Sharing mistakes in social work means you risk being blamed and shamed

Sophie Ayers argues that social work reform should follow aviation’s example rather than being based on a culture of blame

Photo: Bacho Foto/Fotolia (posed by model)

By Sophie Ayers

While designed to address failings in the child protection system, the measures in the government’s Children and Social Work Bill have brought about widespread controversy and debate.

The first critical area of debate relates to the plan to allow local authorities to be exempted from certain statutory duties, to enable councils to apply creativity in the way they manage their practice.

The second area of debate is the creation of a new regulatory body to ensure we are managed effectively and our professional deficiencies are supported and improved.

A tone of blame

The government’s current approach sets a tone of blame for individual workers. I feel we have taken several steps back from the optimistic times when Professor Eileen Munro first published her review of child protection.

Munro’s work was revolutionary and focused upon key, pertinent issues that nearly all social workers recognised. It is widely agreed that if the recommendations were consistently applied, child protection social work would be transformed.

Therefore, it is incredibly frustrating that so many of her recommendations have not been implemented consistently through the safety of clear legislation.

It appears the government’s approach to social work is ‘top down’ and finds blame in those in the least powerful position, the frontline workers. The whole premise of the Children and Social Work Bill has been about poor social work practice, rather than understanding why failures occur.

Degrading the profession

Blame is also apparent in some of the decisions made by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

This culture perpetuates the narrative that social workers do not function effectively due to their own individual failings, and further degrades the profession.

At present, social workers must adhere to the HCPC’s strict ‘standards of conduct, performance and ethics’. When social workers fall short of the regulator’s expectations, hearings are completed and workers face the consequences through various means such as a mark on their registration; a suspension or a complete removal from the social work register.

Every profession requires a body to ensure that rules are followed and workers adhere to a high level of practice. As social workers we must work to strict ethical guidelines that promote positive work practices and dictates a clear moral obligation in our own personal lives.

This is not a fact that I dispute. However, I feel that social workers’ voices have been lost in the debate in terms of how our professional body can help us move forward as a profession.

Learning culture

We need to build on a true learning culture within the social work profession. Not just an act of ‘tokenistic’ listening to social workers’ views. The managerialist format of the local authorities that we work for leads to stagnation rather than progress.

An improbable and strange comparison to the current social work culture is that of aviation. Within the aviation industry there is a clear system of learning from the mistakes made (even if fatalities occur) to ensure that the same grave problem do not occur again.

In ‘Achieving a safe culture: theory and practice’, a 1998 paper for the journal Work and Stress, Dr. James Reason has suggested that safety culture consists of five elements:

▪ An informed culture

▪ A reporting culture

▪ A learning culture

▪ A just culture

▪ A flexible culture

One of the most significant areas identified that is pertinent to social work practice is the area of a ‘just culture’. In that within a ‘just culture’ “errors and unsafe acts will not be punished if the error was unintentional. However, those who act recklessly or take deliberate and unjustifiable risks will still be subject to disciplinary action”.

The airline culture dictates that safety has to be systemic and it is expected that failures are shared. This is to ensure that other professionals can learn from mistakes and make sure that similar errors are not made.

This is an industry where mistakes can have an instant fatal effect. It is my view that there is a dichotomy between the social work profession and the airline industry. If an aviator does not share mistakes to ensure that an error can be discussed and rectified, disciplinary procedures will be followed.

Sharing mistakes

But if you share mistakes in social work you run a significant risk of being blamed, disciplined and struck off from the HCPC register.

I believe that we need to build upon the wisdom that has accumulated within the airline industry. If children die whilst under the eyes of social workers, learning must be the ultimate position as opposed to blame, shame and retribution.

It is abundantly clear that the current media temperament favours stories of ruinous incompetence as opposed to the complicated and untenable situations that social workers face.

Social workers are highly unlikely to “act recklessly or take deliberate and unjustifiable risks”. However, candid responses relating to catastrophic outcomes are unlikely due to the HCPC’s current culture of reprimanding social workers without regard for their working environment.

It appears that it is enough to blame social workers for falling foul of the ‘standards of conduct, performance and ethics’. There is no expectation that the HCPC can mitigate its judgement on the actions of a social worker through the working environment that they encounter.

