This is the winning Social Work entry in the 2016 Critical Prize for Writing. It was written by Brendan McDaid, a final year student at Ulster University. Brendan was nominated by his lecturer Denise MacDermott.
Critically evaluate possible tensions, conflicts and collusions within and between your personal and professional value system as related to social work practice
This assignment shall critically discuss how personal and professional values can come into conflict in modern day social work practice. In order to do this, the difference between personal and professional values will be considered, as well as relevant theories in order to gain a better understanding of how these values can often conflict. Once this has been established, two examples will be used to demonstrate varying ways in which a practitioner’s values can be challenged, with appropriate links also being made to critical reflection and emotional intelligence.
Values can be somewhat problematic to define as it is a term that can be used vaguely and can also have a variety of different meanings. In fact Timms (1983:107), in his study of social work values, quotes 180 different definitions of the term. Perhaps this is indicative of the very nature of values, particularly personal values; they can be comprised of ideologies, attitudes, preferences, beliefs, desires, opinions and therefore differ for every individual. It has been accepted that a value describes what an individual considers worthy (Barndard, Horner & Wild, 2008:29) and it is something we give high priority or importance to when making choices (Beckett & Maynard, 2005: 7). Particularly relevant regarding social work practice, values often signify the moral imperative in the decision making process as they ‘determine what a person thinks he ought to do’ while also representing ‘the general standards and ideals by which we judge our own and others’ conduct’ (CCETSW, 1976:14). What is unique about personal values in comparison to professional values is that they can often change and alter as the individual develops, through life experience, societal influences, political awareness and as their understanding of people develops. Professional values, on the other hand, are not personal to the individual; they are a formal guide social workers must adhere to which aim to create a professional culture that improves practice and attempts to draw boundaries around what is deemed acceptable conduct (Dominelli, 2004:63). Embodied in codes of ethics, these professional values and principles compel the social worker to commit to practice in a manner that safeguards the service users’ rights to privacy, self-determination and to be treated with dignity and respect (Conmartin & Gonzales-Prendes, 2011). The British Association for Social Workers (BASW) code of ethics comprises of five core basic values to which social workers must be committed. These are human dignity and worth, social justice, service to humanity, integrity and competence (BASW, 2002:2). More specific to Northern Ireland, the NISCC code of ethics consists of six professional values which guide social work practice and detail the standards of conduct practitioners and students alike are expected to meet (NISCC, 2003). The NISCC code of ethics importantly encourages social workers to examine their own practice by placing a responsibility on social workers to be accountable for the quality of their work and ensure they continually improve their skills and knowledge base (NISCC, 2003:6).
It is generally accepted that the traditional values of social work were greatly influenced by the legacy of Biesteck (1961) (Dominelli, 2004:63). Therefore, when discussing values in social work practice and potential conflicts that arise, it is important to consider Biesteck’s principles and how theories on values and ethics have developed as a result. Biesteck’s 7 casework principles were individualisation, purposeful expression of feelings, controlled emotional involvement, acceptance, non-judgemental attitude, service user self-determination and confidentiality. These principles are still very much pertinent in modern social work practice, however in terms of theory, possibly the more significant Biesteck principles are individualisation and service user self-determination (Banks, 2006:32).
Having briefly outlined Biesteck’s influence, the two oppositional theorists regarding values and ethics shall now be detailed for the purposes of this discussion. Kantian or deontological ethics, also known as the duty based approach, focuses on the fundamental dignity each and every person possesses as a rational human being, who should be treated “never solely as a means but always also as an end.” (Kant, 1964:96) Kant felt that the individual person is worthy of respect simply because he or she is a person, and this has been intrinsically linked to the principle that is credited as being the foundation of social work ethics and moral thinking (Plant, 1970); ‘respect for persons’. The Kantian theory focuses on the rights and self-determination of each individual service user and promotes carrying out ones duty to that service user regardless of the outcome (Banks, 2006:35) or consequences for society as a whole. By contrast, the utilitarian theory, also known as the consequence based approach, advocates promoting the public good or the well-being of the society in general over the needs of any particular individual; in other words, ‘the greatest good to the greatest number.’ (Beckett & Maynard, 2005:39) According to Banks (2006), ‘the basic idea of utilitarianism is that the right action is that which produces the greatest balance of good over evil’ (Banks, 2006:35). Advocates of the utilitarian approach feel that it is more realistic in terms of modern practitioners; they are employed by agencies, work within procedural constraints and consider the consequences of their decisions. As the relevant theories regarding values have been detailed, this piece shall now consider the application of both personal and professional values in terms of modern day social work practice.
