Defining Cultural Competence in Social Work

According to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), cultural competences is defined as, “processes that promote effective interactions with individuals of all cultures based on curiosity and respect about difference related to language, class, ethnicity (race), and religion. This perspective affirms the dignity of individuals, families, and communities and informs practice with individuals, families, groups, communities, and organizations in roles that include direct service providers, administrators, and change agents.”

The National Association of Social Work also has a sixty-page guide called Standards and Indicators for Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice.  The NASW “promotes and supports the implementation of cultural and linguistic competence at three intersecting levels: the individual, institutional, and societal. Cultural competence requires social workers to examine their own cultural backgrounds and identities while seeking out the necessary knowledge, skills, and values that can enhance the delivery of services to people with varying cultural experiences associated with their race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, age, or disability [or other cultural factors].”

The NASW requires that social workers consider socioeconomic and cultural factors in their work with clients. These factors may include family norms, the influence of spirituality or religions in clients’ lives, ethnic traditions, and language. They also must be aware of power differentials between themselves and their clients. The NASW urges social workers to understand the dynamics of racism, power, and oppression in their practice. Finally, the CSWE and NASW urge schools to recruit a diverse student body into the field — one that matches the changing ethnic and racial composition of the U.S. and that is prepared to work with diverse groups all over the country.

Cultural Competence as Ethical Practice

Cultural competence as a professional requirement in social work also is outlined in the Social Work Code of Ethics. Cultural competence is outlined in section 1.05 of Code which is  about cultural awareness and social diversity. This section covers three facets of social workers’ responsibilities in this area. The first overarching requirement is that “Social workers should understand culture and its function in human behavior and society, recognizing the strengths that exist in all cultures.”

The Code, in this section, also requires social workers to be knowledgeable about their clients’ cultures and be able to apply this knowledge to practice. It requires social workers to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression in society as it applied to a host of personal characteristics including “race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, and mental or physical ability.” Finally, this section requires social workers to be aware of cultural and other differences that may impact clients’ use of technology.

Under Section 6.04, Social and Political Action, the Code of Ethics also discusses social workers’ responsibilities to the broader society to further cultural awareness and appreciation. It places responsibility on social workers to advocate for social policies that respect difference and “support the expansion of cultural knowledge and resources.” Social workers also are expected to “advocate for programs and institutions that demonstrate cultural competence.”  Cultural competence in advocacy and policy practice is described as being in furtherance of equity and social justice, and something that all social workers should strive for.

The Council on Social Work Education is a national organization that accredits social work programs, holds conferences and trainings, conducts and sponsors research, and provides curricular support to schools of social work. The re-accreditation process for social work programs requires that schools explain how they will educate students about cultural competency. In most social work programs student learn about cultural competence in foundational courses.

Evidence Based Practice and Cultural Competence

Cultural competence is critical to successful practice in all areas of social work practice and advocacy including in mental health practice, child welfare, education, work with low-income individuals in community agencies, hospital social work, and hospice. In conducting evidence-based practice, social workers must seek out research and data on the effectiveness of interventions not just for majority populations but for different cultural and ethnic groups as well. Many evidence-based practices and programs have been modified to be more effective for specific cultures and ethnic groups.

Barriers to Cultural Competence

Barriers to cultural competence in social work include an unwillingness or disinterest among some practitioners to learn about different cultures or ethnic groups. Some social workers may lack experience and knowledge with certain groups and fail to uphold their ethical responsibility to learn about their clients.

A lack of cultural humility is another barrier to cultural competence. According to the NASW, cultural humility involves having a non-paternalistic attitude towards clients from different socioeconomic groups, and towards marginalized and oppressed groups. Cultural humility requires clinicians to learn from culturally diverse clients and to empower clients and let them be the experts on their own culture. It involves careful listening and reflection. A lack of cultural humility, and a lack of interest and knowledge in different cultures are both unacceptable and social workers with such attitudes should think about finding a new career.

There are additional barriers to cultural competence including a lack of training, a lack of guidance given by employers or agencies, prejudice on the part of employers who might block social workers from gaining more knowledge and practice experience with diverse clients. Some social workers may have previously worked in a less diverse environment and when they move to a new community or agency, do not have the requisite experience to work with a population of clients they are unfamiliar with. In this case agencies can be supportive and provide training and guidance, and supervisors can also provide needed guidance. A social worker lacking in cultural competence can learn about culturally responsive resources in the community that could help their clients.

Language can certainly be another barrier to cultural competence. According to the NASW, social workers should strive to learn a new language if a number of clients speak a different language. If this is not possible, they should make use of culturally competent interpreters and translated materials. Of course, it is best for a social worker to be bilingual if he or she is working in a community where a language other than English is common. Agencies have a s responsibility to recruit interns and employees who have the requisite language skills to communicate with mono-lingual or bi-lingual clients and their families.

A final barrier is that some social workers or students may simply feel they are not culturally competent and that this is an area of ethical practice they struggle with. They may shy away from certain placements or career opportunities for this reason. Social workers who are admittedly lacking in some form of cultural competence should not be shamed, but rather should be provided with guidance, training, support, and knowledge. Social workers will vary in their levels of cultural competence and social work organizations must provide continuing education, support, and training to help social workers fulfill their ethical responsibility to deliver culturally competent practice.

Stephanie Bosco-Ruggiero

B.A. Political Science| Vassar College

M.A. Urban Affairs | University of Delaware

School Policy | Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service Doctoral Program

November  2019

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