Closet activists and covert workplace activities

Social workers feel under pressure when conflict exists between their professional commitment to social justice and organizational imperatives. We know when values conflict like this or when others are hostile towards our values, social workers tend to quit or burn out. For many social workers negotiating neoliberal influences on welfare organisations and on how services are delivered experience managerialism as negative. They feel harassed by a preoccupation on quantifying success often in financial terms, have limited resources to do their work, and deal with demands for increased documentation and excessive caseloads. Social workers accept these things as the reality in many workplaces. Leave or join them. That’s a pretty depressing thought, but new research has found social workers have a third way – to fight back.

Some social workers are digging in and taking a stand – and not in the traditional sense of radical social work. It seems they go underground, work in covert ways to make sure they live up to their professional values. They find imaginative ways to work around the roadblocks in their way. Closet activists might turn a blind eye when clients do things they shouldn’t, extend services beyond the official cut-off date, fill out forms ‘creatively’, ignore directives from management and at times break the law to assist a client. These social workers don’t act this way thoughtlessly. They struggle with ethical questions and shift between questions like – Is this action ethical? Or is it unethical not to find a way to help clients who need it? Actions are not taken lightly. These dilemmas raise issues for the social workers involved, their profession and for educators. How do we make sense of it all? How does this affect our clients and social workers?

Covert workplace activism is underground resistance in action. For the social workers who participated in the study, it is a response to unjust systems and the failure of open challenges to actually change anything for the people they work with every day. Working in this way helped social workers make good on their commitment to social justice in difficult workplaces and protected against feeling demoralised. These social workers are the ‘new radicals’, fighting from within the closet, chipping away case by case at a welfare system that is lost and broken.

Imagine twenty years from now, changes have come and gone. A brand new social worker sits next to you, highly motivated and eager to deliver on the values of the profession. She, or he, turns to you and asks – what did you do to challenge neo-liberalism? What will you say?

By Lyndal Greenslade, guest blogger on socialworksocialwork

Listen to Lyndal talking about her research on Podsocs

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