Social workers are always ready to help individuals, families and communities at critical times. Rather than providing solutions, they assist clients with finding strategies to deal with their problems. They might help a town organize itself to campaign for better access to healthcare or assist a vulnerable person with finding a home and living independently. Over the course of a day, they will deal with huge numbers of people, from policymakers to medical professionals, community groups and clients. They frequently have to act alone and trust their judgment, but it is also essential for social workers to remember the code of ethics that governs their conduct.
This is a complex role with many responsibilities and demands. Understandably, the people who become social workers will develop a highly specialized set of skills. Here’s a closer look at those aptitudes and an explanation of how they are applied in practice.
Using academic knowledge to inform real-life practice
Social workers apply the knowledge they gain from personal research, work placements and academic study to their practice. A quality social work qualification will teach students from all walks of life how to effectively hone this skill. One of the benefits of earning an MSW at Florida State University is that enrollment is open to people with a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated subject. Students are prepared for the role through a combination of clinically focused coursework and two field placements, so they quickly learn how to apply what they’ve been taught.
The core values that unite people in this profession are continually developed and documented, as social workers contribute to creating knowledge based on their experiences. However, in the early days, new social workers need to show they can relate what they have learned in university to real-world situations. To do so, they need confidence in their abilities, and this is driven by a deep understanding of the evidence-based research they have encountered. Furthermore, they need to combine this knowledge with an awareness of the social issues that could be affecting their clients.
Remaining professional at all times
Professionalism can be classed as a quality, but it’s also a skill that social workers need to master. It refers to such abilities as emotional intelligence, self-motivation, flexibility and integrity, all of which are essential for success in this role. Nurturing this skill ensures that social workers have a positive influence on the people who become their clients and in the office where they work. These skills are often referred to as ‘soft’, which means they are qualities that can be transferred between diverse situations and environments.
The social work profession is internationally recognized, and social workers show a commitment to their role by taking responsibility for their practice. Part of this involves being a good ambassador for the profession, even when the circumstances become challenging. Professionalism extends to managing their workload independently and having the confidence to make decisions as required. However, this skill also involves a social worker knowing when to find support from a senior colleague and knowing what their limitations currently are. Should they witness an incidence of poor practice, social workers act professionally and address the problem. Finally, although they meet people who are living through a vulnerable time, social workers have to maintain appropriate professional boundaries. These are established to protect themselves and their clients.
Working within an ethical framework
A Code of Ethics has been created by the National Association of Social Workers. This framework guides how professionals in this field need to conduct themselves. Working ethically is a skill that includes acting professionally, focusing on the task at hand and being dependable — even when the situation becomes difficult. In combination, these skills demonstrate a social worker’s belief in the importance of their work and their commitment to their clients.
The code itself relates to several key values, which include working in partnership with clients, promoting social justice and maintaining the reputation of the profession. Furthermore, social workers have to be honest with their clients, ready to challenge those in authority using their legal knowledge and be aware of their own influence in any given situation. Sticking to guidelines and working within a framework ensures that a social worker’s practice is supported by established procedures and policies. By developing this skill, they ensure their clients receive excellent service, but also that they can justify their choices and explain what led to them making a specific decision.
Being cognizant of diversity
Recognizing diversity is a skill that social workers need to acquire as it helps them to promote equality. Diversity refers to a range of demographic factors and other unique attributes that are combined in each person. Social workers understand how they function to shape a person’s life experiences and identity. From faith to age, economic status to gender and race, as well as the connection points of these, diversity covers many characteristics. The skill involves understanding how a person’s experience of all these can affect their life, be it through prejudice, alienation and oppression, or power and privilege.
This recognition is useful in promoting equality as well as identifying inequality and spotting practices that are discriminatory. When a social worker feels that discrimination is being applied, they will challenge the person who is involved. This could be a client, another service provider, a colleague or even a senior member of staff. Social workers also use this skill to reflect on their position, as it is usually a more powerful one than that of their clients. They monitor this and strive to minimize the problem of power misuse, in their own practice, as well as that of their colleagues and department.
Understanding how to apply human rights
In the US, human rights are described in laws, policies and conventions. Social workers need to know what these rights are and understand how their legal principles can be used to further social justice. Bringing together case law with human rights violations is part of a social worker’s practice, but it is a complex skill. To ensure their endeavors are effective, they research and apply the law in a way that protects their client’s rights. They also work with policymakers to alter areas of the law that are unfair or disproportionate.
