by Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP
You have your social work degree(s), and you have a job. What else do you need to sustain a long and healthy career in social work? Here are some of the tools you should have in your “Professional Social Worker Toolkit.”
1. Code of Ethics
This should be a no-brainer. Without this essential tool to guide your practice, you are not a social worker—period. Issues are rarely ever black and white. “Ethical decision making is a process. There are many instances in social work where simple answers are not available to resolve complex ethical issues,” the NASW Code of Ethics states. You have studied and learned from this set of values, ethical principles, and ethical standards, and the general public can hold the social work profession accountable for its actions. It is good practice to reflect often on your ethical code, as sometimes social workers forget to do this, to the detriment of their careers.
I can’t stress enough the importance of maintaining your professionalism throughout your career. What do people say when you tell them you chose to study social work or that you are a social worker? Sometimes they have no idea what you do, or they make negative assumptions based on what they have heard in the media. A big part of what the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) does is promote and protect the profession of social work, because the general public continues to be ambivalent about us.
Promote your profession by being a consummate expert in your field, and other professions will seek you out. Be a respectful and responsible social worker, so others know you are someone they can rely on. You chose this profession for a reason—make sure you do all you can to elevate it.
3. Professional Network
Don’t just count on social workers to be in your professional network. Physicians, nurses, accountants, executive directors, pastors, janitorial staff—everyone is in your professional network, and you never know when they will reach out to you with a job opportunity or provide you with an invaluable resource for your practice. Many who progress the most in their careers over time do so by being well connected professionally in mutually beneficial ways. In other words, they maintain their networks.
4. Continuing Education and Professional Development
Regardless of your licensure status, social workers should never stop learning, growing, and becoming more knowledgeable about their profession, their client populations, and laws and standards that affect their practice. NASW Code of Ethics, Standard 4, Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities as Professionals, 4.01(b) Competence, states:
Social workers should strive to become and remain proficient in professional practice and the performance of professional functions. Social workers should critically examine and keep current with emerging knowledge relevant to social work. Social workers should routinely review the professional literature and participate in continuing education relevant to social work practice and social work ethics.
Yes, professional development is your ethical responsibility, but it will also help you advance your career. Through it, you continue to learn how to best serve your clients, manage programs, and, maybe someday, run an organization. Conferences and workshops are also a great way to meet new people and expand your professional network!
If you plan on being a clinical social worker and work in the mental health arena, becoming licensed in your state is essential. This is a long (and sometimes painful) process, but the end result is that you are deemed proficient by your state to make a difference in the lives of many who need it most. Every state is different and has a different set of licenses and licensure laws that can be hard to navigate. Make sure to decide if pursuing licensure is right for you. If your state licensure board is less than helpful, be sure to contact your NASW chapter if you are a member, as most chapters answer member questions about licensure.
I consider myself a macro social worker. I am not licensed and probably never will be. However, that does not mean macro social workers cannot take advantage of credentials or certificates. I have a Nonprofit Management Certificate from a local university, and it has been an invaluable asset to my career. If you think a certificate will make you a more knowledgeable professional and more marketable during your job search, get it.
6. Malpractice Insurance
Social work licensure exists to protect the public, not to protect you or your practice. So be sure to invest in liability insurance. In recent years, social workers, like other professionals, have increasingly been subject to malpractice lawsuits.
Malpractice claims must be defended, even when they are groundless or fraudulent. The cost of defending yourself can be extremely expensive.
Many organizations have liability insurance and tell their employees they are also covered under the organization’s insurance. However, do you think your agency’s attorney will be available to you if you are sued by one of your clients? If you and your supervisor have a discrepancy about what happened, do you think the insurance company will defend you or your supervisor? After all, it's your career and your ability to continue practicing professional social work that’s on the line. This is a tool that should not be overlooked and will serve you throughout your career.
“Supervision is an essential and integral part of the training and continuing education required for the skillful development of professional social workers,” according to NASW and ASWB’s Best Practice Standards in Social Work Supervision. Again, I am not just talking to the social workers who are seeking licensure. Regardless of your licensure status or area of practice, seeking and receiving good supervision is an incredibly important tool in your arsenal of resources to enable you to become a competent professional social worker.
Social workers are “faced with increasing challenges that contribute to job stress, including the growing complexity of client problems, unfavorable physical work environments, heavy workloads, and emotionally draining environments such as vicarious trauma. Supportive supervision is underscored by a climate of safety and trust, where supervisees can develop their sense of professional identity,” according to the standards. So find a good supervisor, and work with supervisors throughout your career, not just during your licensure process. Supervision protects clients, supports YOU, and ensures that professional standards and quality services are delivered by competent social workers. If you don’t have it memorized, take a look at the NASW and ASWB’s Best Practice Standards in Social Work Supervision for more information.
Supervision is a good segue into the importance of self-care. A good supervisor will tell you when you need more of it, which, for social workers, is always. As with other helping professions, we can fall prey to burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma. In some cases, those stressors can lead to impairment of professional judgment and duties.
Professional self-care is critical in preventing burnout and maintaining a balanced work/life perspective. We owe it to ourselves, our profession, and our clients to practice self-care. Make this not only part of your professional toolkit, but your personal lifestyle.
9. Professional Association Membership
Full disclosure: In case you missed it before, I work for the NASW North Carolina chapter. I am the person who answers the phone when social workers don’t know what to do when the licensure board won’t answer their questions, when they are being sued by a client, or when they have been fired. I am the person who connects members to resources that make them better and more marketable professionals. NASW not only promotes and protects the profession of social work through advocacy; it provides discounted, quality continuing education for you so you can successfully do your job.
Your membership in a professional association can connect you to thousands of social workers, resources, and opportunities to grow in your profession. Not only is your membership a resource for you, but membership enables you to give back to the profession, so advocacy can happen on your behalf.
So, go forth and seek out and use these tools that will help you throughout your career and enable you to make a difference in your community.
Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP, is the Associate Executive Director for the National Association of Social Workers, North Carolina Chapter (NASW-NC). She received her dual degree in social work and public policy from the University of Minnesota and currently provides membership support, including résumé review, to the members of NASW-NC.