Understanding the Code of Ethics and the ASWB Exam

Understanding the Code of Ethics and the ASWB Exam

Whether you’re preparing for the Bachelors (BSW), Masters (LMSW), or Clinical (LCSW) level Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) Licensing Exam, be prepared to be asked several tough questions about The Code of Ethics on test day. As one of the most important aspects of the ASWB licensing exams, we’ll explore:

  • What The Code of Ethics Is
  • Why The Code of Ethics is Important
  • How to Review The Code of Ethics
  • Types of Exam Questions to Prepare For

What is the NASW Code of Ethics?

The National Association of Social Work Code of Ethics is based upon six core values and outlines a set of standards of professional conduct that is expected of all social workers, regardless of their degree or area of practice. The Code robustly outlines the core values and the ethical standards and principles to guide those working in the social work profession.

Here is a condensed breakdown of the six core values that the NASW Code of Ethics is based upon.

1. Service — To work towards addressing social problems and serving people in need.

2.  Social Justice — To challenge injustices in the social system and work for changes to improve the lives of oppressed and vulnerable people.

3. Dignity and Worth of the Person — To show respect for every person and be mindful of cultural and ethnic diversity.

4. Importance of Human Relationships — To recognize the importance and value of human relationships, and to work to strengthen such relationships with the goal of enhancing the wellbeing of individuals and communities.

5. Integrity — To be trustworthy and uphold the values, mission and ethical principles and ethical standards of the profession.

6. Competence — To practice within areas of competence, continuously expand professional expertise and knowledge, and contribute to the knowledge of the social work profession.

The Code of Ethics was updated in 2021, and it addresses the importance of cultural humility and professional self-care for social workers.

The Importance of the Code of Ethics

Ethical practices should be expected in all fields of work, but professional ethics are at the very core of all careers in social work. The NASW Code of Ethics is relevant to social work students and social workers regardless of their functions in the profession, the setting of their work, and the populations they serve.

The NASW Code of Ethics reflects the NASW’s core values that are commanded by the profession, so knowing them thoroughly is essential. Beyond setting forth core values and ethical standards, the Code is designed to help those in social work positions identify scenarios when ethical or professional obligations conflict with a mission.

The code is particularly important in the public eye as well, as they have a reasonable expectation to hold those in the social work profession to higher standards of accountability. Knowing the code in its entirety also gives you guidelines for assessing whether your peers have engaged in unethical conduct.

That being said, the Code doesn’t provide a set of precise rules that dictate how social workers should act in every situation. Specific guidelines in the Code have to be considered in reference to individual situations and how they could possibly conflict with the values, principles, and standards of the Code itself.

Keeping yourself mindful and accountable is only possible with a solid understanding of the Code of Ethics. Should an ethics complaint be filed against you, formal procedures could be mandated. Consequences could result in licensure suspension or revocation, depending on the ruling made by the NASW disciplinary committee.

How to Review the Code of Ethics

It will take more than one or two read-overs of the Code to fully grasp what it means to you and your social work career—a lot more. Of course, if it’s your first time reading it over, do just that: passively read it over once or twice to get a feel for the overall gist of the basic concepts of the principles and standards. However, don’t expect to actually retain much of what you read.

Long before the exam, you’ll have to dive deeper and read it section by section, taking in chunks of the material a bit at a time. Do this over several sittings, so your mind can absorb the concepts while considering ethical scenarios and the best response in accordance with the Code of Ethics. This will help you master the ethics questions on the ASWB Licensing Exam.

Types of Code-Related Questions to Prepare for on the ASWB

Whether you are testing at a Bachelors, Masters, or Clinical level, be prepared to see a number of questions that rely on your knowledge of the Code of Ethics. The test includes questions concerning what is the best action a social worker should take in a number of given situations.

Because the exam is in a multiple-choice format, each answer option has the potential to technically be correct. However, to get the right answer, license applicants must have the ability to identify the correct one based on the best practices based on the Code within a specified clinical situation. Some areas of the code that you might expect to see on the exam include concepts including:

  • Techniques for enhancing and protecting a client’s determination and self-determination.
  • Making judgment decisions on a client’s competence and self-determination.
  • Client’s right to refuse services.
  • Culture, diversity, and humility.
  • Personal conflicts of basic values and religious beliefs.
  • Client’s privacy as it relates to treatment.
  • Personal or intimate relationships with clients and co-workers/dual relationships.
  • Incidences of possible racism, oppression, discrimination, and inequities.
  • Protection of electronic information and paper files/notes.

