NASW Code of Ethics Updates: Cultural Competence

By Heidi Tobe on September 13, 2021

You may or may not have heard that the NASW recently published revisions to the social work code of ethics. While minor, these revisions are so important to our field (and in my opinion, were a long time coming!). These changes fall into two main categories: self-care and cultural competence. Last month’s blog discussed the updates regarding self-care, and today’s blog discusses updates regarding cultural competence. Similarly to self-care, these updates impact our practice more than they will the exam (more on that below!).

These changes come at a time where racism, discrimination, and brutality have come to greater public awareness. The code of ethics changes acknowledge this and call us to take actions against racism and oppression.

 Let’s dive into what our recently updated code of ethics says around cultural competence.

Cultural Competence

Standard 1.5 in the NASW Code of Ethics includes all of the revisions around cultural competency. As we know, in the field of social work we are required to practice only within our areas of competency. The new language of this section of the code of ethics-cultural competency- highlights the fact that this requirement of competency extends to cultural competency as well. 

The changes to the code around cultural competence highlight the need to not only possess knowledge around cultural competence, but to demonstrate this as well, as we see the word ‘demonstrate’ show up repeatedly within these changes. The changes to the code can be seen in bold italics below:

1.05 Cultural Competence

(a) Social workers should demonstrate understanding of culture and its function in human behavior and society, recognizing the strengths that exist in all cultures.

(b) Social workers should demonstrate knowledge that guides practice with clients of various cultures and be able to demonstrate skills in the provision of culturally informed services that empower marginalized individuals and groups. Social workers must take action against oppression, racism, discrimination, and inequities, and acknowledge personal privilege.

(c) Social workers should demonstrate awareness and cultural humility by engaging in critical self-reflection (understanding their own bias and engaging in self-correction), recognizing clients as experts of their own culture, committing to lifelong learning, and holding institutions accountable for advancing cultural humility.

(d) Social workers should obtain education about and demonstrate understanding of the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, and mental or physical ability.

(e) Social workers who provide electronic social work services should be aware of cultural and socioeconomic differences among clients’ use of and access to electronic technology and seek to prevent such potential barriers. Social workers should assess cultural, environmental, economic, mental or physical ability, linguistic, and other issues that may affect the delivery or use of these services.

What we MUST do


Each and every aspect of this standard are crucial for the profession and our practice. One, though, sticks out more than the others. One of the things we talk about in TDC's exam prep is the importance of the language the test uses. Whether a question asks what to do FIRST or NEXT compared to when it asks what is BEST, what is MOST important, or what we MUST do changes the very foundation of what is being asked. (Side note: this is a HUGE part of what makes TDC stand out amongst other exam prep programs).

The language of 'MUST' is the strongest and indicates a mandate we have as social workers (either legally or ethically). Within these changes, the word 'must' shows up one time. 'Social workers must take action against oppression, racism, discrimination, and inequities, and acknowledge personal privilege.' This isn’t an option we are given. It's not merely something we 'should' do. If you are working within the field of social work, you MUST take action (not just think about it) against oppression, racism, discrimination, and inequities. In conclusion, if you are a social worker, you MUST acknowledge your own personal privilege. It’s not a choice; it’s a demand of our profession.


How does this impact the exam?

Similarly to the changes regarding self-care, these changes are incredibly important to the profession. However, they are unlikely to have a significant impact on the exam itself. This is actually a good thing! The reason there won’t be changes is that cultural competency and self-care are already included on the exams (and therefore in TDC's programs!). Thankfully, the exam is more all-encompassing than just the code of ethics itself. The exam content outlines include both self-care and cultural competency already.  If you read the exam content outlines, you’ll find these principles listed.

Most importantly: how does this impact your work as a professional?

While we are all about exam prep here at TDC, we are also all about the ongoing professional development of social workers. Above all, this is the question we pose to you today. In your day-to-day practice, what do these changes to the code of ethics mean for you personally? What are some tangible actions that can be taken against oppression, racism, discrimination, and inequities? How can a social worker acknowledge their own personal privilege-what does that look like for you? What CEs would you like to see around cultural competence? Share in the comments below.

NASW Code of Ethics





ASWB Masters and Clinical Exam Preparation 

One of the best things about TDC’s exam prep programs is that it gives you a thorough understanding of the code of ethics both for the exam and for personal practice. Many customers report becoming more ethical practitioners after going through their LMSW or LCSW course. That’s one of the greatest compliments we can receive! TDC’s ethics content is thorough. It includes a quiz, lecture over the code of ethics, values and ethics practice test and corresponding audio rationales. Thankfully, we also have coaches available to answer any questions that come up as you’re studying. Whether it’s about ethics or anything else, reach out to your coach! We’ve helped THOUSANDS of social workers pass their LMSW and LCSW exams and we’re ready to help you PASS with CONFIDENCE this year!



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