by Dorinda Noble, Ph.D., LCSW
Recently, a legislator, when discussing what profession could best handle certain mental health issues, remarked, “Social work is not a real profession, is it?” Indeed, Mr. Legislator, social work is a REAL profession! It has extensive, well-conceptualized theoretical foundations and professional education, and it is a formally licensed profession in all 50 states in the U.S., as well as all Canadian provinces and numerous other countries.
Licensure, or professional regulation, is a mark of a true profession. When a society sees the work of the professional as being so significant that professionals are in a position to potentially harm the public, society is according a status of true impact to that profession. Social work was first licensed in Puerto Rico in the 1930s. Over the decades, social work licensure has grown and prospered until now more than half a million people in North America are licensed by their state (or registered by their Canadian province) and are thus accountable to the public for the quality of their work. 500,000 people, approximately, is a strong corps of individuals who have agreed to live by the rules and be accountable for their professional behavior!
Licensure, however, is about much more than passing a licensing test. It is about having a prudent professional career. When a social worker is called upon by a court of law to explain his or her professional behavior, the judge will often ask, “What would a prudent professional do in this situation?” Being “prudent” means being careful about one’s own interest, exercising good judgment, and being careful about one’s behavior. Licensed professionals take care of themselves by conducting their work prudently—and in so doing, they also take care of clients.
It is clear that social workers have great power to do good for people, and conversely, to do ill to people. Ill-treating clients or client groups may be the result of the social worker’s 1) lack of professional and ethical judgment; 2) mental, emotional, or physical impairment; or 3) incompetence. Those issues can often be resolved by a mixture of close professional supervision, treatment, and further education. And all social workers make mistakes. We work in situations marked by strong emotions and even danger, and the need to make immediate decisions in these circumstances means it is almost impossible to think through all the possible ramifications of our behavior.
A prudent professional, however, has developed patterns of thinking and behaving that will guide the professional through such high-stakes situations. Training ourselves to think about ethical implications and practical outcomes of behaviors will help us to rather automatically steer toward safe actions that protect both the client or client group, and the professional. Though mistakes may occur, they are likely to be less severe than if we didn’t train ourselves to think ethically about all our actions. The emphasis we place on competence, ethical behavior, and our own well-being will also help us to think how to quickly and efficiently ameliorate the effects of those mistakes that we make.
This mantra of “Think Ethics!” applies equally to professionals who work with small groups of people and those who work with larger collections of people. In fact, professionals who work with larger groupings of people have greater potential to harm more people than those professionals who work with individuals or smaller units. A professional who leads an agency and makes unwise financial decisions for that agency has the potential to affect many employees and perhaps thousands of clients and even a whole community of people. It is imperative that all professionals be accountable for their behavior, regardless of whether they provide services to small units or large. And the primary way society has sanctioned that accountability is through licensure.
So we celebrate the prudent professional! Creating and maintaining a prudent professional life amounts to investing in a satisfying, honorable career. Taking care of our own best interest means we take care of the best interests of our clients or client groups. It means that we can be proud of serving the public as ethical, legal, and competent social workers.
Yes, Mr. Legislator, we have a REAL profession and we are REALLY prudent professionals! As prudent professionals, we bring excellent benefits to the struggle to build a healthier society. We salute the Prudent Professional!
Dorinda N. Noble, Ph.D., LCSW, is the Director of the School of Social Work, Texas State University. She is the president of the Association of Social Work Boards.