Code of Ethics Review: Dating Colleagues and the Social Work Exam

social work colleague relationshipWe're working our way through the second section of the NASW Code of Ethics, a question at a time. For complete, 170-question exams covering ethics and much, much more, go here and build the exam bundle that best suits your study plan. Meanwhile, here's some free practice:

Working together at a residential facility, a therapist and case manager develop a strong attraction to each other. Both are social workers and want to be mindful of ethical guidelines as they begin to explore a relationship outside of work. Which of the following BEST describes NASW guidelines for relationships between social work colleagues?

A. The social workers can be in a romantic relationship as long as it's not sexual.

B. The social workers can be in a romantic relationship as long as they don't share clients.

C. The social workers can be in a romantic relationship as long as one isn't supervising the other.

D. The social workers can be in a romantic relationship as long as one transfers responsibilities to avoid making clients uncomfortable.

What do you say?

Let's take a look at the relevant section of the code, 2.07, Sexual Relationships. It says:

(a) Social workers who function as supervisors or educators should not engage in sexual activities or contact with supervisees, students, trainees, or other colleagues over whom they exercise professional authority.

(b) Social workers should avoid engaging in sexual relationships with colleagues when there is potential for a conflict of interest. Social workers who become involved in, or anticipate becoming involved in, a sexual relationship with a colleague have a duty to transfer professional responsibilities, when necessary, to avoid a conflict of interest.

After reading that, have you changed your answer?

The answer we like best is....C, the supervision one. You may be able to make an argument for some of the others, but that one's the strongest of the bunch. Let's take them one at a time:

A. This is a letter-of-the-code vs. spirit-of-the-code reading of 2.07. The code specifies a problem with "sexual relationships." Yes, okay. You could defend the answer in court. But you're not in court, you're preparing for the social work licensing exam. You want to choose the BEST of the offered answers, even when another answer seems acceptable. In this case, the answer that leaves no room open to interpretation is C, regarding supervision.

B. Sharing clients isn't mentioned in the code and, though that may get tricky between a therapist and case manager, it's not as tricky and ethically murky as answer C.

D. Avoiding client discomfort isn't mentioned in this section of the code. It's a nice thing to do. It's not as important here as avoiding the misuse of professional leverage.

Answer C is right from the code. And from most HR rule books. The key issue here is the exercise of professional authority. That may or may not be present in a therapist-case manager relationship, but it is certainly present in a supervisor-supervisee relationship. No sexual relationships between supervisors and supervisees. Simple as that.

You have your answer! You have your exam prep! If you encounter a question about this on the exam, you're ready for it. Good luck!

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Code of Ethics Review: Colleague Confidentiality vs. Impairment and the Social Work Exam

burnoutConfidentiality is likely to come up again and again as you prepare for the social work licensing exam. Most questions are likely to cover client confidentiality. If a client's family member calls to discuss the client, what is the best way for a social worker to proceed? Another therapist wants to discuss your former client's case--what then? After enough exam prep, these questions will become very familiar. (Hint: There's no confirming or denying that someone is a client, even to family or a former therapist.)

But how do you answer if you see something like this?

After a staff meeting, a clinician tells another social worker that she is "losing it...totally burnt out...I'm starting to hate my clients!" She says she's going to call in sick tomorrow and "get blackout drunk." What is the BEST course of action for the social worker to take regarding this colleague.

A. Discuss ways to cope with burnout other than binge drinking.

B. Consult with a supervisor regarding the clinician's confession.

C. Report the clinician's misconduct to the state licensing board.

D. Explore how the clinician's burnout is affecting her work with clients.

What do you think?

Let's do a decision tree. Two answers involve going to others--a supervisor or the state licensing board. The other two answers keep things between the clinician and the social worker. Let's look at the code for guidance.

2.02 Confidentiality
Social workers should respect confidential information shared by colleagues in the course of their professional relationships and transactions. Social workers should ensure that such colleagues understand social workers' obligation to respect confidentiality and any exceptions related to it.

This points to the not-going-to-others choices, A & D. But what about the hating clients? What about the blackout drinking? There's also this:

2.09 Impairment of Colleagues

(a) Social workers who have direct knowledge of a social work colleague's impairment that is due to personal problems, psychosocial distress, substance abuse, or mental health difficulties and that interferes with practice effectiveness should consult with that colleague when feasible and assist the colleague in taking remedial action.

(b) Social workers who believe that a social work colleague's impairment interferes with practice effectiveness and that the colleague has not taken adequate steps to address the impairment should take action through appropriate channels established by employers, agencies, NASW, licensing and regulatory bodies, and other professional organizations.

The clinician is voicing psychosocial distress and a planned day of substance use/abuse. But still the code dictates first consulting with the colleague, not with others. There is an exception to this: If the colleague's impairment is undermining her work with clients (that is, her "practice effectiveness"), something more needs to be done. Is there a way to know whether that's happening here? Nothing in the stem is definitive. (Harboring hatred toward clients is part of burnout, not reportable impairment.) Are clients being negatively impacted? The first thing to do to find that out is ask. And, happily, one of the choices here--"Explore..."--has the social worker doing just that! Discussing coping skills, which may or may not be useful to the clinician, can wait. Our answer is D!

Want to read more on the topic? Take a look at these articles:

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Code of Ethics Review: Respect Toward Colleagues and the Social Work Exam

respectEthics are in the daily spotlight these days. They're never out of daily consideration for practicing social workers. And ethics are even more front-burner for social workers preparing to pass the social work licensing exam. Let's dive back in where we left off months ago and take the second part of the NASW Code of Ethics section by section. Part two of the code covers SOCIAL WORKERS' ETHICAL RESPONSIBILITIES TO COLLEAGUES. Social work ethics don't end with your interaction with clients. Peers and co-workers are covered too! Like here in the first item, 2.01, Respect:

2.01 Respect

(a) Social workers should treat colleagues with respect and should represent accurately and fairly the qualifications, views, and obligations of colleagues.

