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Unethical Agency Practices

What do we do if we witness unethical agency practices?

Brief Case

Devi is a social worker who works for a social service agency. Her job entails making clinical assessments for subsidy applications.

Devi routinely submits her assessments to her supervisor, who often rewrites and edits the summaries, overturns some decisions, and gives final approval. However, the supervisor does not sign off on the assessments or indicate in the documentation that she participated in the report preparation or decision. Only Devi’s signature appears in the documentation.

Devi is concerned that her supervisor is misrepresenting the agency’s decision-making protocol by camouflaging the agency’s internal procedures. “Only my name appears in the final assessments even though in many cases it’s my supervisor who made the final decisions behind the scenes. Also, I think this process is just unethical,” said Devi. “It misrepresents how these important decisions are made.”

Responses by social workers:


It helps to refer to the National Association of Social Workers on the “Best Practice Standards in Social Work Supervision”. It details the responsibilities of social work supervisors. Supervisors share responsibilities for the services provided to clients. Ideally, supervisors should be familiar with their responsibilities and authority indicated in the agency’s policy manual. The supervisor’s ability to discharge his or her role well may have both ethical and legal implications. A key responsibility of the supervisor is to ensure that the recommendations made by the supervisee are helpful to the client and the supervisor’s involvement in this decision making process should be captured. In this way, the supervisor also models the process of assessment, of identifying key issues and conducting effective intervention. This would enhance the competency of the supervisee and offer support to the supervisee.

However, in the unfortunate situation when the supervisor does not carry out this responsibility adequately, the supervisee becomes vulnerable to a direct challenge (e.g. by client or other agencies) or even litigation to the recommendations made. This can be unfair to the supervisee especially when the supervisor had played the key role in the decision making process.

Devi may struggle with raising this issue to avoid antagonizing her relationship with her supervisor. However, it is important that she highlights her concerns with her supervisor. Professional ethics and values (i.e. Social Work Code of Ethics) should guide organizational practices. Devi can explain how her supervisor’s documentation of her role in the decision making process is important in protecting both the organization and the worker should a complaint be lodged.

​Angeline Voon

Full time post graduate Social Work student

If I were Devi , I would do the following :

  • I would seek guidance from the guidelines that are put forth by her organization as well as her professional association to determine formally whether her supervisor`s actions are truly unethical. In my personal opinion, it is not technically unethical for supervisors to overturn their supervisee`s administrative or clinical decision in their course of work as they are accountable to the quality of their supervisee`s work, however the refusal to document their decisions formally may render Devi at risk for misrepresentation or even worst fraud which cannot be encouraged.
  • If existing guidelines determine that her supervisor`s action are unethical , Devi may first choose to speak to her supervisor first to voice out her concerns as well as discuss with her how the supervisor`s decision may put both parties at risk under existing guidelines to create awareness of the severity of the situation.
  • If repeated attempts to dissuade her supervisor fail, Devi should bring her concerns to the next person in the command chain as ethically she cannot participate in illegal and unethical behaviour knowingly.
  • She may also choose to approach her Human Resource department to seek advice on potential transfer if investigation are launched to avoid what would be an awkward working situation.

Eric Goh

Correctional Rehabilitation Specialist (Community)
Singapore Prison Service


By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
Reprinted and Adapted with the permission of Social Work Today ©. Great Valley Publishing, Co.

Many social workers have encountered instances when supervisors or administrators have asked or instructed them to participate in, condone, or overlook unethical practices. Examples include supervisors who ask social workers to exaggerate service utilization data supplied to funders, ignore eligibility criteria for agency services to enhance revenue, and alter client records in advance of a site visit conducted by an accreditation agency. In these instances, social workers must make difficult ethical judgments about how they will respond to unethical requests or mandates.

On the surface, social workers have a stark choice between looking the other way—perhaps to avoid angering a supervisor, stirring up controversy in the agency, jeopardizing the agency’s status, or losing their job—and challenging the unethical behavior as a matter of principle. It is easy, of course, to proclaim that social workers must always blow the whistle on ethical misconduct if more moderate efforts fail—for example, attempting to persuade supervisors and administrators to abandon their unethical course and adhere to prevailing ethical standards. In reality, however, agency-based politics and organizational dynamics are such that management of these ethical dilemmas requires considerable skill and nuance.

In my experience, supervisors who exercise their (usually legitimate) authority and prerogative to rewrite and, possibly, overturn subordinates’ decisions indicate that they have done so to make the sequence of actions and participating parties clear, especially in the event that questions arise or there is a formal challenge, litigation, and so on. This is normal administrative and supervisory accountability. Establishing this clear paper or digital trail is not only sound risk management, but supervisors have a fundamental ethical duty to conduct themselves in a way that avoids any appearance of impropriety, misrepresentation, deception, or fraud. Transparency is important.

Applying Ethical Standards

The NASW Code of Ethics includes several standards that pertain to instances when practitioners believe they have been asked or ordered to engage in or be associated with unethical activity. In principle, social workers should take assertive steps to challenge a supervisor’s alleged practices and take whatever measures they reasonably can to avoid participating in activities that may constitute unethical conduct, such as misrepresentation, deception, and fraud. According to the Code of Ethics, “Social workers should take adequate measures to discourage, prevent, expose, and correct the unethical conduct of colleagues”. Social workers cannot turn a blind eye from patently unethical behaviour.

The code also prescribes that “social workers should take reasonable steps to ensure that employers are aware of social workers’ ethical obligations as set forth in the NASW Code of Ethics and of the implications of those obligations for social work practice” (standard 3.09[c]). Thus, when feasible, social workers should alert people in positions of authority (e.g., senior administrators, members of a board of directors) about unethical practices within the organization. This may be politically awkward and uncomfortable, but it may be essential.

This step is important for three reasons.
First, in a strict moral sense, this is the right course of action. Ignoring wrongdoing poses a threat to clients and can undermine the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission.
Second, alerting people in positions of authority can minimize the organization’s legal exposure if disgruntled parties, such as clients or advocates, file a formal complaint or lawsuit.
Finally, assertive efforts to challenge wrongdoing help to protect social workers themselves, especially in the event that other parties allege that the social workers failed to take steps to expose unethical conduct within the organization.
Assertive action demonstrates social workers’ good-faith efforts to address wrongdoing.

This obligation is reinforced the Code of Ethics statement that “social workers should not allow an employing organization’s policies, procedures, regulations, or administrative orders to interfere with their ethical practice of social work. Social workers should take reasonable steps to ensure that their employing organizations’ practices are consistent with the NASW Code of Ethics”. In addition, “Social workers should not participate in, condone, or be associated with dishonesty, fraud, or deception”.

Morally upright and principled social workers sometimes face the unenviable task of responding to supervisors’ and administrators’ unethical instructions and behaviour. This is an unfortunate fact of organizational life. The challenge is managing these dilemmas with integrity and in a way that embraces relevant ethical standards. These are among the most difficult ethical circumstances that arise in social work. But social workers know well they cannot shy away from such difficult decisions. This kind of moral courage is part and parcel of being a professional.

As the British novelist and poet C. S. Lewis once said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”