Ethical Decision Making in a Digital Society

by Julia Harr, LCSWA

Attending Dr. Kim Strom-Gottfried’s training on ethics, “Colleagues and Ethics: Am I My Co-Worker’s Keeper” presented opportunities to discuss colleague to colleague ethical dilemmas across the clinical social work continuum.  This event was hosted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work, where Dr. Strom-Gottfried is a professor. It was sponsored by the Society.

One of the example situations provided by Dr. Strom-Gottfried was regarding use of SnapChat*. She presented us with the following scenario: As an intern, what would you do if your teammates on a community-based mental health team sent you a SnapChat that was disparaging of a shared client? This  is unethical behavior by a mental health professional for a multitude of reasons: it violates the client’s privacy, doesn’t treat the client or colleagues with dignity, and disrespects the team dynamic and reinforces negative stereotypes about people with mental health disorders.

My immediate thought was the intern should report this action to her supervisor and/or speak with her teammates directly. But reporting this could create future problems for the intern. Her teammates could view her as a ‘tattle tale’, something that would be hard to come back from. Addressing this directly with her colleagues opens dialogue around understanding the intention of the message and allows the intern to set personal boundaries around these kinds of communications, but it doesn’t do much to protect the client from this happening again.

What other options does this intern have? She could bring this issue to her field supervision group or a trusted professor at her university. She could call a professional ethics council board for advice. She could do nothing. She could go along to get along. How responsible is she to take action against her colleagues for violating our ethical code?

In my opinion, we are all accountable to one another. We are each other’s keepers. I would hope that if a colleague thought my practices were unethical, they would confront me to help me grow and change and facilitate my becoming a better social worker. My hope for this intern is that she uses some courage to do the hard thing and protect the dignity of her client. Any ill feelings from her teammates could likely be repaired over time.

Knowing how to respond to these tricky ethical dilemmas will evolve as technology continues to advance. The digital world has changed the way we react with each other and with clients. It’s important to consider how you might respond to an inappropriate use of social media before you encounter it. What steps could you take to protect your clients, your business, and your colleagues?

I evoke you to review the NASW Code of Ethics’ Ethical Standards section: “2. Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities to Colleagues” for additional information. Check into your individual agency’s policies on the use of technology in the workplace and what your agency code of ethics details to further guide your practice. If you are in private practice, consider developing a policy for yourself that you could readily disclose to a client as needed.

*SnapChat is a mobile-based app that allows users to share photos that “self-destruct” after a set amount of time and then the photos become irretrievable.

Julia Harr, LCSWA is a clinical social worker at WakeMed Rehab Hospital in Raleigh, NC.  She serves children and adults recovering from a variety of physical illnesses including stroke, surgery, paralysis, and traumatic brain injury. She is a member of the NCSCSW Communications Committee.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by the NCSCSW