Reflecting on Professionalism in the Field of Social Work
Establishing Some Ground Rules
No matter what sort of social interaction we humans engage in, be it playful, professional, familial, romantic, or other, there are “norms” associated with most standard categories of connection. The social work profession is no exception to this sense of order. Being able to follow guidelines or work within boundaries allows for a stronger sense of what the goal of the practice is, both for social workers and their clients. Clarifying not only the purpose but the role of both parties paves the way for what hopes to be a successful outcome, wherein the “success” is defined by both practitioner and client.
The guiding body for social workers is the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and so they have outlined a Code of Ethics to which both students and licensed professionals in the field should strive to uphold. Because of the “grey area” that frequently peppers a social worker’s radar, NASW takes care to note that “ethical standards are relevant to professional activities of all social workers… Some of the standards are enforceable guidelines for professional conduct and some are aspirational” (Code of Ethics, 2017). As a result, it is most helpful to think of ethics in four different areas: self-determination (the right of the client to have a say in one’s treatment or service), informed consent (a full understanding of all aspects of the client’s relationship with the social worker), maintenance of boundaries, and confidentiality (including its limits) (Hepworth, 2017, p. 67). Using these ideals as a starting point helps the practitioner know the best way to communicate with clients about expectations that will accompany their time together.
In addition to a reliance on the Code of Ethics, social workers adhere to a set of values that are largely relational to the Code in that they offer ways to conceptualize the “rules.” Values, as defined by Hepworth (2017), are “‘preferred conceptions’ or beliefs about how things out to be” (p. 57). Core values include a client’s access to resources, belief that every human should be treated with dignity and a sense of worth, belief that every human should have interpersonal relationships, a strong sense of integrity paired with honesty, and that a practitioner should adhere to his or her own limits of expertise (Hepworth, 2017, p. 58). The link, then, between ethics and values is the honest and fair relational expectation between client and practitioner.
In so many ways, these core ethical and value-associated elements present the rubric by which most folks attracted to the social work field have likely already apply in their personal lives. With that in mind, the before-mentioned “grey area” might present different sorts of issues for the likely empathetic compassions of those of us pursuing careers in the social work field. Because of the sensitive nature of information shared between social workers and their clients, lines may start to blur where the edge of personal and professional meet, so establishing the difference between those two social aspects is foundational. In my mind, a personal relationship is one where boundaries exist but are likely less stringent than in a professional setting. It gets trickier, though, when I consider social work, specifically, since what clients may be sharing are deeply intimate truths about their lives or their perceptions. I can imagine the difficulties that may emerge when a social worker forms the same sort of complex bond one might with a close friend. The saving grace here, potentially, is that a professional relationship of this nature should begin with the social worker establishing ground rules -- explaining both party’s roles in the plan being outlined -- which can serve as a touchstone when lines start to feel less concrete.
On the flip side, there may be instances where elements of a client’s life story may conflict with a social worker’s personal beliefs. In those instances, the important thing to keep in mind is “our responsibility to help people live not according to our particular values and moral codes but according to the norms and laws of society” (Hepworth, 2017, p.61). Even when a client’s mindset may fly in the face of my own foundational beliefs about humanity, I would do well to remind myself that my role in this relationship is to help my client reach a specific goal that may have nothing to do with each of our personal stances on gun control, for example. Hepworth (2017) also reminds us that “affirmation does not mean agreeing with or condoning all of that person’s views and feelings” (p. 60), so an objective take on a client’s response to a given prompt would serve the situation well, giving all parties involved an opportunity to find appropriate footing in their interactions.
Both relating too personally and resenting the different viewpoint can be potentially damaging to the professional relationship, so beginning with clearly defined boundaries and goals is key to achieving a successful partnership.
Gender, Age, Race: Three Client/Practitioner Considerations
Many factors come into play when working directly with clients. These include considerations that may categorically be out of our control, such as gender, age, and race. Taking a moment to examine each of these constructs in relation to the client-social worker pairing will provide some insight into how these things about ourselves that we likely have no say in can impact both our internal and external relationships.
If I am being really honest, I could write well over ten pages on just this subject alone, but I will attempt to respect, as Polonius tells us in Hamlet, that “brevity is the soul of wit” (Shakespeare, 2.2.90) and keep it contained.
Here goes: gender is a massive social construct. Regardless of your race or any of the other factors that play into identity, being labeled as a “boy” or a “girl” sets us on a path as early as our time in the womb. While expectations for gender may vary considerably depending on culture, I cannot think of a single culture that does not have very clear expectations for what a boy or a man is and what a girl or a woman is. In the context of social work and how a practitioner may relate to a client, the gender of each might be the first knowable level of assumption that goes into the relationship. If the social worker is a woman, she may be immediately perceived as warm, loving, approachable, nurturing, and maybe also a pushover, whereas if the social worker is a man, a client may feel more guarded, more likely to want to “impress” him, and possibly even be a little afraid of him. With roles reversed, if the client is a woman, she may appear more vulnerable, more “emotion-centric,” more willing to participate in the process in order to “please” the social worker who serves as an authority figure, while a male client may seem less willing to be connected to his emotional intelligence, less interested in self-exploration, and less keen to “play ball” with the program the social worker is trying to establish.
