When the mask slips

After a working day helping clients with alcohol-related problems Ben, a social care worker, spent all evening getting drunk. Is this acceptable? If not, does the General Social Care Council have the right to tell social workers how to conduct their private lives, asks Katie Leason

It’s Friday night and Ben is letting off steam in a town centre bar. He’s been drinking steadily for a few hours and during the evening has bumped into several people he knows through work. By chucking out time Ben is wasted and falling all over the place. It’s not a pretty sight, but neither is he causing any harm.

By day Ben, our hypothetical social care worker, works in the alcohol misuse team. So is this acceptable behaviour? Does it make any difference if some of the people he has encountered through the evening are service users?

The issue of whether social care workers should be prevented from doing certain things in their private lives has been raised as a result of the first case to come before the General Social Care Council’s conduct committee. Social worker Yvonne Doyle, of Darlington, has been accused of breaching the GSCC’s code of practice by advertising herself as an escort.

The codes of practice state that a social care worker “must uphold public trust and confidence in social care services” and must not behave in a way “in work or outside work” which questions their suitability to work in social care services. The exact details of Doyle’s case are yet to be revealed but, according to the Crown Prosecution Service, working as an escort is not in itself illegal; a person is only committing an offence if they are soliciting for prostitution or living off the proceeds.

So, in cases where a person has not committed a crime, is it right for their profession’s regulator to step in and make a judgement about what they choose to do outside working hours?

Heather Wing, director of regulation at the GSCC, insists the GSCC “is not in the business of judging people’s morals” but must step in when there is a risk to the public’s perception of social care workers. She says: “Social workers have enormous authority and power and make life and death decisions. Their judgement must have credibility. If they engage in something outside work that could damage that credibility the public could call into question whether that authority is real.”

She says it is not possible to make a definitive list of unacceptable behaviour as every case needs to be judged individually. “It depends on the role the person has, the kind of service users they are coming into contact with and the sorts of decisions they are called upon to make.”

It could also raise issues about their impartiality if, for example, they were often drunk and worked with alcoholics.

“If it is a continual pattern of behaviour it will call into question their capacity to  make proper decisions and judgements,” says Wing.

But many people drink too much in their free time and, as long as nobody comes to harm, it is ludicrous to suggest that such behaviour could result in a professional conduct hearing.

Nick Johnson, chief executive of the Social Care Association, thinks that where alcohol is involved certain factors need to be considered. “It’s about self-discipline; how much, how often, who with. If an alcohol worker is getting drunk with the alcoholics he works with in the day then that’s a problem, but I wouldn’t want someone who drinks too much wine with dinner to face a conduct hearing.”

Although drinking alcohol is generally considered to be morally acceptable, other activities – though legal – may be more questionable. For example, what if a social care worker visits lapdancing clubs?

Johnson again thinks that this only raises problems if it is a regular occurrence.

“It’s about gravity, legality and repetition. If you’re routinely in a lap dancing club every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and it’s where you get off, then that begs a question. It’s different if your mate is getting married and organises to go to a lapdancing club where you feel uncomfortable, don’t actively participate and don’t go again.”

Ian Johnston, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, doesn’t think that pastimes such as attending lapdancing clubs should end up in front of the GSCC but does consider there to be some – unspecified – activities in a practitioner’s private life that could be questionable.

“Careful thought is needed before imposing sanctions on individuals for things that are within the bounds of the law. However, I believe social workers as a profession share a common commitment to putting other people first and think that in society we should be challenging and questioning. If we ourselves are seen to be engaging in activities that may be exploitative then that should be questioned.”

Although it is still early days for the GSCC’s conduct procedures – only two hearings have been scheduled so far despite the organisation receiving more than 400 referrals – definitions of what is and what is not appropriate behaviour are more entrenched in other professions.

Nurses and midwives, under section seven of their code of conduct, are required to “behave in a way that upholds the reputation of the professions”. In 2003 the Nursing and Midwifery Council investigated the case of a nurse who appeared in uniform in a poster campaign in support of fox hunting as it is considered wrong for a nurse to use their professional status to further a political cause. Last year a nurse was struck off the register after he and his wife set up a website where viewers could pay to view them having sex.

Sometimes the need for a regulatory body to step in is avoided because the employer takes disciplinary action. Last month a music supply teacher was dropped by a school after she appeared topless in a magazine and revealed details of her sex life in a national newspaper. Similar cases could fall within the remit of the General Teaching Council for England’s code of conduct and practice, where teachers can  be found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct if they “bring the reputation and standing of the profession into serious disrepute”.

The General Medical Council, which regulates doctors, last year asked the public whether it should be able to discipline doctors for what they did in their private lives. The GMC posed a hypothetical scenario of a successful 48-year-old heart surgeon having an affair with a 16-yearold girl. The heart surgeon, who is married with children, has set up the girl in a flat near his hospital so that he can see her whenever he wants. He also makes no secret of his obsession with hardcore pornography. In the scenario, a colleague contacts the GMC with concerns about the surgeon’s conduct and potential damage to the hospital’s reputation.

Despite this scenario, which in itself raised several issues, opinion was divided on whether doctors should be disciplined for what they did in their private lives, provided it was legal.

But how other professions deal with conduct is of little interest to Ian Johnston. He thinks that social work should approach behavioural issues from its own perspective, taking into account the sector’s distinct values and principles.

“I would like to see us taking a tough line on misconduct but also a forgiving one that reflects the social work values and principles on people changing and being treated well. If somebody says ‘I got it wrong and will do my damnedest to make sure it doesn’t happen again’ I’d expect our profession to be more forgiving than others.”

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