Fall 2008







Dr Katarzyna Pawełek

Adam Mickiewicz University, Faculty of Educational Studies

Department of Resocialization

Poznań, Poland




This 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:


  • clients
  • co-workers
  • employer
  • own profession
  • society


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: 49–50, 60).




            A                                                       B                                                          C


            A – Persons who choose their profession as a vocation

            B – 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 failures)

            C – Persons who work as social workers due to the general lack of other employment opportunities


Figure 1. Employment poles



It has been stated that the behaviour of a social worker is affected by the following factors: (Zbyrad, 2008: 61):



·    personal qualities (e.g. character, temperament)

·    acquired skills and qualifications.



·    clients (e.g. demanding, aggressive, passive)

·    financial state of the social support centres

·    regulations

·    institutions which assist the centres of social support in realizing their tasks (e.g. non-governmental organizations).


The factors mentioned above can either facilitate or make it difficult for a social worker to perform his or her duties.



Helping 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:


  1. The preference for specific values that are ‘guidelines for the representatives of the specific profession’ (Dominiak, 2005: 104) called values in social work
  2. 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:


  1. obey the code of ethics (professional ethics)
  2. 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, 2002: 72).


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).


How do 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 been made.


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 them’ (Zaworska-Nikoniuk, 2002: 29).
  • Lack of cohesion between rules of law and social work practice (‘unworkable’ regulations).


Dilemmas experienced in contact with colleagues – social workers:

  • Difficult situations and conflicts
  • Whether to report to superiors any unethical or harmful cases of colleagues’ actions.


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, aggressive persons).



Moral dilemmas of benefiting from help: the client perspective

The clients 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.


The 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).


Such stigmatization 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 interrelated dimensions:


  1. Exclusion from professional life
  2. Exclusion from consumption (poverty)
  3. Exclusion from ‘normal communities’ – an increased risk of heavy dependence on social welfare, and of inheriting poverty from generation to generation (deprivation of needs)
  4. Exclusion from the mechanisms of power and influence on others (cultural marginalization).


Research demonstrates that clients of the social help system face the following problems (Zabielska, 2005):


  • Ignorance concerning the social assistance available
  • Lack of relevant information being passed on by social workers
  • Assistance being dependent on the goodwill of social workers
  • Quality of cooperation with social workers
  • Bureaucratized assistance
  • Disappointment with the range of assistance offered
  • Help 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?

Truly 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, 2005: 71).

A solution 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.


Documents 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.


Clients of 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 workers.


Furthermore, 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 recipients.


The clients 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.





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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 Bydgoska.

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.

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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.

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Table 1. Tasks, principles, and values of social work


Welfare Act of March 12, 2004

PASW Code of Ethics

Act on Profession of Social Worker -project

Social work:

§  Analysing and assessing phenomena which create a demand for welfare benefits and the need to qualify to receive such benefits

§  Supporting individuals and families in developing skills which would subsequently allow them to take full participation in social life

§  Reinforcing the ability of groups and communities of independent solving their problems and development

§  Effective organization of varied forms of help, administering them and developing proper infrastructure

§  Shaping appropriate social policy (devising, introducing, and developing services and programmes)

§  Providing assistance in accordance with the principles of professional ethics

§  Providing inspiration, as well as designing, introducing and developing regional and local programmes of social help aimed at raising the quality of living standards


The Code of Ethics is a set of rules and bans, which should be followed by each social worker.


The Code specifies certain values, such as:


§  Undertaking activities for the sake of the whole community

§  Improving the living conditions of individuals, families, and groups of people

  • Undertaking activities which promote social justice

A social worker is obligated to:


§  Respect the principles of professional ethics

§  Act in the interests of the client

§  Respect the client’s dignity

§  Counteract any inhumane and discriminatory practices

§  Aim at gaining and keeping the trust of clients



Table 2. Arguments of supporters for and opponents of creating a codes of ethics


Arguments of supporters

Arguments of opponents

  • A code offers a possibility to define duties and sanctions connected with unsuitable fulfilment of duties, and employee rights
  • A code increases the prestige of a given professional group
  • A code is a record of a professional group
  • A code offers a possibility to transform a given occupation into a profession (the presence of an ethical code is one of the requirements of professionalization)
  • A code has educational implication, e.g. it provides guidance in resolving ethical dilemmas, it sensitizes workers to professional problems
  • The existence of a code enables members of society know what they can expect from and require of a representative of a given profession.
  • A code enables a given professional group to enjoy greater social confidence
  • A code provides inspiration, and promotes the designing, introduction and development of regional and local programmes of social help aimed at raising the quality of living standards
  • Codes frequently do not include legal sanctions, only moral ones, which in turn leads to a situation when disobeying the rules of the given code of ethics is not followed by any punishment
  • The way of laying down codes is quite problematic, involving the following issues:

Ø  Who is to resolve ethical dilemmas in a given profession, and on what grounds

Ø  Norms and principles established in the codes of professional ethics may be totally dependent upon the person who has formulated them




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