Social workers in their daily work face a myriad of situations in which they have to make important decisions - decisions concerning clients and supervisees, decisions that concern with staff management, programs and casework. Our decisions influence the way in which we respond and the impact of our responses affects our clients. One such situation will be in the interactions that social workers have with clients in the counseling room. In the counseling room, the interactional process between social workers and clients is dynamic - clients’ responses are not scripted and social workers have to decide and react spontaneously. One process that frequently occurs in the counseling room is when social workers are asked by their clients questions that seek personal disclosure by the social workers. The case study given exemplifies one such possible scenario and the social worker Amanda has to decide on a response. However, there is an even more important question to ask: What will inform Amanda in how she will decide on what to respond?
Social workers usually turn to the following to inform their decisions: past personal experiences, past professional experiences, practice theories and models, empirical research and social work ethics. Many books have been written on the relationship between knowledge and practice and have also described the characteristics of each of these above sources of knowledge – one may refer to any of them to know more. However there is one important point I want to draw out that is useful for this case study discussion: Social work ethics which provide guidance to what is right or wrong in practice should serve in the final analysis as the rationale and justification for the decisions that social workers make in social work profession. Ethics can provide the answers as to what it means by the value-laden phrases “appropriately answer”, “remain professional” & “positive affirmation” as stated in the case study’s discussion question.
While experiences of workers (professional or personal), social work practice theories and models can provide social workers perspectives, understanding and skills in working with clients, they are not able to provide the philosophical basis for the justification of social workers’ professional decisions. We should realize that many daily decisions that social workers make are of value judgments and hence ethics is essential in guiding these decisions. Let’s refer back to the case study to understand this relationship between the Code of Ethics, Amanda’s professional knowledge and experiences, and how she can make decisions on her respond to Susan, the client.
Various practice theories and models, and even past work experiences inform social workers that personal disclosures of similar life experiences (in this case, Amanda’s personal experiences with domestic violence) with clients can be used as a bridge to establishing emotional connections with clients. In addition, clients may feel a lesser sense of alienation with their problems and be more hopeful about their problems knowing that someone else, what more their social worker, has experienced what they have gone through. Amanda the social worker in this case study will have to discern and decide what personal information will be useful for disclosure to the client so that professional responsibilities to the needs of the client is maintained as top priority. What does this mean for how Amanda will respond to Susan? Firstly it will mean that Amanda will have to ask the client Susan her purpose in asking Amanda about her experiences with domestic violence. Secondly, Amanda will further discuss with Susan how Amanda’s personal disclosures will be helpful for Susan. Thirdly, during and immediately after the disclosure, Amanda’s concern will be on how the client is experiencing the disclosure process and how the client is making meaning from the disclosure. All these will require skills and knowledge that Amanda’s past professional experiences, and practice theories and models can provide.
However, why is there an emphasis on the welfare of the client in Amanda’s intentions during the process of personal disclosure? Why is this important? While Amanda’s professional experiences and the practice theories and models can help her with the knowledge and skills in the process of personal disclosure, only the Code of Ethics can provide justification for the substantive emphasis of client welfare in the actions of the social worker. So what principles in the ethics code are relevant here?
I have identified two principles from the Code of Ethics that will be relevant:
‘The profession of social work is based upon a belief in the value and dignity of all human beings, and a concern for their social well being.’(Preamble/Guiding Principles)‘Social workers avoid discrimination and prejudice, respect individual differences and accept that professional responsibility must take precedence over personal aims and views.’ (Principle A1)
These principles will inform social workers that though they are disclosing personal information from their experiences and personal views, it is morally right for them to do it with the intention to benefit the well being of the clients. This means for example, Amanda should not personally disclose with the intention to boast about her experiences or to divulge any unnecessary information that will not be of benefit to the client. In addition because of the respect that social workers should have for individual differences, Amanda will also accept that her personal experiences may still differ from the client’s experiences and that client may not have to construct the same meanings of the experiences as her. Amanda’s professional impetus will be to help Susan to make sense of her own meanings gleamed from Amanda’s personal disclosure in order to benefit the client’s situation and well being.
In summary, social workers have to distinguish clearly the implications of the Code of Ethics and other sources of knowledge like professional experiences and practice theories and models for practice and decision-making. The former provides the moral justifications for why we do something in social work practice and the latter provides the knowledge and skills in working with clients.