paper presents the ethical dilemmas in the field of social work as currently perceived
within Poland. The discussion will concentrate on the scope of social work in
Poland as well as its tasks and principles as stated in the documents relating
to ethical issues, including the Polish Welfare Act of March 12, 2004, the Code of Ethics of the Polish
Association of Social Workers, and the Act on Profession of Social
Worker - project).
The tasks, principles and values of social work
The term ‘social work’, as with many other concepts in the social
sciences, is rather ambiguous. Its lack of clarity is reflected in the fact
that social work is ‘a term denoting activity specific in its goals and
methods of action, but also a profession which … consists
in performing those activities’ (Szatur-Jaworska, 1995: 8).
The Polish Welfare Act of March 12, 2004 defines social
work as a professional activity aimed at assisting both individuals and whole
families in strengthening or regaining the ability to function in society by
performing respective social roles and creating conditions conducive to this
goal (Art. 6). Based on the Welfare
Act of March 12, 2004 (Art. 119) and associated detailed documents, it
may be possible to distinguish essential tasks which a social worker should
accomplish through his or her professional work (Olubiński, 2004: 28). Such
tasks are presented in Table 1.
The Polish Code of Ethics has been described as ‘an
instructive document which provides workers with guidelines that are necessary
in their practice of social work and thereby prove helpful in solving many
ethical dilemmas ... The Code neither responds to all possible professional
situations nor defines all kinds of social workers’ behaviour but it does
indicate general principles of all kinds of ethical social work practice’
(Olech, 2008: 25).
The Code of Ethics of the Polish Association of Social Workers (the PASW Code of Ethics) includes
particular standards of ethical conduct which social workers are required to
abide by. Some of these are presented in Table 1. The standards refer to the
ethical responsibility of a social worker towards the following:
- own profession
It needs to
be stressed, however, that the creation of the codes of ethics has had both
supporters and opponents, whose arguments
are presented in Table 2.
The Act on
Profession of Social Worker (project) determines the following:
- the principles
and conditions of the performance of social workers as a profession
- the principles
of organization and work of the professional council of social workers
- the obligations
and rights of a social worker.
According to the project of the Act of the Profession of Social Worker ‘the
profession of a social worker is a profession
of public confidence’ (Art. 2) which should be carried out ‘individually, with
due diligence, in accordance with scientific and practical achievements as well
as professional principles of ethics’ (Art. 3) (see Table 1).
Social work: profession or vocation?
Social work in Poland is often seen as a job without high status,
similar to medicine, nursing and teaching, which involves performing a social service
and helping other people (Zbyrad, 2007: 31), as well as involving ethical
issues (e.g. ethical dilemmas) such as motivation to practice the profession
and responsibility for those who receive the service. It can be argued that the
knowledge and predispositions which some people bring with them ‘naturally’ are
also required in such professions. In this respect, research in the field of
social work shows that individual social workers are quite varied (Zbyrad, 2008:
A B C
A – Persons
who choose their profession as a vocation
– Persons who choose their profession as a vocation (i.e. the desire ‘to
change the world’) but feel burned out (e.g. having experienced multiple
– Persons who work as social workers due to the general lack of other
Figure 1. Employment poles
It has been stated that the behaviour of a social worker is affected by
the following factors: (Zbyrad, 2008: 61):
qualities (e.g. character, temperament)
skills and qualifications.
(e.g. demanding, aggressive, passive)
state of the social support centres
which assist the centres of social support in realizing their tasks (e.g.
The factors mentioned above can either facilitate or make it difficult
for a social worker to perform his or her duties.
others is not an easy task: the perspective of a social worker
The nature of the profession of a social worker
requires certain features and values to be realized (Dominiak, 2005: 104). These
values may be discussed at two levels:
- The preference for specific
values that are ‘guidelines for the representatives of the specific
profession’ (Dominiak, 2005: 104) called values in social work
- The system of values of a particular
social worker. This refers to a social worker’s personal system of values.
The inherent ethical character of a social worker’s profession results from
the fact that social workers ‘have been authorized by the society to give
help and support to people who find themselves in a difficult position and
thereby social workers have been obliged to realize particular values that
are respected in a democratic state and guaranteed to its citizens’
(Brągiel, 2002: 70).