In this time of uncertainty within social work, the Children and Social Work Bill and a new regulator is looming. It is incredibly important that we actively challenge Parliament and start to take ownership of our profession.

True feedback from a range of practicing social workers is essential but difficult to obtain. Due to the working pressures of frontline child protection social workers, having the time and space to provide feedback is not easy.

Relationship with the frontline

The government needs to make every effort to rebuild its relationship with frontline staff. When looking at our future regulatory body, shouldn’t the primary stance be ‘how can we provide a working environment that leads to best practice and reduce the endemic turnover of experienced staff?’

It is odd that social workers spend their days visiting people, changing their location and consulting with endless professionals and families to form a conclusion. Why does the government not follow this approach? Sitting in Whitehall is likely to lead to two-dimensional, over-optimistic and formulaic plans.

Policy makers and politicians, please leave the office, imbibe reality and take action as you see fit. Breathe, know and be accountable for the people that you serve.

We need a regulatory body with an acute sense of introspection, emotional intelligence and an understanding of the morally turbulent narratives of our daily working lives. It is yet to be seen if ‘Social Work England’ will strive to support practitioners or perpetuate the culture of blame.

Something more

Rather than an organisation that sends out a practice certificate and card every two years, should we not be looking for something much more? How about a written newsletter from the chief executive, promoting practice and telling us how we can move forward?

There is an inherent conflict whereby a regulatory authority is responsible for the governance of our profession. Perhaps an amalgamation should take place whereby professional standards sits alongside a framework for positive practice.

Recognition of high practice standards does not need to be an exception or be held separate from the body that investigates deficiencies. Perhaps positive accounts our practice could be reported in a confidential manner alongside the negative aspects of our profession.

The bottom up

There appears to be an assumption that a strategic overview can only come from senior managers and politicians. This is a fallacy. Social workers on the ground know the details of everyday practice. Ask any frontline worker for a realistic plan to make changes in their local authority and I am sure they could offer many viable options.

At present, social workers pay £90 per year to register with the HCPC. Aside from the disciplinary aspect, I am hard-pushed to recognise any other service that is provided to the social work profession by it.

The HCPC appears to be a generic organisation that is in place to monitor and reprimand rather than to support and promote positive practice.

The rights of social workers and service users are not separate, they are inherently linked. If the government and our regulator body will start to listen from the bottom up, I am convinced that the system will be transformed.

▪ Sophie Ayers is a child protection social worker. She tweets @sophieayers1982

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16 Responses to Sharing mistakes in social work means you risk being blamed and shamed

  1. Planet Autism January 25, 2017 at 2:35 pm #

    There are many instances of social worker behaviour which have nothing to do with pressures or management, but to do with their own lack of ethics and deliberate choices, in these cases blame should always be apportioned.

    • Tim Jackson January 26, 2017 at 1:38 pm #

      I have no problem with people being blamed in those situations and can’t imagine that many people would. Recently though, we have been seeing people disciplined and de-registered in circumstances where it seems clear that they were set up to fail by their employer. If a Social Worker has a caseload double recommended numbers and tells their employer that they can’t manage it does not seem fair for the HCPC to throw the book at the practitioner and not mention the employer’s role.

  2. SSM January 25, 2017 at 7:36 pm #

    Planet Autism, I totally agree with you. I am sure that most social workers have met someone who really should not have entered into the profession, I have met 2 in 15 years. However, every day I see social workers working excessive hours, under horrendous pressure in the hope of keep our children safe. I see social workers cry most weeks, not due to the strain of working with some terrible situations and abusive people, but crying from the pressure within their own organisations. I have seen many colleagues’ mental health suffer. I have seen 3 people have breakdown.

    I see unrealistic timescales, no supper staff, management who think if a case is allocated they are devoid of responsibility, I have seen social workers raise the unrealistic caseload being targeted as incompetent. I have seen bulling, victimisation and damn right nastiness. HCPC are another tool to abuse hard working and committed social workers.

    If the number of social workers were doubled, the local authority still need the good will of social workers to work additional unpaid hours without pay to meet their statutory duties.

