June 29

What social workers can and can’t do


There are many things that social workers can and can’t do. I remember that as a social work student, I almost failed my placement twice because of the things I had done, which I couldn’t do. Thus, I hope sharing my experiences will help you be more clear aobut what social workers can and can’t do.

Can’t do – Misrepresent the agency’s interests

Austerity has played a big role in social services over the past decade. The cuts have transformed the way social services are delivered. More must now be delivered for less. As a budding social worker, I remember not being able to balance the agency’s interests and the client’s interests. I often promised more than the local authority could provide. This wasn’t ideal as it meant that I did not have certainty that I could provide what I promised.

In social work, misrepresenting the agency’s interests – its budgetary constraints, its system of doing things, its policies, is a big no-no for social workers. We need to be clear about what the agency’s stances on different matters are. We need to represent them clearly.

what social workers can and can't do

Can’t do – Do things without approval

Most social workers work as part of an organisation, rather than alone. This means that anything you would like to implement and try is better to be done with approval. Tim Ferris’ advice in his book The 4-Hour Work Week, about asking for forgiveness rather than for permission, unfortunately, doesn’t apply here.

Here’s an example. I tried to use a kitbag that I had recently been introduced to during a conference I attended. It contained finger puppets, emotion cards, and calming oil. The client’s mother didn’t like it, and felt that it had demeaned her daughter. I was hauled up.

I was put through the concerns procedure for not asking for approval.

You see where I’m going.

It’s dangerous to do things without approval in the social services sector, because your actions don’t only affect you. It affects how clients view the government, their community, and the people around them.

Please seek for approval before trying something wacky.

what social workers can and can't do

Can do – Take initiative

One of BASW’s 9 professional competencies is professional leadership. Taking ownership and initiative within the social service sector is still largely lauded, although that doesn’t mean that your initiative will be taken up.

Initiatives to present to my team about social services abroad, or to start using a different method of meeting, were always welcomed.

Taking initiative is not about gaining brownie points from your team leader. It’s about making social services better for your clients, your community, and more importantly, for you.

We aren’t perfect in the social service sector. There are many things we still lag behind on, such as in our adoption of technology, or in our execution of ideas.

Taking initiative is about taking responsibility for the problems you see. It’s about putting the ‘I’ in initiative.

Can do – Speak up

Speaking up for your clients is one of the most important qualities and skills of a social worker. You are giving a voice to the voiceless. Your clients are not able to sit at a table with other professionals, discussing about their future.

Yes, sometimes that really sucks. Yet you can represent their interests at the table, bringing their concerns, challenges, and potential solutions.

Don’t stay silent about the things that matter.


I hope this list of can and can’t dos gives you a clearer idea of the boundaries of the work of social workers. We aren’t perfect. Yet I know that each and every day, my fellow social workers try their best to make the world a better place.


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