White (2008) states that while a social worker is expected to uphold the interest of his or her client, there are various situations that may challenge this ideal objective. The conflicts of interest may arise when the interest of the social worker interfere with the attention of the needs and interest of the client, whether it may be for personal, financial, occupational, sexual or spiritual motives. The conflict may also take place when the tension arises in upholding the rights of several parties to whom the social worker owes loyalty. The NASW Code mandates the all social workers should be alert in order to avoid any conflicts of interest that may affect their ability to render impartial judgment while they are exercising their occupational discretion (White, 2008). It shall be the duty of the social worker to take the reasonable measures to resolve any conflict in such a manner that will promote the interest of clients and protect them from harm. Any violation of the therapeutic boundaries may result to a conflict of interest to avoid adding more complication to the situation.
In the given case, the ethical issue involved is the employee and client boundaries within a non-profit homeless shelter. Under 1.06 (d) of the NASW Code of Ethics on the Conflicts of Interest, the law states that when social workers give services to two or more people who have an existing relationship with each other, whether romantic involvement or related by blood, they must clarify with all parties where they are considered clients and the nature of duties and obligations of social workers to the different persons who avail the services (Reamer, 2006). Hence, the social workers who predict that a conflict of interest may exist among the persons who are given such services, or those who foresee that they have been satisfied in spite of the possibility of conflicting roles must clarify their role with the parties involved in the conflict. This can be done by taking necessary steps to reduce such conflict of interest. This can be illustrated by the ethical issue of the employee and client boundaries within a non-profit homeless shelter.
A conflict of interest may arise in the non-profit homeless shelter where a client who is seeking shelter is the cousin of one of the staff members. In this particular scenario, the staff member is the employee and the cousin is the client who is related to staff member seeking help for shelter services, resources and case management. The conflict of interest exists since the staff member, who is the employee of the non-profit homeless shelter accepts the cousin as a client without telling his/her supervisor and fellow staff members beforehand about the fact that they are related. Clearly, the staff member has committed a violation of Section 1.06 (d) of the NASW Code of Ethics. As a result, the client who is the cousin of the staff member received more services and given more opportunities for employment and housing compared to all the other clients on the basis of the blood relationship between the staff member and client.
In this particular case, it is important to begin to understand the facts that appear to be difficult and start by focusing on the harms, or setbacks to interests of those people who are involved. The objective of the social worker is to understand and identify the setbacks of interests and the way that they can affect the people involved and how to weigh the interests of one over the other. There are three major questions that have to be answered before deciding what will be the best for all the parties involved. First: Who are the participants in the case, and who are the other people that may be affected?; Second: What action/s have the participants done or did not do to avoid the harm?; and Third: Why are the participants doing such action/s? (Robison and Reeser, 2002).
In this given case, the employee or the staff member of the non-profit homeless shelter has given shelter services to his or her cousin, who happens to be the client who sought help from the shelter. To answer the first question, the parties that are involved in this case are: the staff member, the cousin/client and other clients of the shelter. To answer the second question, the identified harm or conflict of interest is the fact that the staff member and the cousin related to each other. As a result, the cousin receives preferential treatment over other clients as by receiving shelter services, resources and case management. The conflict of interest or harm done to other clients and the shelter is that the staff member did not inform his/her supervisor and fellow staff members that the client was a cousin before accepting her case violated Section 1.06 (d) of the NASW Code of Ethics on the conflict of interest since the cousin was given an advantage by receiving more services and given more opportunities for employment and housing compared to all the other clients. The staff member continues to do this in order to protect her cousin so they she will benefit from the services.
Making an Ethical Decision
For social workers, being ethical remains to be a challenge even if they have the best intentions at heart for the client since they may still do wrong. This is the underlying assumption that social workers have to develop the skill in making the right decision when resolving a difficult. They must continuously strive to hone such skill by hard work. There are five steps that will guide the social workers in making the proper ethical decision and they are: First is to understand why the participants have done and continues to do such actions by constructing arguments to justify their acts or omissions; Second, identify the goals of the participants and the determine the best means to use to attain these goals; Third, identify the harm/s that may be caused to others and the extend of the harm; Fourth is to withdraw from the case and analyze what is the best action to minimize the harm; and Fifth is by realizing what action has to be done which will result to more good than harm ((Robison and Reeser, 2002). These guidelines will develop a skill that using a thorough analysis which requires the social worker to be critical in determining the best action and how to do it in the right way for the greater good.
In this particular case, the best solution for the social worker to resolve the conflict is by informing the head of the non-profit shelter service organization or any of his or her superior of the given situation. The social worker or the staff member of the organization must report the fact that one of their clients is a close relative even if the client has already been accepted and has availed of the shelter services. In effect, the cousin of the staff member received more services and opportunities in comparison to other clients. There is a conflict of interest since the social worker has promoted the interest of his or her relative and was given preferential treatment overt the other clients. This is without a doubt a violation of appropriate boundaries since there is unequal treatment happening within the shelter. Giving favors and allowing a relative to enjoy more benefits over the other symbolizes unethical behavior on the part of the social worker. In order to avoid further harm, it shall be the duty of the social worker to come out in the open and disclose the fact that one of their clients is a cousin. This will be prejudicial to other clients who are seeking for shelter services since they are not granted with the same services and equal opportunities for employment and housing since the other client who was related to one of the staff members was favored. It is clear that the expectations of roles between the social worker and the client are not compatible since the social worker failed to foresee the conflict.
Here, the social worker should have avoided the potential conflict of interest by analyzing the circumstances involved in the case by taking into consideration the fact that a close relative is one of the clients and if accepting such cousin for a client will compromise the role of the social worker to carry out the clinical, educational or supervisory role. If the answer is in the affirmative, then he or she should withdraw from the case to eliminate the possibility of a conflict of interest to arise (Reamer, 2006). The risk of harm is increased when the expectations between the roles are incompatible in such a way that that the demands of the social worker’s role led to divided loyalties or decreased objectivity and the power differential in role of the worker and the client is quite vast (White, 2008).
Hence, even of the social worker has determined that his or her action, decision and relationship does not create a conflict of interest, such worker must take precautionary steps in order to protect the less powerful party or parties from any impending harm. In this particular case, the ethical decision to make is to report to the shelter services organization that one of the clients is a relative to reduce the risk of harm. This actions is in accordance with the provisions of the NASW Code of Ethics under 1.06 (d) on the Conflicts of Interest, wherein the law states that in the event that social workers provide services to two or more people who have an existing relationship with each other, romantic or related by blood, it shall be the duty of the social workers to explain to all parties involved in the conflict of interest case regarding the nature of duties and obligations of social workers to the various persons who are availing the shelter services (Reamer, 2006).
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