Any Social Worker who has had the misfortune to ever need to consider whistleblowing at work will know that the battle of doing what is right versus doing what is easy is unimaginably more difficult than it first appears.
Social Workers choose this complex and often emotionally challenging profession because they are driven by a core desire to do good, to help, to do what is right. Our values and our ethics underpin everything we do both in our professional and private lives.
What happens then, when something at work feels intrinsically wrong to you and yet everyone else is acting as if it is right? Do you go along with everyone else? Do you quieten the little voice inside your head that has encouraged you to do so much good before?
Hopefully, highlighting your concern to those involved will solve the problem. If not, escalation to Management should lead to resolution. However, for some individuals in some offices, the issue is no longer solely a misuse of power or acts of injustice, but rather the institutional acceptance of malpractice as normal.
In the United Kingdom, we have seen the tragic reality of widespread acceptance time and time again in notable cases such as Winterbourne View and at Haringey Council. In environments such as this, Social Worker’s can find themselves in a very lonely position if they decide to speak up.
If and when you decide to ask the questions that you believe need answering, you quickly discover the sad fact that, for many people, integrity and justice are of secondary importance to paying the mortgage. Manager’s can betray you. Colleagues can turn against you for “rocking the boat” or they may disagree with your desire to change things. And whilst you will feel a sense of incredible guilt that colleagues may become collateral damage due to the issues you have highlighted, it is always worth remembering that complacency and unintentional negligence is still negligence. Where possible, ensure that you give colleagues the opportunity to speak up with you, and if they choose not to, then they alone are responsible for the consequences of their decision.
Whistleblowing also has a heavy impact on the Social Worker’s health and wellbeing. A whistleblower has to continue managing, what are often dangerously high caseloads, whilst simultaneously recording evidence of malpractice, ensuring she does not make mistakes for fear of disproportionate reprisals and doing all this with little to no support. This combination is a crucible which makes work mistakes more probable and infinitely raises stress levels. Often those who would offer the most support, your friends and family, will want you to quit rather than stay and fight. They are unable to fathom the drive within you which means you willingly put yourself under so much strain and potentially sabotage your career.
Supervision is a crucial element of safe Social Work practice. In toxic Social Work environments, you can begin to feel yourself going mad. You are sure that things are wrong but everyone is acting like there is no problem. No one acknowledges the issue and so you begin to wonder if there is an issue at all. Some of the best advice I have been given by a Supervisor was: “Don’t think you are mad simply because you are the only sane one in a mad world.”
Of course, always remember that your take on the situation may indeed be inaccurate or skewed. But there are no right and wrong answers when it comes to ethics and morality; so whilst you may be wrong, it is just as likely that you may be right. You should never be punished for asking that people be held accountable for their actions, in the same way that you must always be accountable for yours.
As Social Workers, we are taught to engage in ethical decision-making and to promote justice. This cannot be mere rhetoric. Standing up for justice will sometimes demand from us every last ounce of strength we have. It takes real courage. If you decide to challenge the powers that be, however alone you feel, know that you are not the first person to have been through this and you will not be the last. Seek support. And remember that the smallest of battles can have the biggest of impacts.
Imagine if Rosa Parks had moved to the back of the bus.