Key qualities for social work

Have you got what it takes? Stephanie Sparrow reports

Social work is the most challenging, yet rewarding, vocation. We asked experts and recruiters to identify the raft of personal and professional qualities social workers require to succeed.

Appropriate qualifications

Academic qualifications and certification are crucial. “To qualify as a social worker you must complete a degree level qualification in social work or have a relevant Health and Care Professional council (HCPC) approved qualification (DipSW, CQSW, CSS). In addition, to practice as a social worker you must be registered with the HCPC”, Osman Ibrahim, associate director of HCL Social Care points out.

Professional curiosity

Appetite for self-development is good practice. At Buckinghamshire New University, head of the academic department for social work and integrated care Sinclair Coward advises all social workers, newly qualified or not, to keep up their CPD through reading and attending seminars. “You need to be curious about your profession,” he says, adding that social workers must be able to demonstrate how they have put this learning into practice. “The option to do nothing is not there”, he says.

Maintaining professional knowledge also includes keeping up to speed with changes to policy and the law. The Care Act, for example, has impacted on different disciplines within the profession including Adult Social Work. Job applicants and those in post are advised to maintain the habit of reading about its key points.

Personal qualities

Social work draws on innumerable personal qualities and intellectual abilities, but at the top of the list is “authenticity”, says Paul Ringer, deputy chief executive of Spurgeons, the children’s charity. This is the quality most in evidence among those effective out in the field and in job interviews.

He has also noticed that authenticity is a common trait among the shortlisted candidates of the Social Worker of the Year Awards, of which he is a judge.

“The X Factor, to borrow a phrase, is that thing about authenticity”, he says. “Exceptional individuals are authentic and represent good in every way for vulnerable and disadvantaged people. They recognise the potential in every person.”

Authenticity, which is about being true to personal values and the values and requirements of other people, is crucial. It also allows the service user or an employer to “buy into a person”.  Alongside this quality is “confidence” he adds. This is also about knowing oneself and abilities, and how to put it to the best use in a professional context. It is “earned over a length of time and enjoyed in short measure”.

The other highly ranked personal quality is emotional resilience, which also manifests itself in perseverance, empathy, sensitivity and reliability “and the ability to build a relationship with people from all levels of society and all walks of life”, says Coward. “It also helps you to cope with the fact that the profession always seems to be in a state of flux”, he says referring to news headlines on matters such as accreditation and regulation. Newly qualified social workers will benefit from their assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE).

Communication skills

Social workers are interested in others and in helping them to secure good outcomes. Communication skills supply them with the tools to do this, which is why both Coward and Ringer identify such skills as essential qualities.

Job applicants and those looking at degree courses can be expected to be tested on their communication skills. Coward says that at Buckinghamshire New University, applicants to the BSc (Hons) degree course in Social Work are assessed on this area when they are asked to give written response to a scenario, and also to conduct a group discussion based on what they have heard from a service user.

Technology savviness

Communication skills are backed up by technology. Being a technology savvy social worker is not just about coping with standard IT packages or taking out an I-pad during client meetings. It is about looking at how these tools can help with agile or flexible working, says Ringer.

“Real life happens outside the 9 to 5”, he says , voicing hopes that social workers and organisations can support each other in using technology to accommodate this.

Show your qualities

So how can job candidates convey these qualities? Ringer advises that a good interviewer will try to reveal the strengths of the candidate, and where your skills will best be used. Evidence-based assessments and values-based interviews (where a recruiter or panel will ask, for example, why that organisation appeals to the candidate, or to identify its core values, or to think of a time ‘when active listening skills paid off’) are most commonly deployed.

He adds however, that, partly because of cuts, organisations are working towards “blurring the boundaries” between themselves. This means that strong candidates or those in post may find that there are more opportunities to “get the best fit for their skills and interests.”

Above all, social workers, particularly newly qualified, should realise that their skills will evolve with experience, but that, even in the early stages of their career, they can bring fresh perspectives which will be welcomed.

“Never underestimate the value of a new perspective”, says Ringer. “Be proud of it”, he says.


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