A social worker sacked for posing for a men’s magazine was
unfairly treated, says Hilary Searing.
The recent case of a social worker sacked from her job in a
children’s residential home after her semi-nude photographs
appeared in a men’s magazine raises important questions about
whether social services departments have a right to impose their
own “moral” standards of behaviour on the private lives of social
An employment tribunal ruled that the social worker was not
unfairly dismissed and accepted the council’s contention that this
constituted a conflict between her private life and her
professional and public duties. The social services director
claimed the social worker’s ability to instill positive models of
sexuality and self-respect in young people was compromised.
The implication of this judgement is that a female employee of
social services may lose her right to express her personal
sexuality. Males do not experience the same loss of freedom. How
many men have been disciplined for “laddish” behaviour or for
visiting “adult” clubs? There are double standards here.
The council claimed that captions on the social worker’s
pictures conveyed indecency incompatible with her job. In fact,
most people today do not object to a certain degree of explicitness
in sexual matters and would probably not consider the pictures
indecent but merely harmless fun.
However, the three-man tribunal panel judged her behaviour as
having a negative impact on her ability to do her job. Their views
are based on prudish, narrow-minded attitudes that discriminate
against women and are out of touch with the real world.
All teenage girls face difficult and complex issues concerning
their sexuality. Female social workers who are trying to help
vulnerable young women develop into mature women may find it easier
to understand their problems if they have explored and worked
through issues about their own sexuality. Social workers who are at
ease with their sexuality tend to be more relaxed about having open
and frank discussions with young women in their care. I argue that
the ability of the sacked social worker to work with girls would
not have been compromised.
Illicit sexual relationships occasionally develop between
colleagues within social services, even at senior levels. Most
departments are tolerant of such liaisons. When the private lives
of senior managers becomes the subject of office gossip they are
unlikely to lose their jobs. However, when a female social worker
has an unconventional sexual life outside the workplace and this
becomes the subject of workplace gossip, she may be sacked. This is
It is important that all social workers challenge this judgement
and insist on the freedom to express their sexuality, as long as
their behaviour is within the law and does not abuse professional
relationships with clients.
Hilary Searing is a retired social worker.