Generally (and also stereotypically) speaking, females want to please others while males want to be pleased. With that in mind, the dynamic between a female social worker and her female client may be more open and accessible than a female social worker and a male client -- and vice versa with a male social worker’s easier connection to his male client than his female one. In our culture, men are seen as a dominant group in comparison to women. As Hardiman (2013) states, “When viewed as a whole, our socialization into acceptance of oppressive systems, through our interactions with… cultural norms and values, constitutes a cycle of business as usual until we are able to interrupt it with information and experiences that call into question the truth about what we have learned about the power relationship among different social groups” (p. 28). Shaking off the presumptive norms of our gender may be the most universal challenge yet.
Whether you have factual knowledge of a person’s age or it is a mere presumption, how old or young someone seems impacts perception. A young person may seem innocent or impressionable while an older person may be thought of as wise and usefully experienced. In consideration of a social worker-client dynamic, age certainly impacts relatability and inherent trustworthiness. If the practitioner is either significantly older or noticeably older (let’s say at least fifteen or twenty years older), a client may be more apt to value their guidance as more sagelike or profound than someone who is much closer to his or her own age. If the social worker is significantly younger than the client, that client may be more skeptical of the plan the social worker is trying to implement. In the event that the client is either close to the client’s age or significantly younger, it may take much longer for trust to be fortified and could slow progress down unless the social worker has convinced the client somehow that he or she is competent, regardless of his or her age.
Likewise, if a client is much younger than the social worker, the social worker may find it easier to feel authoritative in the dynamic without having to “coddle” the client into a sense of comfortability in the balance of power within their relationship. The reverse, then, would be a potential feeling of intimidation on the part of the social worker if his or her client is much older. Internal dialogues of “Is my client judging me or thinking I’m an idiot?” may challenge the social worker’s self-belief that he or she can command this figurative ship.
Ideally, issues revolving around a social worker’s age or client’s age will resolve quickly once the two parties have met and can start to dialogue about their goals for their time together. Open discussion can help people even of different generations find commonality from which to build a bond and move forward.
Like the discussion of gender, the one surrounding race is a mammoth undertaking. For the purposes of social worker-client relationships, though, I will again strive to be brief. In the United States, “white” is the dominant race. I include parenthesis here because of Johnson (2013) who quoted the great black writer James Baldwin as saying, “It took generations and vast amounts of coercion before this became a white country” (p. 15). Johnson goes on to classify that focus on race is “a construct of reality” (p. 16). Again, I turn to Shakespeare and something his friend Hamlet said in Act 2, Scene 2 in the play named after him: “Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” What this means to me is that we as a society assign emotional attachment to what occurs around us and that establishes norms. In the case of race, a white dominant society may view all non-white participants in that society as less-than in either a direct or indirect way. But not just that -- white society is permitted to define what whiteness even means. Bell (2013) suggests that understanding the origin of our participation in any given system “grounds our theoretical understanding in a lived experience and highlights the contradictions and conflicts [therein]” (p. 24). In doing so, we acknowledge that race is an element of our social psyche while challenging ourselves to think outside of that box.
With all of that said, the social worker-client relationship will likely feel most even when both participants are of the same race. If they are not, whichever party is “whiter” will likely feel as though they have the upper hand, especially if the “white” person is the client. I would suspect (and hope) that a social worker of any racial background would value his or her client who was a person of color the same as they would a white client, since a social worker’s values align with seeing everyone’s humanity and worthiness. Bell (2013) reminds us that social responsibility includes “a vision of society in which distribution of resources is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure” (p.21). When it comes to race, safety and security is at a higher premium, especially in a discussion about variables we use to self-identify.
Considering Gender and Race Through A Personal Lens
Thinking about these classifications in general terms provides a starting point for a student like myself to consider how identifying factors like gender and race might impact my own ability, in a more specific sense, to be an advocate for my clients’ well-being.
I have a strong relationship with my gender identity, in large part because I grew up in a family where I was told (repeatedly, by my mother) that “girls weren’t wanted.” It seemed to be my fault that I was born female and I have spent the bulk of my life finding ways to apologize for that great transgression on my part. Of course, there is a slow gradiention over the years of my life where that “apology” went from being completely sincere to completely cheeky. As I grew up and moved out of my childhood home, I saw more and more how wrong and fundamentally damaging that insistence that I was unwanted, unlovable, and a burden simply because I was female was and that it actually taught me more about my mother’s sense of herself than it taught me about my own. I spent a lot of time thinking about many of my self-defining characteristics and eventually became most proud about my gender identity. This level of awareness has also attuned me to how those around me regard their gender as a defining characteristic and it is a topic I won’t hesitate to explore with anyone willing to open up about this aspect of their personhood.
Interestingly enough, one’s gender seems to be the most silent factor in many people’s sense of who they are. Because of how entrenched our societal ideas are about gender, perhaps many don’t see the need to examine how their maleness or femaleness contributes to their being. In all likelihood, if my mother had not drawn such stringent attention to how undesirable my gender was, I may not have captured its importance myself. With the exception of nonbinary friends who prefer not to be assigned a gender at all, a decision they came to with ample thought and self-reflection, I would venture to guess that most people think of their gender in static societal terms.