Ethics are visible in everyday life situations
as well as in the very process of making decisions. In order to find a place
for ethics in the field of social work it is necessary to do the following:
- obey the code of ethics (professional
- develop ‘independent’ ethics
that act as a reflection of social worker’s actions and their consequences
for their clients (Brągiel, 2002: 71–72).
All of the ensuing contradictions result in
dilemmas that social workers experience in the course of practising their
profession. A dilemma denotes the
necessity to choose between two mutually exclusive possibilities or values. Ethical
dilemmas constitute an element in the profession of social work and often
appear as a result of the necessity to making choices in everyday work between
what is recommended, allowed or permissible, or what the rules of law do not
regulate for but which has to be resolved in practice (Kromolicka, 2000: 211; Brągiel,
Based on research on some of the moral dilemmas
experienced by social workers, the following elements relevant to practice may
be distinguished (Kromolicka, 2000; Brągiel, 2002; Trawkowska, 2005):
Dilemmas resulting from a conflict between the personal
and professional values of an individual social worker:
- Perceiving the similarity
between his/her own life situation and the situation of the client, e.g.
in cases of domestic violence
- The choice between values, some
of which can be realized and others not (e.g. whether to help the officially unemployed when they work illegally).
social workers go about resolving the types of conflicts mentioned above? It could
be argued that this should be done by appealing to a personal
system of values and making choices consistent with that system, and also
by analysing the consequences of actions after the
choice of a certain value, which stands in opposition to another value, has
Ethical dilemmas related to working
directly with clients:
- Taking action
against the will of a client
- Truthfulness regarding
a client (e.g. whether a social worker should provide a client with the full
range of information relating to the client’s options or withhold
information for the client’s sake)
- The boundaries of
support and service provision for a client
- Making the right choice between a legal and illegal action
- The situations
which justify the failure to keep confidentiality (i.e. when confidential
information may become harmful for the client to know)
- Working with very
demanding clients who ‘suffer from different kinds of mental and character
disturbances, or those who are very demanding in the process of applying
for services and access to them, but then subsequently choosing not to use
- Lack of cohesion between rules of law and social work practice
Dilemmas experienced in contact
with colleagues – social workers:
- Difficult situations and
- Whether to report to superiors any
unethical or harmful cases of colleagues’
Dilemmas related to policy and
programmes of social help:
- Inadequate system of redistribution of goods
- Limited access to the
means and services that centres of social help offer – whom to
exclude from the right to benefit from social help institutions (alcoholics,
persons working illegally, persons evading work, mothers who are ‘not
entirely alone’ but claim to be, i.e. are fictionally separated,
dilemmas of benefiting from help: the client perspective
of social workers experience moral dilemmas connected
with taking advantage of the assistance. On
the one hand, they fear showing their ‘weakness’ by claiming services, but on
the other hand, they simultaneously want to be rid of a burden of
responsibility by seeking help. Thus, the search for help may be accompanied by
the fear of social disapproval.
dilemmas faced by the clients of social workers result from the society’s image
of clients of social help services and the stigmatizing effect of benefiting
from the social help system. A client can be perceived as a helpless and
dependent person, left to the ‘mercy of state’, seemingly incompetent and valueless.
A psychological repercussion of this phenomenon consists in a redefinition of
identity, which can include the loss of self-confidence and feelings of shame
and humiliation, leading possibly to the manifestation of learned helplessness.
Such poor self-image results from the existence of cultural stereotypes of clients
seeking social help (social pathology and the so-called ‘dregs of society’):
‘alcoholic’, ‘unemployed’, ‘liar’, ‘hooked on welfare’, ‘aggressive’, and ‘uneducated’ (Zaworska-Nikoniuk,
2002: 28, Grodzka, 2003: 59).
may lead to social exclusion of such clients and, in turn, create an underclass of citizens, whereby ‘underclass’ is understood as a separate social class
situated below working class. Inclusion in the underclass would almost certainly
lead to economic and social exclusion.
Excluding welfare users from all spheres of social life proceeds in four
- Exclusion from professional
- Exclusion from consumption
- Exclusion from ‘normal
communities’ – an increased risk of heavy dependence on social
welfare, and of inheriting poverty from generation to generation
(deprivation of needs)
- Exclusion from the mechanisms
of power and influence on others (cultural marginalization).
demonstrates that clients of the social help system face the following problems
- Ignorance concerning
the social assistance
- Lack of relevant information
being passed on by social workers
- Assistance being dependent on the goodwill of social workers
- Quality of cooperation with
- Bureaucratized assistance
- Disappointment with
the range of assistance offered
received by wrong persons (e.g. alcoholics).
