Social work is a very important sector within society that focuses on helping the most vulnerable within it. Without social workers in settings such as schools or the public sector, the world would not be as fair or inclusive. In addition, social work as a field also makes all areas of life accessible for everyone and removes any barriers certain groups may face.
This industry is also important in terms of employment on a national scale due to the vital role social work professionals play. As a result, moving into this sector is a popular career choice and one that is open to those with the right qualifications. With a range of roles to apply for, good rates of pay, and a bright outlook in terms of jobs, social work has a lot going for it as a career.
To reach the top in this sector, you must have the right skills and knowledge to go with the right qualifications. Cultural competency is a great example – but what is it, and why is it so important?
What is cultural competency in social work?
Anyone who works in the social work field will spend a lot of time dealing with people. This is because social work is focused on helping people who need assistance, advice, or support. It is key to understand that many people who come to social workers for guidance are from a range of cultural backgrounds. These will often differ from the culture of the social worker who deals with them.
Therefore, cultural competency in social work refers to professionals in the industry being familiar with various cultures. It also refers to social workers’ understanding of how important it is to respect the cultures of their clients and engage with them in a suitable manner. In addition, cultural competency also covers social workers adapting to work with new cultures and being willing to learn more about them.
Anti-oppressive practice in social work and cultural competency
Incorporating cultural competency into your daily role can be done by focusing on anti-oppressive practices. Abbreviated to AOP for short, this is a set of micro, mezzo, and macro practices which help social workers fight against the oppression of certain individuals, groups, or communities.
This is a multi-disciplinary approach social workers use to make society a fairer place and includes elements such as feminism and racial equality. Anti-oppressive practices in social work also focus on cultural oppression.
As a result, it gives social workers a chance to help people/groups from a variety of cultures in their roles and hone their cultural competency skills. Click here to find out more about anti-oppressive practices and how the online Master of Social Work from Spalding University can teach you how to utilize them in the social work arena.
Why is cultural competency important for this sector?
Just as cultural competency in healthcare is crucial, so is it for social work.
This sector is primarily concerned with enhancing human life and making society a better, fairer place for all. Cultural competency is a key building block in how social workers can put this into practice – but why is it so vital?
To begin with, cultural competency helps professionals in the industry set a good example and avoid being seen as hypocritical. By always treating clients with respect regardless of their culture, those involved with social work show the rest of us how to do it and why it is crucial. Taking a truly inclusive approach to culture regarding the clients they accept, or the staff social work employers hire also helps set the standard for society to follow.
Better service for clients
As we have already noted, cultural competency sees social workers striving to understand the culture of the people they help. It also involves using cultural sensitivity and respect when engaging with clients. This is very important because it sees them delivering a much better service overall.
By employing high levels of cultural sensitivity when talking through a client’s case, social workers make the client feel more comfortable. This can also build a better connection between the client and the social worker.
All this ensures that the client opens up more and gives the social worker all the key information needed to offer the best support. It also means that the person who has come for help enjoys a much more positive experience overall.
Cultural competency for social workers also ensures that cultural barriers do not hinder offering the best outcomes. By employing high levels of cultural competency, social workers can connect people with the most appropriate resources for their background and find effective solutions for each client.
Enables social workers to avoid causing offense
Cultural competency is also crucial in preventing social workers from causing accidental offense to clients. Although this might not sound easy to do, different cultures have a range of rules that are easy to break if you are unaware of them.
Wearing outdoor shoes inside, for example, is a major etiquette blunder in Japan and something to avoid. This could be critical knowledge for social workers when visiting people from this culture in their homes.
As the above shows, taking the time to know more about various cultures helps social workers avoid offending those they are trying to help. If a new client is from a culture, you do not know much about, taking the time to learn more about their background and traditions is vital. This is a nice thing to do and means the client will be more willing to engage fully with the social worker who helps them.
Cultural competency is essential for modern-day social work
US immigration figures in September 2022 were around 47.9 million, according to the Center for Immigration Studies. This shows how many people from various cultures are present in society now and a good proportion of the clients’ social workers see will likely be from cultures different from their own. As a result, social workers need to build cultural competency skills to use in their daily roles.
But what are the best strategies for doing this?
