Thursday, 10 March 2011

When is a social worker not a social worker...

When is a social worker not a social worker? Apparently the answer is when they're impersonating one as Tracey Smith, an 'unqualified assistant social worker' found to her cost resulting in a conviction and fine of £230. I won't dwell on the particulars as it's all in the original Guardian article, but just to say the deception seems to have been mainly based around job references and CV 'creativity'in which she had claimed to have been a social worker.

Ethically this is rather dubious and of course not defensible in any way, but I wonder if the question over what is a social worker is quite so clear-cut. I always remember my first day working for social services; being shown around my biggest shock was that most people were not social workers, in fact apart from the team manager there was only one qualified social worker in a front-line team of 12-15 people. The rest held job titles ranging from admin to information officer, contact assessor and unqualified care manager.

One thing which struck me about my time in public service was the importance attached to job titles. For every visiting professional, dignitary or student social worker we introduced ourselves in turn by name and job title. Each title had a carefully worked out job role courtesy of HR and fitted into a well defined pay structure, not to mention office hierarchy as hilariously demonstrated by this Clare in the Community cartoon (Scroll down to October the 10th).

Despite their importance within the organisation, to the general public such distinctions didn't matter, most would differentiate between admin and a social worker, but almost all, like I had before I joined, just assumed that everyone else was a social worker. Sometimes though this assumption would break down. My first role was answering the telephone, the system broadly operated in the following way: I would take down a persons details and an outline of their particular problem then pass this onto the social-worker who would then call them back or put the form in a tray for one of the other unqualified workers to deal with. Occasionally I would be asked if I was a social worker...

Caller: are you a social worker?

Me: No, I'm a receptionist

Caller: So you can't help me then?

Me: I can see if I can help you, would I be able to take some details from you, then I'll pass them onto the social worker?

Caller: No, I need to speak to the social worker. Now.

Me (to social worker) Umm, I've got someone who says they want to speak to you.

Social Worker: I'm busy I'm afraid, tell them I'll call them back. Take some details.

Pretty much whenever the assumption that I was a social worker broke down the whole system went out the window.

So this poses an interesting question, I was not impersonating a social worker, but to do my job I was relying on peoples assumptions that I was a social worker. My bosses I hasten to add were fully aware of this fact as I told them this many times. Eventually my old job role of answering the phone was shipped out to Capita, would people then stop assuming they were speaking to a social worker when they called in? every so often we'd be told by someone, sometimes even from a professional, that they had spoken to a 'social worker' the day before when in fact the person they had spoken to was based in the call-centre.

Aside from all this within the organisation, job roles though strictly defined on paper also have a habit, especially in times of staff shortages, of developing grey areas round the edges. I've seen safeguarding adults work being done by what we called 'unqualifieds' and it's also not unusual for a newly qualified social worker in a small team to be under the wing of a more experienced but unqualified worker for up to a year.

It was all brought home to me when I was having a conversation with a French Canadian chap and his girlfriend in a hostel on the continent. We were talking about our jobs over dinner. I had described my day-to-day job role to them, but the girlfriend had struggled with some of the language and terms I was using. She asked her boyfriend to help interpret. I picked out two words among what he told her....... 'social worker'


  1. i don't have a degree in social work, but i've a range of social work activities outside my college campus during my 3 year graduation. For social work, we went along with Social Work students on their field trip. There were several types of people we get to talk with, and several kinds of problems to deal with.

    Your blog took me to those old days. Keep blogging on your experiences on social work. i'm following you.

  2. Thank you so much for your comment. It's feedback like that which keeps bloggers blogging. Thank you again!