Social Workers and the NASW Code of Ethics: Belief, Behavior, Disjuncture

by Nikki Nelson DiFranks, Ph.D.

October 1, 2005


Results of the Dissertation Research:

A quantitative descriptive survey of a national sample of social workers examined discrepancies between belief in tenets of the National Association of Social Workers' Code of Ethics and behavior that implements the Code, as well as social workers' disjunctive distress that may occur when belief and behavior are discordant. (Disjunctive distress, or disjuncture, is defined as dilemma-induced distress.)


The study also examined relationships between setting and disjuncture and ethics education and disjuncture. This was accomplished by the administration of an instrument that the author designed that is based upon principles set forth in the NASW Code of Ethics. The instrument incorporated a validated scale, the Abbott short-form Personal Opinions Scale. The study was conducted as a mailed survey to a probability sample of 500 social workers throughout the United States, who are MSW members of NASW. There was a return rate of 206 questionnaires.


The study found that there is disjunctive distress when belief and behavior scores are discordant; low disjunctive distress is found when behavior is highly congruent with the Code; and high disjunctive distress when behavior is non-congruent with the Code. Belief in the Code did not influence behavior congruent with the Code, so that other variables, such as setting, may affect behavior. The study found there is significant difference in disjuncture scores among respondents in different work settings. Disjuncture scores were the highest in public agencies and lowest in private agencies. However, host versus non-host setting does not make a difference in terms of disjuncture, belief, behavior and discordance. (A host setting is a non-social work setting and a non-host setting is a social work setting.)


In terms of social work ethics education, there is higher discordance of belief/behavior scores among those who did not take a separate ethics course but belief scores are lower among those who did. Those who have taken separate courses may have become more aware of discrepancies between belief and behavior and may have modified their beliefs to accomodate the discordance. There is lower disjuncture among students who said they learned from teachers who modeled ethics; there is a relationship between low amounts of supervisory feedback and higher disjuncture; and most social workers believe they value their work more when they have supervision. However, social workers report that supervision decreases with experience.


This dissertation may be purchased from Proquest/UMI. It became available in 2006. Proquest/UMI can be reached at 1-800-521-0600.