All of the
problem areas mentioned above are also deemed to be the most urgent ones facing
those in need. A question then arises how can social workers resolve them?
professional social workers should do their best to offer an improved access to
accurate information concerning where clients or potential clients can seek
help in difficult situations. Such common ‘open-access’ knowledge could help to
challenge the negative stereotype of a typical client of social help and to
facilitate the process of appealing for any institutional help by people who
evidently feel embarrassed to do so, as reflected in the recent phenomenon of ‘new
poverty’, i.e. persons ‘who have so far managed to make both ends meet but at
present are resorting to social help as the only way to solve their problems’ (Zabielska,
which might help in dealing with the pressing problem of bureaucratization as
well as with the shortening of the waiting time for a decision to be made
concerning allocation of help and its extent would be to increase the outlay on
social help. This should also prove conducive to increasing the number of
social workers who promote active forms of help in a more effective way.
relating to social work practice, among others Poland’s ethical codes for
social workers, present a certain indicator of social workers should act, and what
values they should follow, but they are not a remedy for all situations that a social
worker may face in his/her professional experience. Ethical dilemmas, as well
as the related barriers for forceful action, constitute an inalienable element
of social work.
social help also experience moral dilemmas. Their
image is quite stereotypical: it is simplified, generalized and mostly negative,
which, to some extent, may influence the process of decision making by social
clients complain about a range of problems in receiving help from unreliable
specialists, beginning with lack of reliable information and distributing help
in a highly bureaucratized manner, through very long waiting times, and ending
in a limited range of help being offered and the wrong choice for the
of social help request assistance because they often have no other means of
help to resort to, but such ‘kindness of state’ is sometimes perceived by some clients
as humiliating. A social worker may help to improve access to proper
information. Increased expenditure on social help may, in turn, lead to a
situation where social workers in Poland will be less burdened with duties
concerning an excessive number of clients and related duties.
Brągiel, J. (2002). Wokół
etyki zawodu pracownika socjalnego. W.J. Brągiel & A. Kurcz (eds.) Pracownik socjalny. Wybrane problemy zawodu
w okresie transformacji społecznej, 69–88. Opole: Uniwersytet
Czechowska-Bieluga, M. (2007). Preferencja
wartości a rozwój (wybrane zagadnienia). W Praca socjalna 2, 3–13 (Marzec-Kwiecień).
Dominiak, T. (2005). Etyka
pracownika socjalnego w działaniu. Ethos i profesjonalizm. W Praca Socjalna 1, 103–109 (Styczeń-Luty).
Grodzka, D. (2003). Obraz klienta
pomocy społecznej. W Praca Socjalna 4, 59–65.
Kromolicka, B. (2000). Dylematy
etyczne pracownika socjalnego-komunikat z badań. W.K. Marzec-Holka (ed.) Społeczeństwo Demokracja Edukacja.
Nowe wyzwania w pracy socjalnej, 211–220. Bydgoszcz: Akademia
Olech, A. (2008). Etyka pracy socjalnej jako etyka zawodowa.
W Praca Socjalna 1, 3–36 (styczeń-luty).
Olubiński, A. (2004). Praca
socjalna. Aspekty humanistyczne i pedagogiczne. Teoria i praktyka. Toruń: Akapit.
Szatur-Jaworska, B. (1995). Teoretyczne podstawy pracy socjalnej.
W.T. Pilch & D. Lepalczyk (ed.) Pedagogika społeczna, 107–122.
Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Żak.
Trawkowska, D. (2005). Pracownik
socjalny wobec trudnych sytuacji zawodowych. W Praca Socjalna 4, 3–27 (październik-grudzień).
Zabielska, J.M. (2005). Praca
socjalna i pomoc społeczna w opinii podopiecznych. W Praca Socjalna 1, 66–71.
Zaworska-Nikoniuk, D. (2002). Dylematy systemu pomocy społecznej
(perspektywa klienta i pracownika socjalnego). W Wychowanie na co
dzień 4, 27–30.
Zbyrad, T. (2007). Pracownik socjalny-zawód czy powołanie? W Praca Socjalna 3 (maj-czerwiec), 17–38.
Zbyrad, T. (2008). Pracownik socjalny w służbie
drugiemu człowiekowi. W Praca Socjalna 1, 49–67 (styczeń-luty).