    • John Macintosh January 26, 2017 at 12:33 pm #

      Well my own experience with them is so bad I would not trust any off them and they should not be in that kind of work if they can’t handle the situation

  3. Rosaline January 25, 2017 at 9:34 pm #

    Councils have to be willing to be a learning culture, this is a vision and belief and is not easy to achieve. Behaviours must be reflective of how you want the organisation to be and sharing learning should be recognised as a developmental exercise

  4. John Smith January 26, 2017 at 6:53 am #

    This article strikes me as special pleading. What about the horrendous report this week about a social worker who reportedly revealed the address of an abused individual to their abusive partner on two occasions? Is that all down to work pressures?

    If policy makers and politicians must “Breathe, know and be accountable for the people that you serve.” that should apply to social workers as well.

    What would a “framework for positive practice” look like?

    A little research (one minute on Google) reveals that the HCPC already publishes a newsletter and a weekly issues brief – contradictory to what the article says:

    (I bet this comment isn’t published because social workers can’t stand criticism.)

  5. Catherine J Hunter January 26, 2017 at 7:52 am #

    All senior managers do is blame front line managers and social workers for mistakes to protect themselves. We have seen this all too often. Frontline Managers do the hardest job to manage pods with social workers with high caseloads, poor work conditions, poor IT systems, too much beaucracy and limited support staff. The reality is they have no voice and no support. Ofsted need to be more rigorous in scrutinising senior managers to assess how effectively they lead. There is a well known local authority who totally destroyed the Vision after a outstanding inspection in 2012. Interim managers came who were given huge pay cheques. They need to be held accountable after all they are our leaders and need to effectively lead, listen and support their work force in order to meet the needs of vulnerable children and their families.
    We have seen this name and shame culture all over and it is victimisation and bullying. Ofsted come in and they blame their staff or ex staff members. This needs to stop now. In order for Ofsted to get a true picture of what is really going on they need to interview workers or managers who are subject disciplinary investigations and those who have had periods of long term sickness and have taken out grievances to track the patterns and themes. I doubt this happens. It needs to for change to happen.

  6. Chris Mills January 26, 2017 at 10:59 am #

    In marked contrast with some of the foregoing comments, I believe that Sophie Ayers makes some excellent points in this article. Nobody would argue that truly egregious behaviour should pass without sanction, but the cult of blaming and shaming social workers for what are errors made in good faith, while they struggle to do a good job in difficult and sometimes impossible circumstances, has reached epidemic proportions in the popular media.

    Blame and fear inhibit learning. The only safe organisations are ones in which learning is encouraged and rewarded. Sophie refers to “the wisdom that has accumulated within the airline industry”. There it has been realised that if you punish people for reporting errors, services become very much less safe. Because it is acknowledged that human error is a major cause of airline disasters, pilots and other aviation employees are now encouraged to talk openly about the things that go wrong. And systems exist so that they can report their own errors without incurring blame or sanction. Only by uncovering mistakes can their causes be understood. And only by understanding the causes of human error can safer systems be created.

    How many people who are quick to point the finger of blame at social workers would want to fly with an airline that encouraged its staff to cover-up human errors? It is time to grow-up and to stop scoring quick and easy points by pointing the finger of blame at social workers. It should be apparent to everybody that creating a situation in which good people trying to do their best in difficult circumstances are uncritically blamed when things go wrong, is a recipe for disaster. Either people will struggle on, unable to learn and improve because they fear the consequences of discussing error, or they will realise their vulnerability and vote with their feet by moving on to other roles in which they can work, learn and grow more easily.

  7. Miss Taylor January 26, 2017 at 12:01 pm #

    Oh dear, seems to be even more bitterness within our own. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, who has never made a mistake or error of judgement? in other words which of you out there are perfect?

    As in most professions there are a minority of people who definitely should not be in this profession. There are also many down right nasty personalities who become managers too and they are usually the drivers of witch hunts leading to the HCPC.

    In over 20yrs of practice I have seen my fair share of these folk. Many fall by the wayside naturally, those who are criminally minded usually quite rightly get caught and are dealt with appropriately this is where the HCPC should concentrate their judgements and sanctions.

