The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics is currently the go-to resource and serves as a guiding hand in all aspects of ethical social work practice. The creation and evolution of the Code of Ethics is an important part of the history of social work, and goes back to the roots of our very profession.
Many social work historians recognize the practice of Jane Addams and her colleagues at Hull House in Chicago, circa 1889, as the early beginnings of social work practice in the United States. Others recognize 1898, the year the first social work class was offered at Columbia University, as the true “professionalization” of the field. Although social work and social reform was most definitely occurring throughout those periods (and throughout ancient history), it took several more decades for social work to become fully recognized and earn its place among other “professions.”
In 1915, Abraham Flexner famously gave a speech at the National Conference of Charities and Corrections entitled “Is Social Work a Profession?” At that time, he concluded it was not, as it lacked “specific application of theoretical knowledge” and was not “definite in its purpose.” Thankfully, social work did not respond to this criticism by creating a push for specialization, but instead sought to define its values, approach, and of course its ethics.
Mary Richmond of the Charity Organization Society is credited with an early attempt to draft a code of ethics, printed in the 1920’s. Several other social work organizations formulated draft codes in the early 20th century, but wasn’t until 1947 that the first formal code was adopted by the American Association of Social Workers (AASW), the largest social work organization of that era. AASW and a number of other social work organizations of the period eventually merged to form NASW, and the first NASW Code of Ethics was adopted in 1960. This first adoption of the Code was one page long, and while it provided a rudimentary outline of ethical practice, it was much less specific than the current code.
Since that time, the scope and relevance of the Code has evolved from a brief and general document to a comprehensive guide to ethical practice. NASW has responded to challenges encountered by practitioners, as well as societal and cultural context of the historical era, in its code revisions.
- The 1967 revision added a principle about non-discrimination.
- The 1979 Revision was a rather substantial extension of the Code, bringing the written version from one page to a nine-page booklet. This version was the first to delineate what would later become known as the Ethical Principles and Ethical Standards.
- In the 1990’s, four revisions took place, the most extensive of these in 1996 when the “need for a new Code emerged due to the profession developing a wider understanding of ethical issues not addressed in the 1979 Code…developments in health care, litigations, [and] publicity in the media all forced the profession to pay more attention to ethics.” (https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/History) This version is more closely resembled the layout and format of the current Code.
- The 2008 revision incorporated sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as immigration status, into the existing non-discrimination standards.
This brings us to the most recent revision of the Code, which was approved by the NASW Delegate Assembly on August 14, 2017. The main thrust of these revisions refer to ethical practice regarding the use of technology and electronic communication.
Currently, the Code of Ethics is unequivocally accepted as the authority on professional standards in the practice of social work in the United States. As stated on NASW’s website, since 1960, the Code has emerged as “the standard bearer for defining the values and principles that guide social workers’ conduct in all practice areas…today’s Code is used as a model for social work practice across the United States and worldwide. It has been adopted by many organizations and incorporated into a number of state social work licensing laws.” (https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/History)
Today, one hundred years later, the field of social work can confidently state it is “definite in its purpose,” thanks in part to the core values, ethical principles and ethical standards outlined by the NASW Code of Ethics. Although social workers must always use judgment in evaluating situations in context and as they arise, the code has continued over the years to improve in specificity and to meet the evolving challenges faced by social workers. We must continue to do our best to uphold the standards of our profession as outlined in the Code, and continue be a part of ongoing revisions to this living document as the nature of our practice evolves over time.
- Morris, Patricia McGrath. 2008. Reinterpreting Abraham Flexner's Speech, 'Is Social Work a Profession?' Its Meaning and Influence on the Field's Early Professional Development. Social Service Review 82 (1): 29-60.
- National Association of Social Workers, Social Work History, Accessed on June 6, 2018 at https://www.socialworkers.org/news/facts/social-work-history.
- Reamer, Frederic. (1995). Ethics and Values. Encyclopedia of social work, 19th Ed. Washington, DC: NASW Press.
- VCU Libraries, National Association of Social Workers: History (1917-1955). Accessed on June 6, 2018 at https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/social-work/national-association-social-workers-history/.