Cormier, Nurius and Osborn state that “when personal values of helpers are consistent with professional standards of conduct, helpers are more likely to interact genuinely and credibly with clients and other professionals” (Cormier, Nurius & Osborn, 2009:32). Therefore, in theory, personal and professional values will ideally complement each other in social work. However, in practice, the reality is that personal and professional values often conflict. Going back to the idea of values representing the moral imperative, the difficulty and conflict that often comes with being a social worker is that what you think you ought to do may not be the same as what you want to do, what is in your interest to do or what in fact you actually do. (CCETSW, 1976:14) Therefore, social workers are regularly confronted with decisions that represent an ethical dilemma, which is said to exist when “acting on one moral conviction means behaving contrary to another or when adhering to one value means abandoning another.” (Blumenfield & Lowe, 1987:48) Such is the nature of social work, these conflicts and dilemmas are not limited to practitioners and have also become apparent to me as a student during lectures and interactions with service users, which shall now be critically discussed.
During our ethics and values lecture, I identified respect of persons as a core value of mine, and my reason for this is you never know what an individual’s story is or what they may have been through. The right to self-determination for a service-user is also a value that I attribute worth to on a personal level; it was one of the fundamental principles that made me want to become a social worker. Therefore, my personal values are more in line with the Kantian approach to ethics in that they are concerned with the individual circumstances and decisions of the service user. However, when listening to a service user (hereafter X) speak about his experience of living in a care home, I identified a potential conflict in my personal and professional values regarding looked after children. According to current policy and procedure for looked after children, regardless of the history, individual circumstances or indeed the wishes of the service user they are required to leave the care home at the age of 18 and live independently. For many social workers, this policy may be acceptable on a professional level as it is in keeping with the NISCC code of ethics for ‘promoting independence of service user while protecting them from harm.’ (NISCC, 2003:3) X also detailed how, many years previously, he had been sent to live with a foster family against his wishes and seemingly without being consulted on the matter. Again, in a strictly professional sense this may be correct in keeping with the ‘right to respect for private and family life’ under article 8 of the Human Rights Act (1998), which is considered one of the core areas of social work practice (White, 2004:29). However, I believe this policy regarding looked after children is framed in a way that is very much utilitarian and is in contrast to my personal values and ‘occupational self-concept’ (Payne, 2006) of social work practice.
I am aware that being a practitioner brings with it a function regarding social control, resource rationing and issues relating to fair distribution of welfare (Banks, 2006:35), meaning there are procedures a practitioner must adhere to. However, one of the key roles I will have to fulfil as a practitioner is to support individuals to represent their needs, views and circumstances to achieve greater independence (DHSSPS, 2003). In order to do this, a practitioner must advocate on behalf of the service user. X explained that in his own personal experience and the experience of many of his peers, their needs and views were not represented as they were not mentally prepared for independent living. He elaborated that they did not wish to leave the care home and as a result he was faced with an overwhelming sense of vulnerability and anxiety. My immediate response when listening to his experiences was to question whether, in following this procedure, practitioners are indeed promoting independence or in fact negligent in their duty to advocate for and protect the service user from harm? Furthermore, it raises doubts as to whether self-determination within the current welfare system regarding looked after children actually exists, or whether it is simply defined persuasively to justify decisions against service user’s real interests that may go against their will. (McDermott, 1975).