    In my time I have met many hundreds of social workers who work dammed hard, and under no circumstances would ever deliberately set out to misjudge, make errors or mistakes in any way, and are absolutely mortified when things do go wrong. It is a nasty, vicious regulatory body who sanction and strike off those professionals who by the time they reach their kangaroo court hearings are already broken people who need support rather than punishment – as the article above suggests.

    The experience of going through a HCPC referral to a final hearing is devastating for the majority of social workers, of course though there will always be some that don’t care and won’t bother to turn up. I feel the current culture of ‘blame the social worker for every failing’ is not only attributed to the press, the HCPC are the greater perpetrator and will blame a social worker for absolutely every thing that can and will go wrong. When at the end of the day most failings and mistakes are the result of management decisions and orders to the front line.

    Come on HCPC you know full well that if we do what you say we must and take personal responsibility, refuse to do something we deem wrong or dangerous, finish on time without completing a write-up because we are exhausted – we will be sacked anyway and referred to you for insubordination. When we do as we’re ordered and things go wrong we sacked blamed and still sanctioned.

    A model similar to that suggested above would surely be beneficial and would certainly go some way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

  8. Pete Feldon January 26, 2017 at 12:17 pm #

    The lack of systematic learning from practice is regrettably pervasive throughout social work. To give an example from social work with adults – we are approaching the second anniversary of the commencement of the Care Act, yet little has been published on how social workers are applying it. As Sophie says it is essential to get feedback from practicing social workers but this is difficult to obtain.

    I was interested to see the reference to the aviation industry. The NHS has been developing a similar approach and this is evident in a recent publication on patient safety

    In this document they make an important point that person-centred care can only work if there is feedback from patients, carers and staff to drive quality improvement.

  9. Tom J January 26, 2017 at 1:18 pm #

    Thank you Sophie Ayers- great article.

    If the HCPC applied its previous judgements to every social worker I believe that 70% would be sanctioned or struck off, and not because they are a poor practitioners, but because they have 30+ cases, are working all hours as they care, but struggling to keep 30+ plates spinning at once.

    A freedom of information request to most local authorities will reveal that a majority of social workers are currently holding ridiculous caseloads. The solution should be to do something about it e.g. right now primary school class sizes are capped at 30, if a teacher goes off ill they don’t have a class of 60 for the rest of the year, moreover I as a parent would be in uproar if this was attempted for my daughter. Hence the solution is to end the culture that says it is okay for social workers to hold excessive caseloads and yes this will require investment.

    HOWEVER the present plan is keep the high caseloads and put the social worker in front of the HCPC firing squad should there be any resulting bad practice, all compliments off social workers who have to self-fund the bullets.

  10. rosemarytrustam January 26, 2017 at 2:39 pm #

    I absolutely agree that we need a culture of learning and reflection that acknowledges and learns from mistakes. We cannot expect in what’s a difficult balance social workers have to manage that there won’t be mistakes sometimes – we expect that caseloads, experiences support and the opportunity for reflection will take account of this. I’m not sure that the move to hot-desking whihc isolates is the best way to give a condusive context. I used to find the team co-location really helpful for discussing dificult or complex situations with colleagues. Clearly if social workers lie to cover up (eg one recent social worker who’d made uo visits he’d not made) or exploitative contact are a different issue.I’d also suggest social workers ensure they say it but also record things like continually cancelled supervisions or overloads – and ensure they confirm in writing to their manager/or if a manager to senior manager concerning situations and warn of likely consequences if not addressed. We have a responsibility to draw to their attention issues likely to undermine standards required of us – use our code of practice. However if we persist in having the blame culture it leads to cover ups and inevitable burnouts too of conscientious experienced social workers. I agree we should be speaking out. BASW missed the opportunity to grasp the setting and monitoring of standards – what are they doing? or do we need a more representative body – or are social workers all to exhausted?

  11. Dave January 27, 2017 at 7:29 am #

    I thought this was a fair and reasonably balanced article – some of the comments somewhat less so and rather intemperate. I think I would take issue with the free use of the term ‘blame’ which seems to me to be somewhat loaded and vindictive. We do need to be clear what has happened when something has gone wrong, and what has led to that. We need to consider where responsibility lies and whether it is with individuals who have acted either mistakenly or negligently, but we also need to examine the system to see if there are failures there that have led to or contributed to the problem.

