Social workers face many challenges as they embark upon their careers. Some of these challenges are due to external forces, such as national and local policies, agency protocols, and client’s unique life circumstances that may be beyond a social worker’s control. However, some challenges arise from the social worker’s own internal experience as she interacts with client systems. There is a wide variety of internal challenges social workers must tackle in order to ensure they are practicing ethically and effectively. One such challenge is the social worker’s personal bias. Personal bias refers to a tendency or inclination to lean in one direction or steer toward one way of thinking. Everyone has personal biases in the ways that they perceive and interact with the world around them.These often come from life experiences, including one’s cultural background and worldview, ethical or moral belief system, and the context in which one was raised.
To confront the challenge of personal bias, social workers must actively work to identify, be mindful of, and critically examine the personal biases they bring into social work practice. Personal biases can then be attended to through education, training, reflection, and supervision. To begin this journey, potential sources of personal bias will be further examined below.
Motivation for Pursuing a Social Work Career
Oftentimes, individuals are driven to pursue a social work career because of personal experience. The motivation for many social workers and social work students to be a part of this helping profession stems from some pivotal life event that spawned a deep desire to challenge injustice, be of support to others, and/or work to solve problems that they themselves have faced. The motivation to become a social worker might be rooted in a positive, supportive, healing experience, or it might come from a source of tremendous pain.
For example, an individual who survived sexual assault might be motivated by that painful experience to practice social work with others who have suffered sexual abuse. Their personal experience with sexual abuse might lend them important professional insight into their client’s experience. While this perspective rooted in personal experience can be useful, it might also be a source of this challenge that prevents the social worker from engaging with certain populations. It would likely be challenging for the social worker to engage in direct practice with perpetrators of sexual assault, or facilitate reconciliation between survivors and perpetrators of sexual assault. The social worker must be aware of and attend to this possible bias in her practice with diverse populations.
Ethical or Moral Belief System
A social worker’s ethical or moral belief system may also be a source of personal bias. While social work is a values-based profession with its own ethical code, all social workers come into practice with their own beliefs about ethics and morals with which they navigate through life. This personal belief system may cause social workers to struggle with client choices, behaviors, and identities that do not adhere to the same pattern of beliefs.
For example, a social worker who strongly believes in monogamy might find it challenging to work with clients who practice polyamory or other forms of non-monogramy. While non-monogramous relationships go against the social worker’s personal belief system, the client has the right to engage in these relationships and should be able to discuss them openly and without judgment in a therapeutic setting.
Our world is enriched by the diverse and varied cultures within it. As our society becomes increasingly diverse and international, social workers can expect to engage with clients from cultural backgrounds different from their own. Because culture is often the backdrop against which we are raised, it can be difficult to identify the values instilled in us by our culture until we encounter someone whose cultural values differ. U.S. culture, for example, is very individualistic, while many indigenous, African, and Asian cultures tend to be more about collectivism. Likewise, many cultures outside of the U.S. are more private and guarded, and have different conceptualizations of health and mental health.
These cultural differences may cause tensions or misunderstandings if social workers are not aware of them. For example, a social worker from a U.S. cultural background may have difficulty understanding why a client is reluctant to share personal information about her family. The social worker might push for this information, without realizing that it is not a cultural norm for individuals to divulge private family information to health professionals.
Context in which one was Raised
Personal bias can also stem from the context in which a social worker was raised. While culture is a part of that context, there are social and environmental factors that come into play as well. These could include living in a two-parent or single-parent household, the number of siblings one has, living in an urban or rural environment, attending a private or public school, among others. All of these contextual factors can potentially influence the way a person thinks or what they are inclined to prefer, which can influence the way a social worker reacts to client information or the interventions and treatments they recommend.
Social work is a challenging profession which requires committed, passionate individuals who are open to diversity and able to put personal beliefs and experiences aside in service to clients. Like any other human being, social workers are not infallible and have their own personal biases that they must actively work to identify and address in order to provide the best possible support to their clients.
Familiarizing yourself with potential sources of bias is the first step toward identifying your personal biases. By critically examining your motivation for pursuing a social work career, ethical and moral belief system, cultural background, and context in which you were raised, you are sure to uncover sources of personal bias for you that you can then work to address through social work education, regular reflection, and supervision.