Personal Values: Professional Questions
by Pamela J. Wilshere, LSW
When one enters the profession of social work, there are many values to learn. One is that personal opinions get put aside for professional ones. This means for anything a person believes is wrong or inferior, such as having a different color skin, loving a person of the same sex, having a different religion, abortion, or any of many other values and ideas, we are asked to put this aside in order to treat the person with whom we are working. This can be one of the hardest parts of being a social worker. Our own values are set and usually a very important part of ourselves. Social work does not ask one to change or deny those values, but rather encourages one to be aware of them so that they do not interfere with treatment.
There is another part to this story. We are called to work with many persons who may not have the same training, or may not agree with this training, which espouses professional values over personal ones. This means that we may have clients, co-workers, peers, and employees who we will supervise, who not only may have strong values that we disagree with, but also may be people who are very vocal about their opinions. As social workers, what is our response to this dilemma?
From the beginning, we must look at ourselves and our speech. As a social worker, am I prepared to take a stand? If am against abortion and some client wishes to discuss having an abortion, can I, as a professional social worker, deliver sensitive, non-judgmental services? If someone believes that persons with darker skin are biologically inferior, when they work with a client with dark skin, does that have an impact upon their service to that person? What if a person believes that being gay is wrong? What if it is not ourselves we wish to confront about our inability to put personal values aside with clients, but maybe a coworker? What if a co-worker believes in acting upon these values in the form of assaulting someone, such as gays coming out of a bar or persons of different ethnic or racial groups?
In the hallways, how do we respond to comments about racial or ethnic or sexual differences? Do we say something like, "That is not a very nice thing to say?" Or do we say nothing? Is saying nothing a statement of agreement? What is your response if you overhear a worker trying to persuade a client to have the baby and go through with an adoption instead of having an abortion? What if you hear one worker degrading another?
When it comes to other relationships, such as supervisor and employee, the role changes a little bit. The supervisor is usually held accountable for setting the tone of the work group. Just holding oneself accountable for being a professional may not be enough. If a person is not held accountable for his or her work behaviors, anything becomes permissible. Legally, there may be issues and set agency policies regarding discipline in this area. Aside from this, if supervisors tolerate racist or other value-laden comments in the work group, are they saying to staff that they are not valued? Are minority staff comfortable to vocalize complaints in this area?
At this point, consider the following examples and think about what you, as a social worker in the workforce, would do and not do.
A worker in a group home described a client with a past history of drug and alcohol abuse. His staff was frustrated with the person. Even though there was no evidence of drugs or alcohol, on the evening in question, the staff believed that the client must have been doing drugs or alcohol, because the person was hanging out on the streets until midnight. The neighborhood is described by staff as dangerous, the people hanging out as non-productive, unemployed, and a bad influence upon the client even though they were the client's friends from his youth. Is this a case of stereotyping of city persons as lazy and addicts? If the staff were white and the client and neighborhood black, would this change how it is perceived? What if the client is white?
A white staff makes fun of a Black male staff who supported the Million Man March on Washington. If you are a co-worker, what is your response? What if you are a supervisor? What if you were not a witness to this, but someone came to you with this complaint? Is it a legitimate complaint?
After walking past a group of policemen, a staff member comments that they wish they had those officers (several, tall and strong) when they visit an area that is highly publicized by media as dangerous. It also happens to be occupied largely by minorities. Is this a comment that all minorities are dangerous?
The social worker today has many issues to face. I have deliberately chosen not to answer these questions. I am not sure there is a single answer, but maybe there is room for discussion. One thing I am sure of is that intolerance does not belong in the helping professional's repertoire of skills. If one's personal values are more important than the discussion of choices and informed decision making, one might want to think about whether he or she would want those values respected by others.
Social workers are expected to embrace a diversity of values and people. Learning to do this is a process which takes time and a willingness to do so.
Pamela J. Wilshere, LSW, is employed at Dauphin County MH/MR in Harrisburg, PA.
Copyright © 1997 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved. From THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Winter 1997, Vol. 4, No. 1. For reprints of this or other articles from THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER (or for permission to reprint), contact Linda Grobman, publisher/editor, at P.O. Box 5390, Harrisburg, PA 17110-0390, or by e-mail.