Abstract: WITHDRAWN: Social Workers Describe Approaches to Managing Ethical Challenges in Practice (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

WITHDRAWN: Social Workers Describe Approaches to Managing Ethical Challenges in Practice

Thursday, January 13, 2022
Liberty Ballroom I, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Rachel Imboden, MSW, LSW, Graduate Research Assistant, University of Maryland at Baltimore, Baltimore, MD
Patrice Forrester, MSW, LCSW-C, Graduate Research Assistant, University of Maryland at Baltimore, MD
Lauren McCarthy, MSW, LCSW, Graduate Research Assistant, University of Maryland at Baltimore, MD
Corey Shdaimah, LL.M., PhD, Professor, University of Maryland at Baltimore, MD
Background and Purpose:

Ethical considerations are at the heart of social work practice, requiring social workers to identify the best course of action to meet complex social needs. These needs must often be met with limited resources while complying with organizational policy and adhering to personal and professional values. This work is further challenged within agencies shaped by economic and political values at odds with those of the social work profession. This study was designed to explore the complexities of ethics in practice via the following primary research question: How do social workers negotiate ethical challenges in the workplace? Answers to this question will inform approaches to social work education, training, and supervision within diverse practice environments.


Semi-structured interviews exploring social worker experiences of ethical challenges in practice were conducted by a research team of doctoral students overseen by a professor with expertise in qualitative methods. Respondents (N = 23) were recruited by the students using purposive sampling techniques to engage practitioners from a variety of practice settings and career stages. Interviews were transcribed and analysis was guided by grounded theory. The research team engaged in open, axial, and selective coding which resulted in the identification of primary themes and subthemes. The presenters met regularly to compare and discuss coding structures as well as to engage in peer debriefing. This research study was approved by the IRB of the students’ and professor’s university.


Social workers described managing ethical challenges that were not static, but constantly evolving, and attempted to maintain balance between the invigoration of these challenges and becoming overwhelmed. Analysis suggested the presence of three primary approaches to negotiating ethical challenges in practice which we classify as seeking support, compartmentalizing (one extreme taking the form of avoidance), and resistance (both explicit and covert). These approaches were employed to negotiate ethical tensions or conflicts as well as ethical dilemmas that arose.

One potential benefit of this research is for social workers who were interviewed to develop greater sensitivity to ethical challenges which could lead to increased and more effective workplace discussion and support seeking. In fact, one interviewee who appeared to struggle with the interview questions noted that practice problems are often not framed in ethical terms. This research provided interviewees greater attention to the ethical implications of practice.

Conclusions and Implications:

These findings will be discussed in the context of the neoliberal political values that currently shape social work practice, including how these values may impact (i.e., both helping and hindering) a social worker’s ability to identify and respond to ethical challenges in practice.

We will also discuss the implications of this research for training and supervision and will provide recommendations for effectively exploring and responding to ethical conflicts. There is limited research exploring social workers’ lived experiences of ethical challenge and this research should continue. Additionally, an exploration of the most effective supports and resources for ethical challenges is warranted, particularly as greater awareness may also lead to increased stress.