Be open to learning and developing new cultural knowledge
This is a great way for social work professionals to develop skills around cultural competency. It is also simpler than ever to do in the modern world! The internet is an easy-to-access resource that has information on practically all cultures you could come across. In addition to online resources like this, there are also paper books and journals which focus on specific cultures, their traditions, and the challenges they may face.
Social work professionals can therefore develop cultural competency by using resources like this to learn more about cultures they are not familiar with. While this could be something you do as a professional development tool in your spare time, it is also handy to think about when taking on a new client from an unfamiliar culture.
Talk to clients and listen to them
A major part of social work is humility and listening to those you are trying to help. Therefore, a good strategy for honing cultural competency skills therefore is picking up information on various cultures from people within them. This could be when helping someone from a culture you do not know much about.
But how does this work in practice? Many social work professionals will ask people from the culture in question and take onboard what they say. This lets you gain authentic cultural knowledge directly from those who understand it best. It also means you can ask specific questions on things you wish to know more about or do not fully grasp.
Examine how your cultural background plays its part
A key strategy for building cultural competency skills in social work is looking at how your cultural background has an impact. Although we do not often think about it, how we are raised, and the values of our own culture can color how we interact with people from different backgrounds. This could be unconscious bias against particular communities or traditions from our culture, which may not be suitable for someone else’s.
By thinking about your own culture and traditions, you are more able to become sensitive to the impact they can have on clients from other backgrounds. This, in turn, helps social workers show more humility and avoids their cultural beliefs negatively impacting the service they deliver.
Advocating on behalf of different cultures
Many social work professionals place great emphasis on advocacy work and taking concrete action to fight oppression. Advocacy is also a great way to build more robust skills around cultural competency.
But what does it involve exactly? Advocacy is speaking out against discrimination that certain cultures, groups or individuals may face in daily life. It can also see social workers engaging directly with those affected to advise on self-advocacy.
By getting involved with this kind of activity, social workers can engage with a greater range of cultures and learn more about them. This helps them develop a higher-level cultural competency over time and acquire in-depth knowledge across a variety of cultures.
Travel a little globally
Although you can find some great strategies to hone your cultural competency skills within social work, you can also develop them when having fun in your personal life. Traveling the world is a great example and something which can help expose you directly to various cultures.
This is in terms of the country you visit and the various backgrounds other guests may have. Rafting in Pau is a case in point and will help you learn more about French culture there. This can in turn prove handy when you return and take in a client from a French background.
What challenges could social workers face around cultural competence?
If you plan to hone your cultural competence skills, it pays to not only know the best strategies but also the major challenges to be aware of. But what are they?
For busy social workers, time can often be a major issue. While you might want to spend time learning more about a client’s cultural background before meeting them, this might not be possible. As a result, time can have an impact on building up your competency skills in this area as planned.
In addition to this, achieving true cultural competency can also seem a very tricky thing to do. Cultural traditions, after all, can be very fluid and constantly evolve. People from within the same culture may also have different views on certain traditions from their own background.
This can make it complex for social workers to show true competency and cultural sensitivity. To overcome this challenge, the best thing is to continually learn more about various cultures and access the latest information on them when you can. It is also key to deal with each client individually and not make assumptions on their take on cultural traditions.
How else could cultural competence in social work prove challenging?
It could be argued that the concept of cultural competence leads to ‘othering’. This is the assumption that the cultural background of the social worker is the dominant one and the client’s culture is less well-known. Some people can be uncomfortable with this, as it makes assumptions about cultural backgrounds that might be false.
Incorporating cultural competency in a way that is not insulting, or patronizing is also something to consider. While you may try to show knowledge of another culture in good faith, social workers must be aware of how their actions/words come across. Dealing with a Jamaican client and speaking in broad patois might be done with the intention of making them feel more at home – but it could upset them if the social worker is from the mid-west of the US and white.
Cultural competency crucial in social work
There is little doubt that cultural competency plays a central role in social work. As we have covered, it not only enables social workers to offer a better service and a better experience to clients but also means they set a standard around cultural acceptance for society to follow.
Therefore, anyone thinking of moving into social work must develop effective skills in this area. While there are several strategies you could use for this, the ones we have looked at are among the most useful.