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The rise of badly-behaved senior social work managers

Cheating businessman.jpgAs social work organisations become more businesslike and place greater emphasis on competition and keeping costs down, so bad management behaviour becomes more readily accepted, warns former director Blair McPherson.

Lying and cheating your way to the top, how to outwit the auditors and beat your competitors; you won’t find these offered as options on your MBA course or covered on your in-house management development programme. No, this is all part of the unofficial induction for managers, usually accompanied by lessons on when honesty is not the best policy, sucking up to your boss, covering your back and being associated with success, not failure.

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When I became a social work manager, most of what I learned about managerial behaviour was from observation. Of course, I already understood that managers sometimes knew more than they let on and that preparing for an inspection was all about showing the service in a good light. But I was genuinely shocked when, as a senior manager, I found out the director was routinely fiddling the performance figures. I learned other directors would use smoke and mirrors to protect their own directorate at the expense of others during budget cutting discussions. And I witnessed colleagues claiming credit for the efforts of others, distancing themselves when things went wrong.

The more the public sector behaves like the private sector, with an emphasis on competition, keeping costs (wages) down and cutting overheads (management posts), the greater the pressure to achieve overambitious performance targets. And the greater the risk of bullying, fiddling figures, cutting corners, exploiting staff and intimidating whistleblowers.

There was a time when the public sector was so sure of itself that ethical behaviour was taken for granted. That isn’t to say people didn’t cheat or lie; just that no-one would argue that such behaviour was justified or part of the job. Today, the culture within public sector organisations has become more businesslike and, in doing so, it has become more acceptable to behave badly – as long as you deliver. 

Blair McPherson was formerly director of community services at Lancashire council and has been a deputy director in social services and senior manager in a large housing association. He is author of “Equipping managers for an uncertain future”. Find out more 

Photo by Eye Candy/Rex Features

Kirsty McGregor

About Kirsty McGregor

Kirsty McGregor is Community Care's workforce editor. She reports daily on social workers' pay and conditions, education, training, career progression, registration and fitness to practise. This includes issues affecting newly qualified social workers across the UK and the recent development of the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) in England. She is also responsible for producing job hunting and career progression advice.

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