Code of Ethics Practice Questions

Question 1: A Social Worker discovers that a colleague is consistently billing clients for services that were not provided. According to the NASW Code of Ethics, which of the following actions should the social worker take?

A. Ignore the issue, as it does not directly impact their own clients.
B. Confront the colleague privately and ask them to stop the unethical behavior.
C. Report the colleague’s actions to their supervisor or an appropriate regulatory body.
D. Discuss the issue with other colleagues to gather their opinions before taking any action.

Correct Answer: C

Rationale: According to the NASW Code of Ethics, Social Workers have an ethical responsibility to report unethical conduct by colleagues to appropriate authorities when they have reasonable cause to believe that the conduct is in violation of the Code. In this case, the correct course of action is to report the colleague’s fraudulent billing practices to a supervisor or an appropriate regulatory body (Standard 2.10).

Question 2: A Social Worker is working with a client who is a single parent and struggling financially. The client casually mentions that they would appreciate help in paying their rent this month. How should the social worker respond, based on the NASW Code of Ethics?

A. Offer the client financial assistance out of their own pocket.
B. Refuse to help and terminate the professional relationship.
C. Identify and explore potential community resources and assistance programs with the client.
D. Encourage the client to find a second job to increase their income.

Correct Answer: C
Rationale: According to the NASW Code of Ethics, Social Workers should maintain appropriate professional boundaries and avoid conflicts of interest (Standard 1.06). Offering financial assistance directly to the client would blur professional boundaries and potentially create a conflict of interest. Instead, the Social Worker should work with the client to identify and explore community resources and assistance programs that can provide the needed support, in line with the values of social justice and service (Standards 1.03 and 1.04).

Real-Life Implications of the Code of Ethics

The Code of Ethics serves as a guiding compass for Social Workers, helping them navigate the complex and often challenging situations they encounter in their practice. Its real-life implications are vast, touching upon every aspect of the profession.

For example, when faced with conflicting interests, a Social Worker might refer to the Code’s principle of the dignity and worth of the person, ensuring that the client’s rights and autonomy are respected. In cases of limited resources, the value of social justice can guide the practitioner in advocating for the equitable distribution of services and challenging systemic barriers. Additionally, the importance of human relationships underscores the need for collaboration and communication, not only with clients but also with colleagues and community partners.

Upholding the Code’s values of integrity and competence in practice means adhering to ethical guidelines, seeking ongoing professional development, and recognizing the limitations of one’s own expertise. By understanding and applying the Code of Ethics in real-life situations, Social Workers can navigate ethical dilemmas with confidence, provide high-quality services, and contribute to the overall well-being of individuals, families, and communities.

Tips for Upholding the Code of Ethics in Practice

Incorporating the Code of Ethics into daily Social Work practice is essential for maintaining professionalism and ensuring the well-being of clients. Begin by familiarizing yourself with the Code and its core values, reflecting on how they apply to your practice.

Engage in ongoing ethical reflection by discussing ethical dilemmas with colleagues and supervisors, participating in professional development opportunities, and staying informed about changes in the field. Make a conscious effort to promote social justice by advocating for your clients and addressing systemic barriers that hinder their progress.

Cultivate strong relationships with clients, colleagues, and community partners, demonstrating respect for the dignity and worth of every individual. Prioritize open communication and collaboration, actively seeking feedback to improve your skills and competence.

Lastly, maintain personal and professional integrity by adhering to ethical guidelines, even when faced with challenging situations. By continually striving to uphold the Code of Ethics, you will enhance the quality of your practice, strengthen the Social Work profession, and contribute to a more just and equitable society.


Of course, this is a limited list, and you never know just what might pop up on the exam! This is why it’s so important to be extremely knowledgeable about the entire Code of Ethics. Take plenty of practice exams to get a better feel for the style of these questions and to be well-prepared for ethics-related questions.


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Disclaimer: This content has been made available for informational and educational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical or clinical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.