Study summarised:

Ethical Professional Writing in Social Work and Human Service

Social workers’ writing (e.g. letters, emails, process notes, progress reports, court reports etc.) is a major mode of communication about a client to other professionals. These remain in the client's file for lifetime and have the power, long past their original purpose, to shape the lives of people. As such, social workers need a reflexive mind-set of ethics, values and accountability to transform their writing from a written product to a dynamic process that best serves their clients.

In this article, the authors propose a model of ethical professional writing for social workers that rests on the integration of three essential elements, namely (1) reflective mindfulness of the client-centred focus of writing responsibilities; 2) a sound understanding of the values and principles of social work 3) and a sound competence in compositional, rhetorical and technical writing skills.

How does this relate to practise?

The following 10 guidelines will help child protection social workers in South Africa to practice ethical professional writing.

  1. Social Justice: Social workers should be challenging negative discrimination, recognise diversity by using inclusive language, and avoid stigmatising already vulnerable and marginalised people by labelling clients as ‘selfish’ or ‘lazy’.
  2. Respect for persons: Language should be non-gender specific, culturally inclusive, and non-judgemental. The tone of the writing should be open and not condescending or controlling.
  3. Professional integrity: Adherence to organisational requirements and legal obligations need to be prioritised.
  4. Accountability and transparency:
    1. social workers should rather describe what they saw of the client's behaviours, instead of diagnosing and labelling,
    2. give clients information and involve them in decisions, to produce a fair representation of a client’s viewpoint,
    3. clearly articulate and justify their decisions, while taking into account the broader social context in which they operate, and
    4. ensure quality record-keeping
  5. Accuracy, judiciousness and credibility
    1. Ensure that there are no errors, including errors of fact, number or date, nor any incorrect grammar, punctuation, vocabulary or spelling and correctly acknowledging and identifying sources.
    2. Judgement is ‘done with good sense’ while keeping in mind what is ethically right or wrong and what is in the best interests of their clients.
    3. Use reliable information, getting the facts right and providing complete information, being consistent in verbal and written communication.
    4. Report only essential and relevant details; (ii) abstain from using emotional or offensive language; (iii) acknowledge the basis of subjective opinions; (iv) protect clients’ privacy and that of others involved in the situation.
  6. Reflexivity: Writing reflexively entails being aware of the impact one may have on others and be consistent with your values and ethics.
  7. Authenticity: Writing with authenticity is writing with your own true voice.
  8. Sensitivity: Writing with sensitivity is about using language sensitively to avoid labelling, stereotyping and cultural or other bias.
  9. Purpose: Writing with purpose means the content of the social workers’ writing should be relevant to the task and purpose of social work.
  10. Persuasion: Persuasion writing entails providing good reasons for proposing specific recommendations and effectively communicating these good reasons. It involves using principles such as emphasising advantages and disadvantages and putting the strongest words in the most important places.

Carefully summarised by: