6 No Fuss Ways to Handle Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work Practice

Social work and ethics go hand in hand. In practice, social workers encounter ethical dilemmas and must be equipped to deal with difficult ethical dilemmas on a daily basis.

Social workers rely on a hierarchy of ethical principles to navigate ethical decision making and ensure they are working in the best interests of those involved.  

What is Social Work Ethical Dilemma?

In social work practice, an ethical dilemma is a situation where you are faced with two or more options but, you find it difficult to choose between available alternatives. Also, choosing an option may entail breaking a moral principle resulting in a predicament. In some situations, the options you have available may all not be desirable. 

Ethics in Social Work & Ethical Dilemmas

A way to self-reflect and evaluate the potential course of action when faced with ethical dilemmas is key in ethical decision making.

In this article, we will;

  • Take a closer look at common ethical dilemmas in social work.
  • The social work code of ethics 
  • How a social worker can make the best possible decision, and one that is ethically right.

Social Work Code of Ethics

Since social work is built on helping those vulnerable in society and protecting the community as well as individual welfare, there must be a clear code of ethics to act as a moral backbone to this profession.

The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) is the UK’s professional membership organisation for social work. 

Their members must abide by a particular set of ethical codes of conduct which include:

● Uploading and promoting human dignity and well-being. Respecting and defending individual physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual integrity and well-being.

● Respecting a person’s right to self-determination, which involves allowing them to make their own choices and decisions in life.

● Empowering those involved in social work and people using social work services to be able to be fully involved in all aspects of decision making that affects their lives.

● When dealing with people, a social worker must consider their family, the community, their societal and natural environments and should respect all of these aspects.

● Completely respect a person’s right to privacy, respect, reliability and confidentiality.

● They must provide people with all the relevant information required to make a choice or decision and should not try to manipulate their choice or hold back information.

● Social workers should use authority in their role in a responsible, accountable and respectful way.

● Social workers must not discriminate against a person or group.

● It is the responsibility of a social worker to challenge authority such as the police, should they believe an injustice has been done, especially if this involves those who are vulnerable in society.

● A social worker should be prepared to become a whistleblower and step forward and report malpractice.

● Clear and accurate records must be maintained which are impartial and detail only relevant matters.

● A level of self-regulation and self-reflection must be adhered to in order to ensure skills, understanding and services are kept to a high standard.

Looking at the above list, you can start to understand how complex and difficult it can be to make a decision while upholding such rigorous ethical principles.

If you’re a newly qualified social worker, consulting this long list of fundamental ethical professional values can be difficult and it can often feel as though you can’t do right for doing wrong.

Only with years of experience can a social worker begin to act on ethical instinct, after these principles become like second nature.

Ethics in Social Work

Ethics in Social WorkWhy does ethical dilemma occur in the world of social work?

According to Nadica & Biljana (2016) an ethical dilemma is a situation of choosing between two or more alternatives.

This could be an unpleasant and difficult situation, and therefore calls for an ethical choice to be made. A conflict of interest may take place making the choice complex. A social worker must consider all possible outcomes and associated risks, to analyse the impact each path may have on all involved.

When we consider social work in the UK, an ethical dilemma may involve children, vulnerable adults, people with disabilities and medical needs, ethnic minorities within the community, those who are suffering financial hardship and people who have a criminal record.

This is why a social worker must be able to carefully assess a situation and make an ethically sound decision that provides the best possible outcome for the individual in their care.

Examples of Social Worker Ethical Dilemmas

Examples of ethical dilemmas

Now that we understand more about ethical dilemmas, let’s take a look at some common social work scenarios that would require ethical decision making.

Common Ethical Dilemmas Social Workers Face

Confidentiality: When your obligation to protect a client’s confidentiality conflicts with your legal obligation to report crime or cases of self-harm.

Self-determination: If the client has wishes to self-harm or harm others, a social worker must make an ethical decision between their right to self-determination and the risk to themselves or others.

Receiving gifts: Although it is lovely to be appreciated, a social worker must not accept gifts which are provided with an unspoken request or bribe. People you support may want to show appreciation for all your hard work and offer you a gift.

These situations are much more complicated than they appear because there may be cultural, societal, and relationship factors to consider in addition to the working relationship you have formed with the individual. 

Moral beliefs: Personal moral beliefs must not interfere with the work of a social worker. This can include a client’s life choices, sexual preferences, culture or religion. 

Interacting on social media: This refers to the way you conduct yourself on social media. Also, how you choose to interact with the people you support in the community. These issues are sticky when it comes to social media. For instance, what will a social worker do when a person they support reaches out to them via a ‘Friend Request’ on Facebook or sends a ‘Direct Message (DM)’ via Instagram. 

There is no easy answer, and sometimes there is no right answer. You have to decide what’s best for the person you are working with and your practice.

Ethical Dilemmas in Practice

Examples of ethical dilemmasScenario A:

A social worker believes that a patient suffering from a mental illness is not being given the proper care and attention after being admitted to hospital with a chest infection.

The patient’s health begins to deteriorate. When discussing the patient’s health with medical professionals, they are told that the patient is refusing to take medication. The social worker must now carefully decide how to deal with this situation in an ethical way.

(i) The patient has a right to make their own choices when it comes to their health. However, the social worker must ensure that the patient can comprehend the information that is being given to them and can fully understand the consequences of refusing treatment.