(b) Social workers should avoid unwarranted negative criticism of colleagues in communications with clients or with other professionals. Unwarranted negative criticism may include demeaning comments that refer to colleagues' level of competence or to individuals' attributes such as race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, and mental or physical disability.

(c) Social workers should cooperate with social work colleagues and with colleagues of other professions when such cooperation serves the well-being of clients.

In a nutshell, be nice to your fellow social workers!

How might this material show up on the exam?

Imagine a question like this:

A client at an inpatient facility asks a veteran social worker if she can have her case transferred away from a young social worker at the facility. "He has no idea what he's doing," says the client. "He's like a chicken with its head cut off." The veteran social worker has observed the same thing. How should the veteran social worker proceed?

A. Let the client know she's seen the same behavior and follow facility rules regarding transfers.

B. Encourage the client to discuss her wants and needs with the new social worker.

C. Discuss the client's report with the new social worker and a supervisor.

D. Have the client's case transferred to the veteran social worker.

What do you say?

As usual, narrow it down. D. seems too abrupt (not enough respect). A. involves negative criticism of a colleague that may be accurate, but is unnecessary here (still not enough respect). C. would be a better answer if it didn't rope in a supervisor right away (show the colleague some respect--talk to him alone first). That leaves as the best of the offered answers B. Both the client and the anxious social worker may benefit from a discussion about the client's experience of treatment (respect for client and colleague).

It's all about respect!

As with many ethics-based questions on the exam, this isn't a slam dunk. It's not like a DSM question that you either know or you don't. But it's typical of the ASWB exam. You know a couple of answers aren't right and you end up stuck choosing between two that seem pretty good but not great. You take your best shot, you move on, you PASS the exam!

Good luck!

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Practice Question: Reporting

mandated reporting Let's return to the NASW Code of Ethics for some practice questions. Here's one based upon the very first item in the "Social Workers' Ethical Responsibilities to Clients":

A child tells a social worker about being hit by her father on multiple occasions. She shows the social worker bruises that resulted. "But you can't tell anyone," the girl says. "If he finds out, he'll kill me!" What is the BEST course of action for the social worker to take?

A. Make a report to the police.

B. Make a report to child protective services.

C. Discuss mandated reporting with the client.

D. Get more detail about the father's violence.

What's your answer?

The relevant section of the Code of Ethics is 1.01 Commitment to Clients:

Social workers' primary responsibility is to promote the well-being of clients. In general, clients' interests are primary. However, social workers' responsibility to the larger society or specific legal obligations may on limited occasions supersede the loyalty owed clients, and clients should be so advised. (Examples include when a social worker is required by law to report that a client has abused a child or has threatened to harm self or others.)

Social workers promote client well-being. However, legal requirements--such as abuse reporting--take precedent. So the answer here is that the abuse must be reported. The father has been violent on multiple occasions and left bruises on his daughter. Not a close call. So do you call the police or child protective services?  Well, is there something special here that would warrant a call to the police instead of child protective services? Not really. Call child protective services. That's what they're there for. If they want to involve the police, they can. Our answer is B).

For more about social workers obligations as mandated reporters, take a look at:

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Termination of Services and the Social Work Exam

termination of services social work examLast stop in part one of the NASW Code of Ethics is 1.16, Termination of Services. Its six parts go like this:

Social workers...

  • Should terminate when services no longer helpful.
  • Should not abandon clients; client best interest is the first priority.
  • May terminate if clients when fees haven't been paid (special conditions apply)
  • Should not terminate to pursue another relationship with client (social, financial, or sexual).
  • Should notify clients ahead of termination and seek to ensure continuation of services elsewhere if desired.
  • Should notify clients when leaving an employment setting, ensuring continuation of services.

There are more than a few exam questions that this section lends itself to. "A client is showing no new progress…what should the social worker do?" Terminate. "A social worker finds a client exhausting, but therapy is productive…" Don't terminate. "A client has a long overdue balance…" Terminate. "A client asks a social worker on a date…" Don't terminate (at least not to have the date).

You might also encounter questions about referral-making when terminating. Or terminations mandated by limited insurance coverage. Knowing the code should help with all of the above.

Does it help with this?

A social worker has a client who has been dating a good friend of the social worker's. The friend plans to begin bringing the client to the weekly bowling night that the social worker has been attending for years, as well as to other social events that the social worker had planned to attend. How should the social worker proceed?

A) Stop attending the bowling night and other events to avoid a dual relationship with the client.

B) Ask the friend to hold off on bringing the client to the bowling night and other events until it is clear the relationship is serious.

C) Discuss the conflict with the client and explore possible referrals for the client.

D) Discuss the conflict with the client and continue services.

This isn't all that simple. Let's take it one answer at a time. Social workers are expected to avoid social events that they know clients are attending when possible. But this isn't just a one-time, easily missed event--it's a long-standing series of events, spreading out into the future. Attending the events creates a dual relationship. Skipping the events might lead to resentment from the social worker toward the client--a sort of dual relationship of its own. Asking the friend breaches client confidentiality (not to mention asking too much of the friend). That leaves discussing. Discussing and continuing or discussing and terminating. Or not even terminating--it just says "explore possible referrals." That's pretty mild. There's no client abandonment proposed here. Just a conversation about possibly terminating. Given the circumstances, that (C) looks like the best way to go.

If it were just one wedding both the client and social worker were invited to, what then? One funeral? Turning some of these possibilities over in your mind keeps you one step ahead of exam item writers and all-the-more ready to pass the social work licensing exam. Good luck!

For further reading:

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