Tips for social workers on cultural competence

Social workers don't need to be highly knowledgeable about different cultures, but must be open, respectful and willing to learn

word 'culture' spelt out on map 600
Photo: fotolia/Sean K

This article comprises of excerpts taken from a research review on Community Care Inform Children about cultural competence. The review was updated in June 2018 by Prospera Tedam, assistant professor in social work at United Arab Emirates University. Subscribers can read the full review, which includes models for culturally competent social work practice, on Inform Children.

Culture and cultural identity are crucially important concepts in health and social care, and this is borne out in literature, legislation and social work training. Writers and researchers, as well as policy-makers and educators, increasingly realise that the service users’ sense of cultural identity may be so important to them that any attempt to help or intervene without considering potential cultural ramifications is fraught with difficulty.

Social workers need not (as is often claimed) be highly knowledgeable about the cultures of the people they serve, but they must approach culturally different people with openness and respect, and a willingness to learn. For that reason alone, self-awareness and rigorous self-scrutiny are the most important components in the knowledge base of culturally competent practice.

Benefits of being culturally competent

Lum (2007) has argued that cultural competence has its roots in social action, social justice and advocacy and that these concepts hold relevance for anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice generally.

Culturally competent practice can result in positive outcomes for service users, particularly in areas such as mental health, where cultural competence has been found to have had positive impact on service users from ethnic minority groups. This is due to workers being able to understand every aspect of the person’s concerns, thereby enabling them propose interventions and care that are more likely to succeed (Thyer et al, 2010).

In addition, culturally competent practice enables social workers to meet the requirements of their regulatory body as well as the Professional Capabilities Framework domains and the knowledge and skills statements.

Challenges for practitioners

One of the biggest challenges for social workers is about whether or not they view cultural competence as achievable or as idealistic. It could be argued that a practitioner can never achieve cultural ‘competence’ because of the fluid nature of what is perceived as ‘cultural’, and that what we ought to strive for is cultural consciousness.

Harrison and Turner (2011) suggest that the word ‘competence’ is generally understood to refer to specific skills and abilities which can be assessed and that its use therefore reflects a need to perform. Such an understanding could inadvertently suggest that social workers perform cultural competence at the expense of embedding it into their daily practice.

In addition to this, there is the view that cultural competence promotes ‘othering’ by assuming that social workers will be from the dominant or majority culture (Sakamoto, 2007).

Whatever the perceived or actual challenges associated with cultural competence, social workers are required to acknowledge the importance of it in their engagement with service users and also recognise their professional commitment of ‘respect for diversities’ and promotion of social justice and human rights, themes which are embedded in the global definition of social work.

Tips for developing culturally competent social work practice

  • Spend some time getting to know the service user, do not rush meetings and interventions.
  • Be continually aware of the social work values you have signed up to as a social worker.
  • Be self-aware – remember your personal cultural values and beliefs.
  • Remember the service user is the expert of their experience, adopt a position of ‘not knowing’ and be ready to learn.
  • Reflect on the power of language. Language empowers and can also leave a person wounded.
  • Do not make assumptions about service users because you perceive that they come from a similar background to another service user or someone you know.
  • Resist tokenism or simple ‘box ticking’ as a means of evidencing your cultural competence.
  • Be flexible, not rigid, particularly when using existing frameworks and tools.


Harrison, G; Turner, R (2011)
‘Being a ‘Culturally Competent’ Social Worker: Making Sense of a Murky Concept in Practice
The British Journal of Social Work, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp333–350

Lum, D (2007)
Culturally Competent Practice: A Framework for Understanding Diverse Groups and Justice Issues (edition 3)

Sakamoto, I (2007)
‘A critical examination of immigrant acculturation: Toward an anti-oppressive social work model with immigrant adults in a pluralistic society’
British Journal of Social Work, Volume 37, pp515–35

Thyer, B (ed) (2010)
Cultural diversity and social work practice
Springfield: Charles C Thomas

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