Empirical research with social workers exploring their understandings and use of codes or ethical theories in practice remain underdeveloped in the UK. This article, based on the British Association of Social Work commissioned Enquiry into the role of the social worker in adoption with a focus on ethics and human rights, provides an important contribution in this context. The Enquiry engaged with a range of stakeholders and explored their perspectives on the adoption process, but the primary focus of this article is on how ethics were understood and discussed by social workers. One hundred and five social workers participated in the Enquiry through questionnaires, interviews and group discussions, and a thematic analysis of their data revealed important findings. For example, the social workers made no explicit reference to codes of ethics or specific ethical theories. However, some of the themes that emerge from the analysis support discussions in what is now a substantial international literature on the importance of recognising ‘ethics work’ by social workers (Banks, 2016). Weinberg’s (2009) explorations of moral distress and ethical trespass are also important and underdeveloped concepts that resonate with themes from the Enquiry and could support more ethically enquiring cultures within organisations and more broadly.