(ii) If the social worker believes that they are not able to make this choice for themselves, who needs to be notified and brought into the discussion? Next of Kin (NOK), family or loved ones? Healthcare workers previously involved with the patient? Although, it’s important to maintain that the patient has the right to privacy too. At what point is it OK to share details about the patient’s case with others?

(ii) Is the patient refusing treatment due to another reason? Perhaps they feel as though they are a burden on society or their loved ones. This particular case must be carefully analysed as a patient may attempt self-harm.

The issues in this scenario is concerning as the patient could suffer greatly by refusing to receive treatment and if they do so, loved ones and relatives may consider the social worker to be at fault for not stepping in and taking control.

As each situation and person is unique, every single scenario that a social worker may face will have its own unique problems, dilemmas and risk factors.

Scenario B:

Ethical dilemmas can also occur due to a conflict of interest. Perhaps a social worker is working with a group of people in the community and is recommending services run by personal friends for a financial gain.

By taking advantage of your role as a social worker and benefitting from your position and who you work with, you are certainly not acting in a professional, ethical or moral way.

On the other hand, if you discover that a service is acting in an unethical or immoral way, you need to address this issue in order to protect those using the social services provided.

This also applies to those who may be biased or acting unfairly to particular groups within the community due to their personal beliefs or thoughts.

As a social worker, it is not your role to judge, dictate or preach your personal opinions and views, therefore when you practice, you must act in a fair, caring and understanding way. 

There will always be a strong link between social work and ethical dilemmas, and it will take continuous self-reflecting, educating and training to ensure UK social workers provide care and support in an ethical, moral and righteous way.

It is important that those within the social work industry understand and respect their power, role in the community and influence, and always strive to provide the best possible care they can.

Steps for Handling Ethical Dilemmas:

steps for dealing with ethical dilemmas

Tip 1: Consult the Code of Ethics

Spend time familiarising yourself with the Code of Ethics. Identify areas you are likely to come into conflict with in practice and note the recommendations made in the Code of Ethics.

Here is a link to the Code of Ethics https://www.basw.co.uk/about-basw/code-ethics

Tip 2: Understand How the Law Works

Be sure to regularly refer to the Legislation such as the Care Act 2014, Children Act 1989, GDPR 2018 and the Equality Act 2010. The Legislation provides a comprehensive framework on how to perform your role as a social worker.

It defines your responsibility and encourages partnership working with agencies, families and the people you support. 

Tip 3: Make Use of Reflective Supervision 

Use supervision to clarify areas you have doubts about. Your supervisor will have many years of experience and may have experienced a similar situation in practice.

You can discuss the outcome of the decision they made and see whether you are able to use any tips shared. 

Tip 4: Consult with Peers

Consulting with others practicing professionals will allow you discuss ethical dilemmas.

Discuss these issues without giving details for the person you are working with. 

The combination of having other people concur with your reasoning, plus the reassurance that comes from knowing that you have considered several alternatives, provides the needed push to boldly move ahead, make a decision and move on with your cases. 

Tip 5: Make Use of Team Huddles

Team huddles are usually short meetings where members of a team give important updates about their cases and allow professionals to share their views.

Discussing any ethical dilemmas in team huddles will help you feel more confident to make a tough decision. Also, you can get other viewpoints on how to handle things. 

Tip 6: Take Time to Reflect

After you’ve done your research and consulted peers and supervisors, take some time to reflect before making your decision. Remember that once you decide, it is unlikely that it can be undone. In addition, it is not professional to make a decision and go back on it. Ensure that the decision you finally make is in the best interests of the person you are supporting. 


These are 6 useful ways to deal with ethical dilemmas in practice. The key to making the right decision is to consult and reflect.

The final decision you make should be in the best interests of the person you are supporting. 

How to deal with ethical dilemmas in social work: final thoughts

Social workers will agree with me that they are faced with ethical dilemmas daily. 

I am sure that every single one of you has experienced a dilemma at work where making a decision is not straightforward. 

Do you think there are other tips that should be on the list? What are your thoughts on the ones on the list? Reach out to me through the comment section and let me know what you think.

The 6 ways to deal with ethical dilemmas

  • Consult the code of ethics
  • Understand how the law works
  • Make use of reflective supervision
  • Consult with peers
  • Make use of team huddles
  • Take time to reflect


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1. Harrington, H. & Dolgoff, R.(2008). Hierarchies of Ethical Principles for Ethical Decision Making in Social Work

2. https://www.basw.co.uk/about-basw/code-ethics

3. Nadica, F. & Biljana, D. (2016). Managing an Ethical Dilemma. Economic Themes. 54. 10.1515/ethemes-2016-0017.

4. Gleeson P. (2018).  A List of Ethical Dilemmas Facing Social Work. Retrieved from https://work.chron.com/list-ethical-dilemmas-facing-social-work-21946.html

5. Gilbert, N. (2019). Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work: What You Need to Know, https://www.noodle.com/articles/ethical-dilemmas-in-social-work-what-to-know-about-nasw-code-of-ethics

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2 thoughts on “6 No Fuss Ways to Handle Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work Practice”

  1. Wow! After reading your post I have a better understanding of the work duty of a social worker. It’s not easy! You really need to have a clear, clam state of mind and patient to listen and understanding the person you are supporting.

    To some people they might see it as a stressful job. But to others, it’s a challenging and satisfying job. For a new and inexperience learner, will definitely face lot of challenge. You must really have the kind of heart to help others in order to be able stay on in this job! I see this as a very good spiritual cultivation job..:-)


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