My hope is to work with women and girls to help build their sense of worth outside of standard social norms. I would love to work with majority female clients to help them stretch beyond those definitions set in place by dominant men and the women who hide in the male shadow. My comfort level, then, would be higher working with females rather than males.
That is not to say that I would not gain great insight and better understanding by working with men and/or boys. Their perspective is invaluable here, too. Dialoguing with them about how their gender-dominance may impact women and girls could be worthwhile, though I suspect less actual growth or change might result.
In the reverse, I would hope that my female clients gained a lot of confidence by working with me -- and likewise, I hope males would have a broadened perspective after working with me, too. For example, if I had a young female client who had a hard time raising her hand in class because she lacked the confidence that what she had to say would be of value for her classmates and teachers to hear, I would like to spend some time discussing with her why she had those fears of rejection and give her some tools to try out in a (hopefully) safe space like school to experiment with using her voice. In another example, if I had a male client who talked down to women, I would seek to get to the root of that belief and explore why that belief was meaningful to him.
Being female may put me in a non-dominant social category, but, arguably being white nearly eclipses that. I grew up spending very little time thinking about my race and definitely fell into the category who perceived white culture as “normal.” As McIntosh (1990) puts it, “Whites are taught to think they are morally neutral” (p. 2). Therefore, I was taught to think I was morally neutral. I was not taught to think about my sense of privilege as a white person growing up in a largely white suburb with a majority white school system. As I got older, though, I started to consider what being white meant in my life -- what doors it may have opened for me -- and I did what I could to use that place of privilege to be an ally to the people of color in my life. I chose to educate myself, for example, by reading memoirs written by people (especially women) of color. I may not be able to walk a literal mile in their shoes, but I could hear their stories and share what I had learned with others.
As a social worker, I expect to work with people from a wide variety of racial backgrounds. I am excited to do so! I suspect that my white clients may initially be more accepting of me than perhaps some of the people of color who may give me some side-eye about my “savior complex” or my “tourist stop” in their lives. For instance, if I am working with a black male who grew up in the inner city and is looking for coping skills to deal with things like violence on the block where he lives, I may not seem like the best resource, what with my white suburban upbringing. Ideally, though, trust can be established so this young man may understand that my personal background is not what is important in our time together, but, rather, that the professional skills I have to offer him are viable solutions to whatever his goals may be.
Regardless of the social variables that may connect or separate me from my clients, the goal is just that: to uphold the agreed upon contract we put in place in our first meeting. That means maintaining our sense of mutual professionalism, our sense of honesty and integrity, and our sense of healthy boundaries which allow a separation from who I am as a person and instead focus on how I, as a professional, can help facilitate progress along these agreed upon lines.
Achieving Professional Goals
I keep coming back to boundaries. Setting useful and effective boundaries is hard for a lot of people, be they in personal or professional realms, but I have had enough life experience where setting definitive boundaries were necessary for my literal survival, so I can attest to their effectiveness as tools. The clearest plan I can hope to set with a client coming from any background is rooted in consistency at the onset: every case should begin by establishing expectations and that is done by setting boundaries as well as outlining goals. Starting with a plan of action allows both for my client and for me to know exactly what the intention of our time together will hope to achieve. Having that clarity will define our roles (me as advocate for desired change or progress; client as active leader in making that desired change or progress) and make our time together focused and productive.
Bell, L. A. (2013). Theoretical foundations. In M. Adams, W. J. Blumenfeld, R. Castañeda,
H.W. Hackman, M. L. Peters, & X. Zuñiga (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice (3rd Ed) (pp. 21-26). New York: Routledge
Hardiman, R., Jackson, B. W., & Griffin, P. (2013). Conceptual foundations. In M. Adams,W. J. Blumenfeld, R. Castañeda, H. W. Hackman, M. L. Peters, & X. Zuñiga (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice (3rd Ed) (pp. 26-35). New York: Routledge.
Hepworth, D. H., Rooney, R. H., Rooney, G.D., Strom-Gottfried, K., & Larsen, J. (2017, 2013). Operationalizing and the Cardinal Social Work Values. Direct social Work practice: Theory and skills (10th ed.) (pp. 57-90). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Johnson, A. G. (2013). The social construction of difference. In M. Adams, W. J. Blumenfeld, R. Castañeda, H. W. Hackman, M. L. Peters, & X. Zuñiga (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice (3rd Ed) (pp. 15-21). New York: Routledge.
McIntosh, P. (1990). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Independent School (2), 31-26.
Shakespeare, W. (2016). Hamlet, prince of Denmark. B. Mowat & P. Werstine (Eds.) Retrieved from https://www.folgerdigitaltexts.org/html/Ham.html#line-1.3.0
NASW Delegate Assembly, Ed. (2017). Read the code of ethics. Retrieved fromhttps://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English
Written in pursuit of my MSSA (2019)
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