Social workers can be critical of senior managers at times, but do they truly understand the role?

Frontline staff would benefit from thinking about what they would do when faced with the big decisions, argues former director Blair McPherson

Manager talking to employee
Credit: Image Broker/Rex (posed by models)

I know most social workers have very little contact with senior managers, yet I continue to be surprised at how little insight they have into the role of management beyond that of their own line manager. Those given the opportunity to shadow me for day probably came away thinking I spent all my time in meetings. I was happy for them to sit in on a team meeting, attend an overview and scrutiny committee or join me on a visit to give out training awards to staff, but clearly they couldn’t sit in on a disciplinary hearing or join me on a recruitment panel, which would have been far more interesting and informative.

So how to get an insight into what senior managers do? Why not put yourself in the senior management role. Would you be pragmatic or idealistic? How much would you share with staff? How would you balance being open with the public and press against the risk of undermining the credibility of staff and the reputation of the organisation? How far would you go to maintain good relations with health?

Managers are responsible for implementing change and in the current financial climate those changes are usually driven by the need to make savings. So what sort of senior manager would you make? What would your response be to these scenarios?

Would you make 50 people redundant rather than risk 500 losing their jobs?

Would you close all your council run homes for older people because the care can be bought more cheaply from the private sector despite the distress this will cause to existing residents and the risk that cheap care will be poorer care?

A disciplinary investigation has revealed widespread circulation of “humorous” emails which are sexist and in some cases pornographic. Human resources (HR) initially wanted you to take an uncompromising stance, but they are now back tracking and advising a more pragmatic approach because of the sheer numbers involved and a suspicion that some senior managers might be implicated. HR are advising an amnesty for all those who have passed on emails with a general warning to all staff that any further misuse will lead to disciplinary action and possible dismissal.

There is an offer on the table to take over all your support services at a saving of £5 million a year the very sum you need to save from the budget. This money would mean you would not have to cut child protection services, which to date have been protected at the expense of all other services. However, staff in support services would face redundancy or new employment contracts on lower pay with fewer days leave and less sick pay.

The local hospital trust is blaming social services for bed blocking. You know that the reasons for delayed discharge are as much to do with consultants, ward staff, occupational therapists and even the opening hours of the pharmacy as they are delays in social work assessments. Negotiations on integration are at a delicate stage, but behind the scenes relationship with senior managers in health are cordial. Do you risk all by defending your staff in public against unfair criticism?

Blair McPherson is the author of Equipping managers for an uncertain future published by Russell House

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4 Responses to Social workers can be critical of senior managers at times, but do they truly understand the role?

  1. Andy West January 28, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

    I have been a social worker for 37 years working in and around the front line. I have no problem in understanding the dilemmas that senior managers have to tread through. I know that I would not wish to take on a role of attempting to find logical and fair ways of balancing the competing demands within the service.

    However,my personal issues are that I have never received much of a response in my own authority when I have tried to inform senior managers of “how it appears from the front line.”

    Even more irksome however, and I don’t blame senior managers for this as they are as trapped in a system as anyone else, is the apparent requirement to hide what are competing demands with an appearance that everything is OK rather than presenting politicians, the media, the public, the inspectorate and anyone else who is interested with the reality that everything can’t be achieved and hard choices have to be made with limitations on resources. Greater efficiency is not the answer.

  2. kara nuts January 29, 2014 at 9:16 am #

    A preconceived assumption that social workers may not know what senior managers do in their role. Perhaps it would should be a case that senior managers do not know what front line staff do!

  3. Sadie Hill January 29, 2014 at 2:58 pm #

    Mr McPherson has chosen to take this role and is presumably handsomely rewarded for it; I wonder how much insight he has into life on the ground for social workers.
    As a hospital social worker I was particularly incensed by the “dilemma” as to whether to defend his staff by presenting health managers with the statistical truth regarding delayed discharge and risk the”cordial” relatiotionship he has with them.
    I can assure him that relationships beween social workers and hospital staff who continually blame us for “bed-blocking” on the basis of unfounded assumptions are often far from cordial.

  4. ian Kemp January 29, 2014 at 4:12 pm #

    When I started social work over 40 years ago after university and work in Industry , in my particular Local Authority There was Director a Deputy Directer, then 2 divisional senior managers, Then 12 areas each with a manager then depending on size of the area 3/4 team managers then us social workers plus a senior practitioner for each team .. It worked very well. When I finished regular social work as Team leader this managerial system had increased considerably