Faced with an ethical dilemma involving a child, a Local 521 member chose to uphold his professional Code of Ethics, then — along with our 521 Contract Enforcement Department — beat back an unfair discipline he received for maintaining his professional values.
Jim Plourd (pictured), a Child Protective Service worker for San Benito County, is responsible for investigating reports of unsafe conditions for children and reporting his findings in court.
Last year, Jim was directed to support a recommendation to the Court that would have kept a child removed from a family. However, Jim’s investigation revealed that, in his professional judgment, the criteria for removal had not been met and was inconsistent with standard practice. So he refused, knowing he could not justify the action in court without sufficient evidence.
Management immediately pulled him off the case so that they could proceed with removing the child from the family. But Jim felt he still had a duty to act in the best interest of the child, especially since social workers’ code of ethics states they should not allow an administrative order to interfere with the ethical practice of social work.
So Jim still offered to report his investigative findings to the court, which led to management launching an investigation, accusing him of insubordination, and disciplining him.
Jim contacted our SEIU 521 Contract Enforcement Department, which filed an appeal with the California State Personnel Board. The outcome was the reinstatement of most of Jim’s lost pay, removal of the most serious allegations and removal of his disciplinary record in 18 months instead of 36.
Despite these events, management has yet to take steps toward implementing internal mechanisms for resolving professional disputes among colleagues.
“As social workers, making sure all clients are treated fairly is at the heart of our work. I knew one of my actions was extreme and would likely be a problem for me, but I felt it was ethically necessary. Our union did a great job defending me. From this experience, I learned how empowering it can be when we are given a voice. We do not have to abandon our ethics, and we do not have to accept intimidation. That’s why I decided to become a steward for our union.”
What should I do if my boss directs me to do something I feel is unethical?
Disregarding an order from a supervisor can be an insubordinate act and grounds for discipline. Still, in rare situations, doing so may be appropriate, such as when complying with the order would violate the law, or when it would expose you or others to unsafe conditions.
But what if the directive is not illegal or unsafe, but conflicts with your own ethical obligation to act in the best interest of the public we serve?
Document everything! Make sure your professional opinion is outlined in writing, either in a dated memo or an e-mail to your supervisor. Comply with all direct orders. Contact any external agencies that enforce or provide oversight for codes and regulations, such as the National Association of Social Workers, which administers the Code of Ethics. And when in doubt, talk to your Local 521 steward, who can provide guidance and support and help you think things through before you decide how to proceed.