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30 May

Managing Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work

Managing Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work

Identifying and Understanding Common Challenges

Social workers routinely encounter a variety of complex situations—some heartbreaking, some inspirational—that can involve children, indigents, the mentally ill and more. While social workers are well-trained for any situation they may encounter on the job, it’s impossible to prepare for everything, and they will eventually be faced with circumstances that present difficult ethical dilemmas. Part of the challenge is social work’s unique quality of feeling simultaneously personal and professional. However, those working in the field must have a clear understanding of their professional ethics and responsibilities, and understand how to separate them from their personal values.1

Every situation is different, yet for social workers, it’s vital to know exactly what an ethical dilemma is and how you can go about handling one should it arise in the future.

What Is an Ethical Dilemma?

The Oxford dictionary defines an ethical dilemma as, “a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two courses of action, either of which entails transgressing a moral principle.”2

When looking at this definition, one thing stands out: an ethical dilemma occurs when there are two potential courses of action, neither of which is clearly the right or wrong decision. For social workers, an ethical dilemma most likely would come up when an ethical principle, standard or value from the National Association of Social Workers’ established Code of Ethics are coming in conflict with one another. The Code of Ethics is set in place to help give social workers a clear path of how to act. Yet, even with its support, situations can be complicated, making the best decision on resolving a given problem difficult.3

Resolving Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work

When an ethical dilemma has been identified, social workers need to determine the best way to resolve it and move forward. After all, resolution is a key function of the job. While there is no clear-cut formula for how to resolve every dilemma, professionals can ask themselves a few critical questions to help determine what is best for the given situation:3

  • Who are the people involved in the situation and who will be affected by the decision?
  • What are the legal issues and obligations surrounding the decision?
  • What ethics are in conflict with one another?
  • What are the potential outcomes?
  • Who can help resolve the issue?

These questions are, of course, simply a starting point. Each ethical dilemma that occurs within a social worker’s job is unique and requires attention that’s appropriate to the given situation. To learn more about issues such as ethical dilemmas within social work and more, discover the online Master of Social Work from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work by contacting an Admissions Advisor today at 866-545-9506.


1 Retrieved on May 30, 2018, from socialworker.com/feature-articles/ethics-articles/What_Is_an_Ethical_Dilemma%3F/
2 Retrieved on May 30, 2018, from en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/ethical_dilemma
3 Retrieved on May 30, 2018, from naswma.org/?114