Having considered what X had said, my initial feeling was that in order to effectively fulfil the key role of supporting looked after children and representing their needs, a more Kantian approach is necessary. Listening to X, it could be claimed looked after children are being categorised, stigmatised and treated as such, as opposed to being judged as a visible human being whose autonomy is respected. (Beckett & Maynard, 2005:38) Therefore, my immediate response as a practitioner would be to identify with Banks’ (2001) view proposing social workers have a responsibility to strive to change policy that supports what they feel to be a form of oppression (Conmartin & Gonzales-Prendes, 2011).
X’s input has been extremely beneficial to me in terms of my social work education as it gave me a valuable insight into the conflicting and challenging nature of social work. Regardless of personal values, I fully appreciate the need for professionalism in social work as practitioners are required to follow policy that is in place and are bound by the NISCC code of ethics, which is “the framework or screen through which…personal world views must be drawn to determine the acceptability in social work practice” (Spano & Koenig, 2007:3). To be considered a competent practitioner, it is imperative I am aware of my emotions and am capable of managing them in a setting where my personal and professional values conflict. Emotional intelligence is particularly important in these circumstances as it enables the practitioner to “…(be) able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations” (Goleman, 1996:34). As child protection is the area of social work practice I am most likely to be employed in (Crossing Borders, 2001:14), it is important that when tuning in to the thoughts and feelings of future service users (Shulman, 2009) I am able to critically reflect on what I learned from X’s emotions regarding his experience and my own emotions having empathised with what he went through. This enables me to “(return) to the experience, attending to feelings connected to the experience and also re-evaluate the experience by recognising potential implications and outcomes.” (Boud & Knights, 1996:26)
X’s experience has made me aware of the use of authority in terms of social work and how it can be perceived by the service user. This will be extremely important in terms of my future practice as I am now conscious of the power dynamic that can exist from the service user’s perspective, meaning I can attempt to negate it. This demonstrates moral sensitivity, and I believe my views and concerns expressed above regarding X’s experience also illustrate elements of moral judgement and motivation. Although in practice it may become challenging, I feel my personality traits and values indicate that I also possess the moral character to stand by my convictions, meaning I now feel capable of moral behaviour (Banks, 2006:158) when practicing. Being aware of this power vacuum should also help ensure that my future practice is anti-oppressive, as it is “based on an understanding of how concepts of power, oppression and inequality determine personal and structural relations.” (Dalrymple & Burke, 2003:48) Furthermore, X’s experience has enabled me to explore, resolve and reflect upon conflicts between my personal and professional values before I had to face this dilemma in a professional capacity. This forced me to consider my future practice, and in doing so I concluded that I may perhaps be a professional practitioner, however I aim to maintain some elements of the committed/radical approach. Although my initial thought regarding current policy for looked after children was that it needed to be challenged, through the discussion that followed X’s experience and reflecting on how my feelings have evolved regarding the matter, I now appreciate that as a practitioner I am bound by the NISCC codes of ethics and policy and procedure that is in place. However, I continue to identify with Bank’s view that it is important to hold on to your personal values in order to challenge laws, policies and practices regarded as unjust or oppressive (Banks, 2006:133).
