Dress for success in social work

Social work is one of the few caring professions without a dresscode, leaving many pondering the correct attire for different situations. Kirsty McGregor reports on what to wear

Southampton Council recently advised women in its children’s services department to refrain from wearing mini-skirts. The authority sent an email to 400 workers asking them to “carefully consider their work attire” and dress more conservatively, ensuring skirts and dresses were of a reasonable length.

Men were told that acceptable clothing included a collared shirt, cotton trousers and dress shoes with socks.

The question of what to wear is a particular challenge for social workers, who have no uniform and often have to go straight from a courtroom or a meeting to a home visit.

“What you wear must be appropriate, but it’s also about the image you’re portraying,” says Jo Cleary, director of adults’ services at Lambeth Council, London. Social workers must, for example, wear a suit to court. “You’re representing the authority,” she says.

Cleary also advises social workers meeting older service users to dress smartly as a mark of respect.

But many frontline practitioners nowadays opt instead for a more casual look, such as jeans and a shirt, especially when dealing with children.

Ian Dore, a senior social worker in Brighton and Hove Council’s central children’s team, says: “If you’re trying to relate to somebody and build a relationship, you don’t want to look like someone who might oppress them.”

It can be a minefield, but there are simple ways to dress an outfit up or down, depending on the task. Here, Nicola Cupples, founder of image consultancy My Style Companion, offers social workers tips on how to dress in a manner that is stylish, practical and, above all, professional.

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Anna, 54, local authority child protection social worker

I often have to go directly from court to a home visit, but I don’t want to put off service users by turning up at their front doors in a suit. What can I wear that’s suitable for both?

I would suggest investing in a pair of black trousers in good-quality fabric that fit you well in the leg and around the tummy. Team with blouses, jumpers and tops for home visits and, should you be cold, add a cardigan. You can dress it up for court simply by adding a nice tailored black jacket which nips you in at the waist.

Gary, 32, fostering agency social work assistant

I earn £20,000 a year and I have just put myself forward for a promotion. I won’t be required to wear a suit in the new job, if I get it. What should I wear for the interview?

Wear a pair of smart grey or black trousers with a crisp shirt and a slim-fitting woollen V-neck jumper over the top. Don’t wear colours that are too bright for your interview; you don’t want your outfit to distract from what you have to say. I would suggest a white shirt with a black, navy or teal jumper.

Jim, 21, private agency care worker

I’m a personal assistant and do manual work with disabled people in their homes, such as operating hoists, bathing and toileting. What can I wear that is practical and cheap, but still defines me as a professional?

Look for a pair of practical trousers, such as chinos, which are trendy but look smart. Team with a long-sleeved plain T-shirt or checked shirt. That will ensure you give the right impression upon arriving, but underneath you’re dressed to get the job done.

Marie, 28, local authority newly qualified social worker

I’m going to the office Christmas party but don’t know what to wear. I get on well with my colleagues and I’d like to wear something that shows my fun side, but I’m unsure what is appropriate.

At any work-related function it’s best to not flash too much flesh, so don’t go for anything too low-cut or short. Try a jumpsuit, embellished skirt, or 50s-style dress: whatever fits your personality. Use accessories such as rings, shoes and bag to show your colleagues you’re stylish but professional.

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