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Codes of ethics

Codes of ethics are widespread and apply to many areas of community work and accordingly, many community workers. Codes of ethics can be all encompassing or specific and particular.

Adherence to codes of ethics can be enforced where a community worker is a member of an association that has the authority to enforce a particular code of ethics or where a community worker works in an area that has a mandatory code of ethics.

A community worker who is a qualified social worker and is a member of the Australian Association of Social Workers (the AASW) is required to follow the codes set out by the AASW.

Example where a community worker works in an area that has a mandatory code of ethics.
Adherence cannot be enforced where no code of ethics exists or where a community worker is not a member of an association that has the authority to enforce a particular code of ethics.

No code of ethics exists for workers in migrant resource centres who work with people from non-English speaking backgrounds or culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Social workers who do not join the AASW will not be subject to the AASW’s authority.
Codes of ethics do not really attach themselves to organisations, rather they attach to workers who are subject of the code. However, it is important to note that they are very relevant to the organisation in terms of risk management, among other things. An organisation that made no attempt to ensure that a code was complied with, whether mandatory or not, may leave itself open to litigation and liability.

For example, an organisation that employed social workers to offer counselling but disregarded the AASW code of ethics would be ignoring good risk management practice. Such an organisation may find itself open to allegations of negligence, breach of contract and breach of other duties. The organisation may also find itself open to suggestions that it operates in an unprofessional and unethical manner.

Another example showing where formal responsibility does or does not lie is where a social worker employed by a community legal centre may not be a member of the Australia Association of Social Workers (because membership of the AASW is optional for social workers in practice). That particular social worker may well practise according to the standards set out in the AASW Code of Ethics but they would not be subject to any disciplinary or regulatory action by the AASW if they did not because they are not a member and thereby not subject of the AASW’s jurisdiction.

When reviewing codes of ethics for your organisation (and accordingly, its community workers) questions that should be asked include:

is there a relevant code of ethics in place?
does it apply to the work undertaken and if so, is it mandatory or voluntary?
what is the nature of the code and is it enforceable?
does the code require change in order to comply?
if compliance is lacking what are the consequences?
do you have a policy on the relevance or application of any relevant codes?
how is that policy (and thereby the code) implemented?
how is that policy (and thereby the code) monitored?
how is that policy (and thereby the code) enforced?
how is that policy (and thereby the code) reviewed?