’s Anne & Henry Zarrow School of Social Work

Resources and References

APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Producer). (2018, January 3). #113 - 2018 NASW Code of Ethics (Part1): Interview with Allan Barsky, JD, MSW, PhD [Audio Podcast]. Social Work Podcast. Retrieved from

1 comment:

Sofia said...

I have a question re: searching clients online. If a client states he/she is seeking counseling after coming out of prison but does not say the charge he/she was in prison for, does the SW or agency have the right to look up their record in case the client has a history of violence? Maybe there are minors coming into the office and the client could be a child predator?
Is there sufficient cause?