Furthermore, as part of their professional development, social workers learn more about the entitlements granted to citizens by established human or civil rights. This allows a practitioner to evaluate a situation and challenge it — if a person is being treated unlawfully. Social workers do not work alone to ensure human rights are recognized. Part of this skill lies in forming partnerships with the people who need their service and supporting them in several ways. They might signpost ways into education, stable housing, employment or health services. When it is appropriate, this form of practice can lead to clients advocating for themselves independently, without the need for a social worker’s intervention.
Self-reflection and analysis
Self-reflection and the ability to be self-aware are essential skills for social workers. It ensures they make informed, rational decisions and remain aware of their impact on each client. Part of the process will involve considering diverse sources of information, from client feedback to evidence-based research and theories of social work. They will use supervised sessions and other types of professional support to reflect on how they are managing professionally and personally. This introspection allows social workers to evaluate what benefits they are providing to service users but also encourages them to monitor their own well-being.
This is a skill that can be learned, but it is refined through repetition and routine. By repeatedly assessing the options they provide or the assumptions they make, social workers can gain a more profound understanding of even the most complex cases. Furthermore, as their level of insight deepens, social workers are in a better position to pass their self-reflective skills on to others. This could be in conversation with less-experienced colleagues or when they are working as part of an interdisciplinary team.
Knowing when to intervene
Knowing when and how to engage with a family or a community is a skill. Social workers have to do so in a way that is supportive, progressive and empowering. A vital aspect of this skill is communication. So their interventions will be accepted, social workers must first establish a productive working relationship with service users. They start by establishing what is needed by the client or clients, then they move on to consider the kind of action that might help. Not every client will be receptive to change or the suggestions of an outsider, so social workers are careful to use the authority they have in appropriate ways. Even when the client is frequently negative in their responses, social workers remain on task and compassionate.
In many cases, social workers have to engage with people quickly, even though they have only just met the client and the setting is complex. They use their communication skills to nurture a productive relationship and form a clearer picture of the situation. Using this information, they will select the most appropriate intervention, then implement it effectively and monitor how it works in practice. Social workers always aim to make a positive change. When that’s not happening, knowing when to take further action is crucial.
Getting clients and organizations to engage with their ideas
To further the principles of social justice, social workers have to involve all types of people and organizations in their practice. The ability to get others interested in their plans and committed to change rests on the practitioner’s engagement skills. Clients are often at their most vulnerable when speaking to a social worker for the first time. They need to feel the practitioner is competent before they are willing to open up. Social workers do not rush the process, but instead express warmth and sincerity to show they are genuinely committed to helping.
When it comes to outside agencies, policymakers and nonprofits, social workers use a different strategy. To engage effectively, they stay up to date with policy and law at a local and national level, as well as researching the work of collaborators in an interdisciplinary team. They operate collaboratively, actively build a network of professional contacts and are willing to explore the options that others suggest. In doing this, social workers will contribute to the development of services that could be of help to their clients.
Leading and inspiring others
As well as engaging in constant professional development, social workers take responsibility for the work-based learning of others. Social work can be a taxing job, but each individual practitioner can expect support, encouragement and advice from their colleagues, throughout their career. As they gain more experience, social workers become part of a collective leadership, aiming to promote best practices in every aspect of the role. This is done by leading through example on a daily basis, but also in more practical, organized ways. Peer support meetings might be established, or they might respond to questions on a private forum. When these services are not in place, social workers will take responsibility for initiating and maintaining them.
Furthermore, they might take part in the supervision of trainees, conduct research and educate others on their findings or evaluate the research of others. In the public sphere, they positively use social media accounts, play an active role in their professional networks and liaise with government officials to contribute to policy-making.
A process of continual improvement
At the heart of social work is the practitioner’s compassion for others and their dedication to social justice. Aside from this, many of the skills needed to excel in this gratifying role can be learned, although a great deal of commitment is required. Social workers make a tangible difference in the lives of their clients. They are agents of real change and can improve the circumstances of entire neighborhoods. To rise to the challenge of this responsibility, social workers continually strive to improve their core skills, support each other and enhance their practice.