Continuing through the ASWB exam content outline, we come to: Techniques to identify and resolve ethical dilemmas. This is good, essential social work and good essential exam prep. Let's dive in to get you ready to pass the ASWB exam!

Ethical Dilemmas

Identifying and resolving ethical dilemmas is an essential aspect of social work practice. Here are some techniques commonly used by social workers to address ethical challenges:

  • Consultation: Social workers consult with colleagues, supervisors, or ethics committees to discuss ethical dilemmas and seek guidance on appropriate courses of action. Consulting with others can provide different perspectives and insights into complex ethical issues.

  • Supervision: Regular supervision sessions with a qualified supervisor provide social workers with opportunities to explore ethical dilemmas in a safe and supportive environment. Supervisors can offer guidance, feedback, and ethical decision-making frameworks to help social workers navigate challenging situations.

  • Code of Ethics: Refer to the NASW Code of Ethics to guide their decision-making process. These codes outline ethical principles, values, and standards of conduct that inform social work practice and help resolve ethical dilemmas.

  • Ethical Decision-Making Models: Utilize ethical decision-making models, such as the Potter Box model, to systematically analyze ethical dilemmas and identify potential courses of action. These models typically involve steps such as identifying the ethical issue, considering relevant ethical standards and principles, exploring alternative solutions, and evaluating the potential consequences of each option. Find examples of different frameworks here (using the acronym CLARIFY) and here (spelling out DIRDIR)

  • Ethics Committees: In organizational settings or larger agencies, social workers may have access to ethics committees or review boards that specialize in addressing ethical concerns. These committees can provide guidance, oversight, and support in resolving complex ethical dilemmas and ensuring adherence to ethical standards.

  • Self-Reflection: Social workers engage in ongoing self-reflection to examine their own values, biases, and assumptions that may impact ethical decision-making. By cultivating self-awareness and mindfulness, social workers can identify and address personal factors that may influence ethical dilemmas.
  • Continuing Education: Social workers participate in continuing education, workshops, or training programs focused on ethics and professional development. These opportunities enhance social workers' knowledge, skills, and ethical competence, enabling them to effectively navigate ethical challenges in their practice.

  • Supervisory Review: In complex or high-stakes ethical dilemmas, social workers may seek supervisory review or oversight to ensure that decisions align with ethical standards, agency policies, and legal requirements. Supervisory review provides an additional layer of accountability and support in resolving ethical dilemmas.

Which raises the question: What is the Potter Box model? Read on.

The Potter Box Model

The Potter Box model is an ethical decision-making framework developed by social ethics scholar Ralph B. Potter Jr. It provides a systematic approach for individuals to analyze and resolve ethical dilemmas by considering four key dimensions: facts, values, principles, and loyalties. The model is widely used in various fields, including business ethics, journalism, and social work.

Here's an overview of each dimension in the Potter Box model:

  • Facts: In the first step of the model, individuals gather and analyze relevant facts or information related to the ethical dilemma. This involves identifying the key issues, stakeholders, and contextual factors that contribute to the ethical dilemma. Understanding the factual context is essential for making informed ethical decisions.

  • Values: The second step involves identifying and clarifying the personal, professional, and organizational values that are relevant to the ethical dilemma. Values represent fundamental beliefs and principles that guide individuals' behavior and decision-making. By examining their values, individuals can understand their ethical priorities and preferences.

  • Principles: In the third step, individuals identify and apply ethical principles or frameworks that can help guide their decision-making process. Ethical principles provide normative guidelines for evaluating actions and behaviors in ethical terms. Common ethical principles include autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, justice, and fidelity.

  • Loyalties: The final step of the model involves considering the loyalties or allegiances that individuals may have to various stakeholders, groups, or organizations involved in the ethical dilemma. Loyalties represent the interpersonal and professional relationships that influence individuals' decisions and actions. Balancing competing loyalties is often a key challenge in ethical decision-making.

By systematically considering the dimensions of facts, values, principles, and loyalties, individuals are better able to analyze ethical dilemmas from multiple perspectives and arrive at well-informed decisions that uphold ethical standards. 

On the Exam

What will this material look like on the exam? Don't worry about the various models (CLARIFY, DIRDIR (which isn't even what that one calls itself), or even the Potter Box model). Having a thorough familiarity with the Code of Ethics is what's key here. Look, for example, at the Unethical Conduct of Colleagues section of the Code. It spells out a first step in resolving a certain type of ethical dilemma:

(c) Social workers who believe that a colleague has acted unethically should seek resolution by discussing their concerns with the colleague when feasible and when such discussion is likely to be productive.

There's more where that came from in the Code. And that's the sort of thing you should expect to see on the social work exam--in vignette form ("A social worker's colleague is behaving unethically...").

There are questions about that scenario and lots of others ethics-based questions on Social Work Test Prep's full-length practice tests (and, of course, on the Ethics Booster). Don't have them yet? It's time!

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February 29, 2024
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