    ‘Blaming’ senior managers is as unhelpful as blaming frontline workers – most work really hard and do so for laudable reasons. Generally they are trying to get maximum utility out of limited resources.

    Yes there are frontline workers and senior managers who are in the wrong job, or at best in the wrong post – some are lazy or selfish or incompetent and need to be weeded out if possible. The vast majority are not, and seeking to apportion blame, whether generically or in individual cases is unjust and unhelpful.

  12. Ruth Cartwright February 1, 2017 at 12:24 pm #

    GSCC (our regulating body before HCPC) espoused the aviation model quite a few years ago. It never took off (pun intentional) in social work because the media and those in authority needed people to blame, often in the case of employers for their own inadequacies in terms of funding, providing of reasonable working conditions and valuing their staff.

  13. Jadwiga Leigh February 2, 2017 at 10:37 pm #

    You might find this interesting to listen to: Margaret Hefferman (2014) talking about Just Culture on BBC Radio 4 after Rotherham. She also draws from the aviation model

  14. Ellie February 3, 2017 at 1:46 pm #

    I cannot help but wonder why it is that Community Care permits the publishing of comments such as those made by “Planet Autism”, and others, which appear to be of a deliberately inflammatory nature. Is there no mechanism to spot, and to weed out, comments made by potential cyber “trolls”?

    I suggest that such comments amount to little other than “trolling” for the following reasons:

    1. “Planet Autism” states that “there are many instances of social worker behaviour that have nothing to do with pressures or management, but to do with their own lack of ethics or deliberate choices”. After stating this, NO evidence whatsoever is provided to substantiate this claim. If “Planet Autism”, or anyone else, has witnessed such behaviour from social workers, then why not provide examples? It is VERY easy to make empty, unsubstantiated claims (that is what “trolls” do!), but at the end of the day, the claim remains unsubstantiated. It is hard to take such a claim, when backed by NO firm evidence, seriously. By contrast, were evidence to have been provided to back up the claim, then it may be possible to take it seriously. I would argue that this claim is therefore little more than a vindictive comment.

    2. Ought we not to ask why people like “Planet Autism” are so intent upon singling out social workers for criticism? Sounds to me like someone with a hidden agenda, or an axe to grind! After all, it could be argued that examples of poor practice may be found in pretty much each and every profession. Even professionals are human, and get things wrong! Some do this by accident, others by design. There are bad Nurses out there (Beverly Allitt, Victorina Chua being 2 examples). There are bad doctors out there (Harold Shipman, for example). There are instances of Police incompetence (Hillsborough), of financial mismanagement in the banking industry (e.g. Nick Leeson), of media malpractice (e.g. Rebekah Brooks), NHS scandals (e.g. Mid Staffs)… Whenever and wherever malpractice or incompetence is seen to occur, we ought not to be simply pointing the finger of blame at the first person we can find to scapegoat. Rather, we ought to be asking just how the situation was arrived at.

    Before people like “Planet Autism” post their insensitive, ill-considered comments, perhaps they need to sit for a while, and consider the day-to-day working conditions that some social workers have to face. Whilst it is true that mistakes and poor practice are something we could all well do without, it is also true that certain types of problematic working conditions and employee mismanagement by employers can be major contributory factors. Many social workers do indeed face massive and potentially unmanageable caseloads. The simple fact is that were ANY worker to be overloaded at work, the potential for errors increases – NO human being can spread him- or herself impossibly thinly! Add to this problems caused by short-staffing or high staff turnover (i.e. fewer employees taking on work that actually requires more workers). Problems caused by “hotdesking” (which isolates staff, and which creates turmoil and disorganization because workers cannot have their own space, and often find it hard to locate a workstation when they need one). Problems caused by under-funding (which leads to lack of resources, that has a major impact upon service delivery). Problems with training and qualifications, resulting from constant changes to the way staff are trained, which in turn erodes the profession’s value base. Problems with recruitment, caused by things like pay “freezes”, wage increases that barely keep up with inflation, poor working conditions, or lack of bursary funding for prospective trainees.

