Since social workers are engaged in relationships with people, having to comply with laws at the same time, they must routinely deal with ethical dilemmas. Before discussing a real case involving an ethical dilemma, it is necessary to give a clear definition of the issue. Ethical dilemma is a situation involving three major conditions (Rey, Corey, & Callanan, 2015):
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- The necessity of making a choice. An individual, referred to as the “agent”, has to decide, which course of action has to be taken to achieve maximum benefit for all the parties involved.
- The presence of at least several optional solutions. Situations, in which there are next to no options (e.g. life-or-death decisions), cannot be considered ethical dilemmas in the full sense of the word.
- The absence of an ideal solution. In ethical dilemmas, it is impossible to choose a course of action that would not compromise some of the ethical principles.
The case that I had to encounter in my practice was connected with social media interaction. One of my clients wanted to add me to her friend list on Facebook. On the one hand, it has long been strictly prohibited by the Code of Ethics to email or chat with clients. Yet, on the other hand, therapeutic services over the Internet can be conducted in some cases. The following principles, which allowed calling this situation an ethical dilemma, were involved:
- Dignity and worth of the person. The client has the right to self-determination, which is violated when he/she is forbidden to do what he/she wants.
- Importance of human relationships. The major goal of any social worker is to establish trusting relationships with the client. In the case described, the girl suffered from low self-esteem and rejection, which made it particularly difficult to reject her “friend” request.
- Integrity. No matter how personally involved I felt, I had to comply with the policies of the agency even knowing that the effect of the therapy may be considerably diminished as a result of my actions. The agency was strictly against any interactions except personal meetings. Only in emergency cases it was allowed to make a call or send an email.
- Competence. Privacy issues require that a social worker must be a competent user of modern technologies. There is always a possibility of data leaks due to hacker attacks or security breaches. As a result, confidential information from the dialogue may be disclosed. That was one of the key considerations guiding my decision-making process.
In order to solve this situation with minimum harm, I consulted the NASW Code of Ethics, Section 4.03. It states that it is forbidden for social workers to allow their private conduct to hinder their capability to perform their professional duties (Reamer, 2006). Thus, it became clear that I should not give way to my involuntary commitment to the girl and must follow the rules prescribed by the agency.
Yet, at the same time, the process of the solution was modified since I could not stay totally detached from the impact that it could potentially produce upon my client. I decided to discuss this situation with the girl and explain to her that the decision to avoid personal communication in favor of Facebook and other social networks is not connected with her willingness to find real friendship but is rather a form of escapism. That not only helped prevent a negative reaction and a change of attitude but also had a strong therapeutic effect since the client started taking steps to minimize the use of social media when it was possible to communicate in person.
Reamer, F.G. (2006). Ethical standards in social work: A Review of the NASW Code of Ethics (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: National Association of Social Workers.
Rey, G., Corey, M., & Callanan, P. (2015). Issues and ethics in the helping professions (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.