Are your ethics guiding your practice?

This is the second part in a series of blog posts about the intersection between evaluation and social work. You can read the first post about the inherent similarities between the fields of evaluation and social work here.

This post is about how social work ethics enhance the practice of evaluation. Much of this material was developed for multiple presentations in collaboration with my amazing colleague and friend, Megan Elyse Williams.

Across the United States,* there is not a consistently agreed upon set of ethical standards for evaluators.  Nor is there a body which holds evaluators accountable to these ethical standards.

The United Nations Development Programme Norms for Evaluation lay out a set of guidelines for evaluators, including that evaluations should be ethical:

“Evaluation should not reflect personal or sectoral interests. Evaluators must have professional integrity, respect the rights of institutions and individuals to provide information in confidence, and be sensitive to the belief and customs of local social and cultural environments.”

The American Evaluation Association’s (AEA) Guiding Principles offer guidance to promote ethical practice among evaluators.

These are great guidelines and frameworks for how to approach ethical evaluation practice.  However, they don’t do much for instructing how evaluators to respond to specific ethical dilemmas they are likely to face.

This is where social work can help.  The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has a Code of Ethics that licensed social workers are required to abide by to guide their professional conduct.  The Code of Ethics actually aligns pretty closely with the AEA Guiding Principles (see the table below), but goes on to provide more detail about how to handle ethical dilemmas.

NASW Values AEA Principles
Social Justice: Social workers challenge social injustice. Responsibilities for General and Public Welfare: Evaluators articulate and take into account the diversity of general and public interests and values that may be related to the evaluation.
Dignity and Worth of the Person: Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person. Respect for People: Evaluators respect the security, dignity, and self-worth of respondents, program participants, clients, and other evaluation stakeholders.
Integrity: Social workers behave in a trustworthy manner. Integrity/Honesty: Evaluators display honesty and integrity in their own behavior, and attempt to ensure the honesty and integrity of the evaluation evaluation process.
Competence: Social workers practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise. Competence: Evaluators provide competent performance to stakeholders.
Systematic Inquiry: Evaluators conduct systematic, data-based inquiries.
Service: Social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems
Importance of Human Relationships: Social workers recognize the central importance of human relationships.

For more detail, there are many transferable sections of the detail
NASW Code of Ethics that relate to evaluation.  These sections include:

  • 1.01 Commitment to Clients
  • 1.03 Informed Consent
  • 1.05 Cultural Competence and Social Diversity
  • 1.06 Conflict of Interest
  • 1.07 Privacy and Confidentiality
  • 1.16 Termination of Services
  • 2.01 Respect
  • 4.01 Professional Competence
  • 4.08 Acknowledging Credit
  • 5.02 Evaluation and Research


So let’s try this out on some actual dilemmas.

Use of Funds

Dilemma: Your Lead Evaluator/Principal Investigator asks you to use funds from one project to cover travel expenses on another project.

NASW Code of Ethics:

  • 2.11 Unethical Conduct of Colleagues: (a) Social workers should take adequate measures to discourage, prevent, expose, and correct the unethical conduct of colleagues.
  • 4.04 Dishonesty, Fraud, and Deception: Social workers should not participate in, condone, or be associated with dishonesty, fraud, or deception.

Resolution: While the Lead Evaluator/Principal Investigator has fiscal responsibility for the project, as the evaluator, you have a responsibility to engage ethically. Express your discomfort with the suggested plan of action in a respectful manner. “I don’t feel comfortable using the funds in this way. Is there another option for paying for the travel on this project?

If necessary, consult ethical guidelines or financial guidelines for your institution or organization. Fall back on the rules.


Validate, Not Evaluate

Dilemma: An organization comes to you seeking evaluation services. However, it becomes clear that the potential client is only looking for promotional materials and is not interested in evaluation and program improvement.

NASW Code of Ethics:

  • 5.01 Evaluation and Research: (c) Social workers should critically examine and keep current with emerging knowledge relevant to social work and fully use evaluation and research evidence in their professional practice.

Resolution: The role of the evaluator is to not only find benefits of a program, but to examine the full implementation and/or impact of the program and to provide accurate, objective results.

Work with the potential client to understand the purpose and role of evaluation. Reach an agreement on the services and deliverables to be provided. If you cannot come to an understanding, do not contract with the organization.


Use of Data and Results

Dilemma: Your client asks you to analyze and report data without noting limitations when there are many.

NASW Code of Ethics:

  • 4.04 Dishonesty, Fraud, and Deception: Social workers should not participate in, condone, or be associated with dishonesty, fraud, or deception.
  • 5.02 Evaluation and Research: (n) Social workers should report evaluation and research findings accurately. They should not fabricate or falsify results and should take steps to correct any errors later found in published data using standard publication methods.

Resolution: As the evaluator, you have the responsibility to provide accurate and objective results. Work with your client to clarify the importance of understanding the limitations of the data analysis and results for interpretation and program improvement. Report the results with limitations.


Vulnerable Populations

Dilemma: Your client wants you to conduct a focus group with Middle Eastern immigrant married couples to save money from doing individual interviews. You know that when working with Middle Eastern married couples, the women often do not speak.

NASW Code of Ethics:

  • 1.05 Cultural Competence and Social Diversity: (b) Social workers should have a knowledge base of their clients’ cultures and be able to demonstrate competence in the provision of services that are sensitive to clients’ cultures and to differences among people and cultural groups.

Resolution: It is the evaluator’s responsibility to inform the client of culturally appropriate data collection methods. A new data collection method needs to be selected that captures the voice of all of the participants, respects the culture of participants, and will allow for accurate reporting and representation of participants.


What ethical dilemmas have you faced? How did you address them?

*Note: Some of this is only applicable to evaluators in the United States. Other counties have detailed ethical guidelines mandated by their evaluator credentialing body.

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