    Where employees are forced to put up with working conditions that are less than satisfactory, the outcome is usually less than satisfactory too. Mistakes happen, perhaps because employees are “burned out” or overworked. Friction in the workplace increases because staff who are unhappy and demoralized may find it hard not to show it. This can lead to staff leaving the job (or leaving the profession altogether). At the end of the day, people are quite capable of voting with their feet, and employees who are discontented at work do this by quitting the job and finding a better one elsewhere! Obviously, all of this has an impact upon services delivered. It is NOT, however, always the fault of the individual social worker(s).

    As I have already stated, what is going on within social work mirrors what is going on within many other professions. Mistakes happen in ALL employment situations. Rather than having people make unqualified comments about workers’ “lack of ethics and deliberate choices”, ought we not to understand that any worker’s choices are made within the context of a particular employment situation? To explain further…

    Whilst it may be true that employees is all jobs make individual choices (the first of which is what job they go into), it is also true that these choices are impacted upon, and sometimes even dictated, by the nature of their work and working environment. So, an employee in a supportive working environment who is doing a job he/she really enjoys and feels empowered plus respected in, has all the equipment needed to make effective (i.e. good) choices. By contrast, an employee who is overworked, underpaid, harassed, lacking support and feels disempowered or disrespected has few tools to make effective choices. “Bad” choices, if that is what we wish to call them, can result from being stressed, overworked, bullied at work, lacking support, lacking appropriate supervision… Employees within any workforce are NOT islands, they are NOT stand-alone. Rather, they work best when effectively managed, supported and surrounded by a cohesive team and good managers – when they feel integrated into a workplace that provides them with nurturance and guidance, and which respects and rewards their talents and ability. This is why the concepts of both employers’ VICARIOUS LIABILITY, and of employers’ DUTY OF CARE exist. Employers are vicariously liable for the acts of their employees – so it makes sense to support employees and to provide the best working conditions to ensure that they act well. Furthermore, the employers’ duty of care to their employees is supposed to make manifest their offers of support, guidance, nurturance and training. Perhaps this is something to be considered?

    As to workers’ ethics? Well, as noted, social work is far from the only profession where mistakes may be made. The same applies to nursing, medicine, policing, teaching, aviation, construction… indeed, any and every job. If we are to imply that mistakes are made due to workers’ lack of ethics, then the fact that they occur in every job is worrying – it speaks poorly of humankind. So, perhaps the lack of ethics thing is not entirely accurate. There MAY be some employees who do truly lack ethics, and who choose to act consciously upon this lack (e.g. Harold Shipman, Beverly Allitt), but these people are perhaps few and far between. More probable is a situation in which employees lack guidance, or are confused as to the right thing to do because a situation is unclear (much of the ongoing debate around issues such as safeguarding, mental capacity, human rights, etc. shows that some situations are far from clear-cut). Jobs like social work are ones that the public do not seem to fully understand, anyway. The public do not seem to see that social workers are daily called upon to make difficult decisions in situations that may be conflicted or confusing, and that the ethics of this may always be somewhat of a matter for personal opinion. Social work, perhaps more than any other job, requires workers to work in potentially inflammatory situations where ethics are hard to manage – situations that the general public tend to view as hard to deal with and hard to accept. For instance, working with criminals, working with people who are mentally ill, adoption, fostering…

    Because social workers are often called upon to work in situations that the general public still views as inflammatory – even as “taboo” – it is small wonder that “lack of ethics” may be a criticism made by the ignorant. If, as our society still does, we are unwilling to scrutinize or to talk about situations involving abuse, mental illness, rape, illegitimate birth, teen pregnancy, adoption, drug abuse, homelessness… ALL situations that social workers deal with, then HOW can the general public be justified in their excessive criticism of social care? Our society as a whole has yet to get to grips with many of the ethical dilemmas that social workers are facing on a daily basis. Why? Because MOST people in society think they can just avoid them! THAT is why topics like abortion, child abuse, racism, mental illness, learning disability, residential care… remain “taboo”, remain things we de not regularly talk about. The irony is that, societally, we are very good at criticizing the few people who HAVE chosen to tackle these issues whilst simultaneously turning our collective back on dealing with those issues ourselves! I mean, if I askes most people whether a person with Downs Syndrome should be allowed to get married and get pregnant; or whether a person with Dementia is capable of living unaided in their own home if that is what they claim to do; or whether a person who regularly abuses cocaine is capable of successfully raising a child… then I doubt they would find it easy to provide answers. Even if they did provide answers, who could say whether they would work, or whether they were right. THIS is what social workers face EVERY DAY!