The second issue that shall now be considered involved working with a service user, as opposed to listening to their experiences in a learning environment. I currently work as a support worker in a hostel for homeless men. My role requires me to work with and provide support for individuals who have a history of alcohol abuse and who have experienced a breakdown in family relationships. As part of my role I was also required to work with an individual (hereafter Y) who has a history of committing sexual offences, and it immediately became apparent to me that this was going to conflict with my personal values and beliefs regarding forms of abuse. Rightly or wrongly, at that time I felt that sexual abuse was a particularly despicable crime and that I may find it difficult to engage with and provide effective support to a perpetrator of this type of act. I was also concerned that my feelings regarding sexual abuse would be an obstacle in terms of my ability to empathise with Y. Therefore, I was faced with the ethical dilemma of whether to help Y, thus going against my views regarding abuse and oppression, or choosing not to work with Y, which in itself is a form of oppression as I would be devaluing the service user as a member of a group socially configured as inferior. (Gray & Wedd, 2010:160)
As a student social worker, I was aware that in choosing not to work with Y, my decision would conflict with the NISCC code of ethics requiring social workers to protect the rights and promote the interests of service users while striving to establish and maintain the trust and confidence of service users (NISCC, 2003:1-2). Therefore, if I was unable to manage my personal values and beliefs regarding this matter it would raise questions regarding my competence for practice. Furthermore, one of the key roles for social work practice is having to prepare for and work with individuals, families, carers, groups and communities to assess their needs and circumstances (DHSSPS, 2003). In keeping with this key role, I chose to accept Y for who he was and show him the respect and dignity of every human being (Banks, 2006: 33) as all individuals, regardless of their behaviours, are worthy of the profession’s skills and knowledge in order to improve their social functioning and quality of life (Conmartin & Gonzales-Prendes, 2011). In order to do this, however, I would need to demonstrate emotional intelligence and self-awareness, which is what we already know about ourselves, what we learn when encountering new experiences and what we learn through contact with others (Trevithick, 2005:43), in order to effectively manage my feelings and ensure I remained anti-oppressive by avoiding ‘othering’ (Gray, M. & Wedd, S, 2010: 161) Y in our interactions.
According to Butler, Knott and Scragg, “understanding feelings and emotions is essential, if we are to understand the complicated, often messy, emotionally charged situations which social workers are faced with.” (Butler, G. Ch.3 in Knott, C., Scraff, T, 2007). This is imperative as “failure to manage feelings compromises the balance between thought, feeling and action….what is required, instead, is the ability to harness all emotion as sources of information and to seek to promote a positive climate within which best decisions are likely to be made.” (Morrisson, 2007:5) By becoming emotionally aware of and critically reflecting on my emotions regarding sexual abuse, I now appreciate that perhaps my initial views regarding working with sex offenders were influenced by societal influences, the media, a negative perception and the stigma that is attached to perpetrators of sexual abuse. This enabled me to view the service user holistically and understand that he too may have encountered a history of victimisation himself (Conmartin & Gonzales-Prendes, 2011)
I feel this experience will have a positive impact on my future practice as it enabled me to develop my emotional intelligence and become more self-aware regarding my own emotions in this value conflict, meaning I am able to manage my feelings, understand them and also understand how they may potentially influence my future behaviour and practice (Bruce, 2013). Banks feels that practitioners only begin to realise the limitations of their self-awareness when presented with problems that trigger reactions inappropriate to the situation (Banks, 2006:157) and before I encountered Y, I was unaware of what my emotions were regarding sex offenders. However, as a result of this process I feel I have an increased self-awareness in terms of biases and attitudes that may have been previously went undiscovered (Conmartin & Gonzales-Prendes, 2011:1). This is beneficial in terms of my self-development and enabled me to successfully manage and reflect on this complex ethical dilemma, which is a practice foci for one of the key social work roles; demonstrate and be responsible for professional competence in social work practice. (DHSSPS, 2003) In terms of future practice, if I were faced with a similar situation I would refer to the previously mentioned Biesteck principles, with particular consideration given to controlled emotional involvement, acceptance and adopting a non-judgemental attitude, to ensure I am able to empathise effectively, while also providing the support that the service user needs.
In conclusion, when considering the points and literature above, it is pertinently clear that maintaining congruence between personal and professional values can be quite challenging, even for the more experienced practitioner. As modern social work practice moves away from the Kantian approach to a more bureaucratic or utilitarian approach, this will no doubt lead to further ethical dilemmas for practitioners to manage. Therefore, it is essential that practitioners develop and maintain practice that is critically reflective, emotionally intelligent and self-aware. Although practitioners are bound by professional values and codes of ethics, it is as equally important to possess a ‘moral impulse’ (Bauman, 1993) and maintain your personal values in order to challenge laws, policies and practices regarded as unjust or oppressive (Banks, 2006:133). By maintaining one’s own values, as well as the changing ethical priorities of the profession, it enables the practitioner to have a healthy anticipation of incongruence between personal and professional values. The result of this will be a social worker who is able to manage their own values, as well as understanding and applying the ethics and values of social work, which should be the benchmark for any capable practitioner.
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