Best and worst decisions I’ve made: Mark Doel

A move to the US taught Mark Doel about tyranny in the workplace

The best

I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a varied career in social work – practitioner, lecturer, independent trainer, academic manager, researcher – but the best career decision I made was to move into a joint appointment between the social services department and the local university.

I worked four days a week in social services and one day a week as a lecturer and the experience had a profound effect on me. I rather liked coming into the uni “with dirt under my fingernails”, though I have more sympathy with the “out-of-touch” lecturers now! I held this joint appointment for 10 years and it had a huge impact on my understanding of social work and my actual practice.

I liked keeping the students on their toes too, as I turned up on either side of what they too often saw as the fence.

I’m pleased joint appointments are being recommended as a way forward by the Social Work Task Force because I think they can be very influential in promoting good practice.

The worst

My worst decision was taking up a social work post in a private children’s agency in the US.

It was my first job as a qualified social worker and I was relatively inexperienced. The work itself – with children and young people in long-term foster care in the highly deprived downtown areas of a large US city – was rewarding, but the agency was completely mad.

The trouble was, it took me a while to figure this out. It was very hierarchical, there was widespread abuse of power and any criticism was analysed with crass psycho-babble. I was forced to wear a tie (this was the 1970s and we all looked like hippies!).

But the showdown came when I was hauled over the coals for organising an agency party where support staff would be mixing with professional staff. At this point I resigned before they could sack me. Even so, I would go through it all again – it was a fascinating time to be in the US (Nixon had just resigned as president) and, after a liberal upbringing and education, it taught me about the potential for tyranny and the lack of democracy in our places of work.

Mark Doel is research professor of social work at the Centre for Health and Social Care Research at Sheffield Hallam University

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