    The issue is NOT one of social workers’ – or indeed nurses’, doctors’, aviatiors’, police, teachers’… lack of individual ethics. Rather, it is a LACK OF SOCIETY’S COLLECTIVE ETHICS. As we rarely discuss certain issues in society, we also do not discuss ethical dilemmas surrounding them. As a result, there is no general societal consensus as to how to handle these issues. For instance, we all have different views on homelessness, on unemployment, on teen pregnancy, on welfare benefits, on mental illness… On the huge variety of issues that social workers work with. Because these different view exist, it makes it hard for people like social workers to handle such situations effectively, and be seen to be doing “the right thing”. Because “the right thing” does NOT exist. Differences of opinion in society mean that there will always be someone, somewhere, who thinks the social worker is doing the wrong thing!

    So… the answer to the above is for those in power (our Government, MPs, Political Leaders, heads of big business, education, policing, healthcare and other chiefs…) to start tackling the issue from the top downwards. If, as it seems, society has formed no general consensus as to how we should tackle certain inflammatory issues like homelessness, welfare benefits, mental capacity, teen pregnancy, adoption… then perhaps the lead should come from those who have chosen to put themselves in positions of power and influence. Our societal problems are longstanding, and lack of willingness to talk about topics like mental illness, or unemployment, or teen pregnancy or whatever else does not help. Added to this is the fact that we have a political system which, however well meaning, actually entrenches these problems and differences of opinion. We have different political parties that represent the different views of people in society, and all these parties compete against each other for power. Would it not be much better – and much healthier for our society – if when it came to significant issues such as those above (homelessness, mental illness, teen pregnancy, healthcare, mental capacity, crime, unemployment, welfare, etc…) the various political parties worked TOGETHER in order to share public opinion, and to reach a general consensus as to how issues are to be tackled? Would it not also make sense, now, for our society as a whole to be encouraged to start talking more openly – to adopt a more open and honest attitude – towards important social issues? After all, there is NO point attempting to hide away from things like adoption, child abuse, gay marriage, crime, mental illness, bullying… these things ARE happening, right now, in our society. Turning a societal “blind eye” does NOT make them go away. The most adult, and appropriate, way to deal with them is to address them head on. We could learn a lot from societies that are more open than ours, such as that of the Netherlands.

    And… yes… adopting a model within any profession that encourages the honest reporting of errors, and encourages staff to learn from mistakes is a healthy thing to do. Humans learn by example, and by reflection. At work this means that they need both exemplary leadership, and a commitment to reflective practice. As any social worker who has come across child abuse could tell you, “scapegoating” is not a healthy behaviour, and it does not solve problems. Rather, it is the behaviour of dishonest, manipulative and abusive people who are in crisis. Truly solving problems necessitates identifying and taking ownership of them, then learning from the mistake made. This can only happen in an open culture that is not excessively punitive, and does not condemn “whistleblowers”. By contrast, draconian measures only make people MORE dishonest. Employees fearing punishment even for minor infringements are likely to simply reach a point where they deliberately hide their mistakes. I do not doubt that for every employee who is courageously honest about his/her failings, there may be several others who are making mistakes and then covering them up! Nurses who steal drugs off the ward they work on. Taxi drivers claiming mileage they have not done. Doctors forgetting to write up prescriptions in time for a patient’s discharge. Charity managers claiming on their CV to have skills and qualifications that they do not have in reality… The list is probably endless. THAT is a matter of ETHICS. Ought we not to face the fact that some employees daily make mistakes and deliberately hide them? At present, in respect of this, our whole employment culture is wrong. Reward honesty, and you will likely see more of it. Fail to reward the right values, and you will probably see more of the wrong ones!