Social work is an inherently value-based profession, but in practice we often spend relatively little time reflecting on what is important to us as social workers and as human beings. Student social workers are regularly encouraged to think about their own values and where they come from by their lecturers and practice educators, however once we qualify, opportunities to think about such issues fall by the wayside as busy social workers focus their energies on effectively managing their workload.
We all know on some level that our values influenced our decision to become social workers, and that our values are likely to shape how we practice. Those who value relationships and helping might well work with an individual differently to someone who values autonomy and individual rights. What we think about less is how our personal and professional values shape the decisions that we make when we carry out assessments.
Research has shown that the decisions that social workers make are influenced by their values and dispositions. An international comparative study of social workers’ decision-making found that the likelihood of them recommending removal of a child based on a written case study was related to their values and attitudes about removal versus keeping families together. Similarly, the extent to which social workers assessing adults use professional discretion is related to how they think about the value of ‘fairness’. Other studies have similarly shown that how social workers feel about risk also influence the decisions that social workers make.
What this means is that much as social workers may strive to be objective in their decision-making, we are not wholly detached and impartial. We are influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by our personal and professional values in how we make sense of information to inform the recommendations that we make. This is not necessarily a problem in itself; sometimes the ‘facts’ can only take us so far or can point us in two conflicting directions at the same time, and when this happens we need to rely on other factors to help us to make a recommendation. What is important, however, is to be mindful of how our values might influence us so that we can mitigate bias.
My own research highlights the value of case discussion with colleagues in helping social workers to test and weigh information, to consider multiple hypotheses, and to think about their own and their colleagues’ values and how these can influence the decisions that they make. Where opportunities for discussion with colleagues are scarce, it is important to think about what matters to you as an individual and as a social worker and how that might influence the decisions you make. Reflect on your gut feelings, these can be valuable sources of information but they can also be where some of our own preferences and biases are reflected. Understanding where your gut is leading you can help you to consciously consider other possibilities and reduce the likelihood of bias in your decision-making.