Social work managers want to do their best for service users and for the people they manage. So dealing with poor performance by a social worker can be dispiriting for everyone involved.
For the practitioner whose efforts are being challenged, it sends difficult messages about their ability, their job choice, and even their sense of identity. And for the manager, it can absorb precious time and energy, which could otherwise be spent on improving outcomes for service users and families.
Given the additional pressures handling poor performance can cause, then, it’s important that we get it right as often as possible. In that vein, here are five common mistakes that managers make, that you should try to avoid.
1. Being unclear of your terms
Do you know what you mean by poor performance? I’ve known social workers who only managed to do 60% of their reviews in a year, but who did them thoroughly, engagingly, and successfully. Yet in the same team were practitioners who reviewed every case, but whose reviews were brief, formulaic and disempowering.
Would you, your organisation and your clients all agree as to which is the poor performer? It’s important to be clear, with yourself and the social worker, what aspects of good practice you want them to achieve. Is it the human relationship aspects – empathy, empowerment, respect – or is it doing all the assessment or funding paperwork on time?
2. Being too punitive
SCIE’s Learning Together approach to identifying where things have gone wrong in services is rooted in the notion that no one comes to work intending to do a bad job (there are disciplinary procedures for people who are deliberately disruptive). So if poor performance is happening, it’s important to try to identify the underlying factors enabling poor performance to occur.
Social workers may face organisational challenges like high colleague or managerial turnover; systemic pressures such as overly-high caseloads or the need to grapple with new legislation; or personal issues like family problems or illness. Being aware of these is not at all the same thing as not tackling the poor performance but it does mean as managers we have to try to understand why a worker is struggling. Starting off by rigidly demanding immediate improvements, on the pain of formal procedures, may not be the way to go.
3. Ignoring the preventative stuff
We know preventative approaches can work with our clients. We should bear them in mind for our teams, too. Good induction, regular supervision, team meetings, and efforts to develop your team as a reflective, learning organisation all take time. But the investment can reap dividends further down the line, in terms of making it clear to staff what’s expected, and giving them tools to achieve those expectations.
One hugely important thing by way of preventing future problems is to do probation properly. If you do have someone who is not up to the job, for whatever reason, being able to evidence that in the early weeks, and supporting them out of the door, may save you work and stress for years to come.
4. Handling poor performance inflexibly
If you do need to address the performance of struggling social workers, be prepared to tailor your approach. I have managed social workers with an unwarranted but unshakeable belief in their own excellence, and others who so lacked faith in their ability that they were incapable of reaching a decision on anything.
Clearly, these need to be handled differently. There are people who will need mentoring; others will benefit from direct observation and detailed feedback. A more managed caseload may be needed for some; and there are staff who may require protected time to complete administrative tasks. It’s up to you, senior colleagues, and the worker themselves to identify the right approaches.
5. Managing formal procedures sloppily
Sometimes all our best preventative and supportive techniques fall short, and formal capability processes are necessary. That may well signify that you have a social worker performing well below the standard expected. So your efforts at this point will need to be consistent, rigorous and clear, as SCIE’s guide to management makes clear, so that the person has the best possible chance to improve. And, bluntly, so that you have the best possible case should it become necessary to seek to terminate that person’s job. That can be horrible, but if it needs to be done, it will be because the right of service users to decent support is not being upheld.
If poor performance is affecting the lives of vulnerable people, then you have to dedicate the effort to putting together a well-evidenced, timely and robust capability process. In the end, that will be in the best interests of you, the team, the team’s clients, and even the overwhelmed worker themselves.
Hugh Constant is practice development manager at the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE).