Ethics, values and rights-based practice

Ethics, values and rights-based practice

NQSWs develop their understanding of and apply ethical principles and values to all aspects of professional practice.  They recognise sources of social inequity and take action to protect and advocate for human rights and social justice.

Newly qualified social workers will continue to develop a strong ethical base that emphasises the importance of building a positive, professional relationship with people receiving services and their families, as well as with professional colleagues.  At the newly qualified stage, they will begin to show an understanding of how to actively promote and defend human rights and begin to champion issues of social justice within the context of their work setting. The NQSW will develop their critical reflection skills to recognise and put aside any personal prejudices they may have, to work within guiding ethical principles and accepted codes of professional conduct.

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Guiding principles for NQSW

Social work has always had a strong ethical basis that emphasises the importance of building a positive, professional relationship with people who use services as well as with professional colleagues.  

Social workers must be able to balance the tension between the rights and responsibilities of the people who use services and the legitimate requirements of the wider public (for example, where there are issues to do with child and adult protection, criminal justice or mental health).  They must also be able to understand the implications of, and to work effectively and sensitively with, people whose cultures, beliefs or life experiences are different from their own.  

In all these situations, they must recognise and put aside any personal prejudices they may have, and work within guiding ethical principles and accepted codes of professional conduct.  Social workers must demonstrate ethical commitment within all aspects of professional practice.

Ethical principles in social work apply from the beginning of qualifying training in a social worker’s career, through the transition to the newly qualified practitioner and beyond. Negotiating ethical practice at every level within the complexity of social work tasks and therapeutic interventions must balance rights and self-determination against a duty of care and public protection. 

Ethical principles

The following ethical principles underpin the Standards in Social Work Education (SiSWE) and the expectations of NQSWs. They have been developed and agreed in partnership with academics, employers, other stakeholders and the SSSC following the most recent Review of Social Work Education. The SSSC Codes of Practice also sit alongside the ethical principles. 

Social justiceEmbrace values such as the equal worth of all citizens and their right to meet their basic needs and have equal access to wealth, health, wellbeing, justice and opportunity.  This involves commitment to the principles of social justice and taking responsibility for promoting it and challenging injustice 
Respecting diversityRecognise and respect diversity, challenging negative discrimination on the basis of: age; gender or sex; gender identity; sexual orientation; religion; spiritual beliefs; culture; ethnicity; socio-economic status; ability; racial or other physical characteristics.  This also involves treating the individual as a whole person within family, cultural, community, societal and political contexts.  
Human Rights and dignityRespect the inherent worth and dignity of all people and their rights as defined within the legislation.  This also involves conveying empathy and compassion for people. 
Self-determinationFacilitate peoples’ right to self-determination, and respect peoples’ rights to make their own choices and informed decisions, irrespective of their values and life choices, providing this does not threaten the rights and safety of others.
Partnership, participation and co-productionPromote the full involvement and participation of people receiving services, as far as they are able, in ways that address what matters to them and enables them to be empowered, unless it compromises the safety and wellbeing of self or others.  This also involves identifying, developing and valuing the strengths and resources of people and communities. 
Honesty and integrity Appropriate use of self, maintaining personal and professional boundaries, honesty, responsible confidentiality management, and not abusing the trust of people receiving services.  This also means taking responsibility for making ethical and evidence-informed decisions and being accountable for actions.

These principles are also at the heart of the Health and Social Care Standards, which set out in detail what people who use services can expect.  The principles are embedded in the Codes of Practice for Social Service Workers published by the SSSC.  The Codes set out the standards of professional conduct and practice that social workers must meet.  All social workers must understand and agree to follow the Codes as a condition of their continuing registration with the SSSC. 

Rights-based practice

Human rights are central to social work values and practice. Social workers should be committed to challenging poverty, homelessness, inequality, discrimination and disadvantage, and supporting the well-being and protection of children and adults. 

In Scotland, human rights are recognised and incorporated into the Health and Social Care Standards (2018). These standards are underpinned by five principles: dignity and respect, compassion, be included, responsive care and support, and wellbeing. The standards are used to improve the quality of services across health, social care, early learning, childcare, children’s services, social work and community justice. 

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is an international human rights treaty that sets out rights every child is entitled to. Scots law will have full and direct incorporation of the UNCRC.

The standards for NQSW highlight the centrality of rights-based practice as a core element of social work. They aim to recognise and complement the human rights-based principles outlined in the Health and Social Care Standards and the UNCRC. 

Anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice

Social work has a key role to play in anti-oppressive practice, promoting social justice and fairness. This includes racism at the personal, social and structural levels.

Social work training and continuing professional learning embed the fundamental requirement that practitioners work in a way that supports and protects people and challenges discrimination in all forms.

The recently revised Standards in Social Work Education (SiSWE) strengthen the focus on the social context of practice and are underpinned by clear ethical principles.

The SSSC Codes of Practice clearly state that any form of discrimination is not acceptable and that workers or employers should not condone any discrimination.

All workers and employers support that people are respected, their rights are upheld and they work in a way that promotes diversity and respects different cultures and values.

Upholding public trust and confidence in social services relies on these values and behaviours.

You can also find links to more information and resources on Anti-racist practice.

Please note this content is under development as this website evolves as part of our NQSW national project in 2020-21. Your feedback is welcome on additions and amendments to the information and resources included here.

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Reflective questions

  • What are the ethical dilemmas you have faced in your practice as an NQSW?
  • How have you resolved ethical conflicts?

We are currently developing the information and resources for this page. Please let us know if you have any recommended resources for other NQSWs in Scotland and we will share them here.