Roles, Functions, and Competencies of Social Work

The social work professionals and practitioners are aware that their profession is based on the principles of human rights and social justice that serve to empower individuals, groups, and communities to develop their full potential and well-being. The focus of intervention in social work is the relationship between the individual and their immediate and wider social environment. Particular emphasis is placed on meeting the needs of vulnerable and marginalized individuals and groups (Social Workers Registration Board 2004).

Social work as a profession has evolved over time but its enduring feature as a helping profession is “the dual aims of helping individuals fit better into their environments, typically known as micro practice, and changing the environment so that it works better for individuals, referred to as macro practice” (Segal, Gerdes, & Steiner 2005). This special focus on both people and their environment, a duality as well as the interaction between them, orients social work roles, functions and competencies toward helping improve society, helping individuals and families improve their social functioning and making society work better for individuals and groups, and facilitating individuals and groups to function better within society and their communities.

Social work, like other applied social sciences, may help individuals cope with anxiety, stress, or depression but it goes further to help the client gain access to other community resources and support or empowering services that may be state run or privately operated. These resources and support systems aimed at providing relief or empowering individuals and groups in distressed situations are as varied as the problems that people experience. They may range from temporary and special shelters, job trainings, employment opportunities, rehabilitation services, mental and health services, educational and training services, and so forth that bridge the individual and the larger community to provide better integration, breaking of social barriers, and guarantee justice and fairness.

Roles of Social Work

These provide direction for professional activities and are best situated in the context of client system (DuBois & Miley 2008). The roles are generally interwoven with functions but DuBois and Miley (2008) have provided elements that can be distinctively viewed as roles rather than functions. For individuals and families, their role is that of an enabler—helping people find solutions. They are broker or advocates in case management, and they are teachers in terms of information processing. For formal groups and organizations, their role is that of a facilitator—in aid of organizational development. They are convener or mediator in aid of creating networks, and they are trainer for professional development. For community and society, their role is that of a planner—facilitating research and planning. They are activist in aid of social action, and they conduct outreach in aid of community education. Within the social work profession, their role is that of a colleague and a monitor—in aid of professional enculturation and socialization. They are catalysts for community service, and they are researcher-scholars in aid of knowledge development and capacity building. Today, the roles of social workers are grouped into three, which are case management, direct practice, and advocacy and policy building (Segal, Gerdes, & Steiner 2005). 

Functions of Social Work

These speak of main activities professionally performed by social workers. DuBois and Miley (2008) include among others:

  • counsel with individuals, facilitate groups, work with families, refine agency procedures, initiate new programs, lobby for legislative changes, organize community action, educate the public, conduct needs assessments, and evaluate practice and programs at various system levels and targets of change or social transformation;
  • enhance social functioning of individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities,
  • improve the operations of the social service delivery network; and
  • promote socials justice through development of social policy.

DuBois and Miley (2008) provide a typology to these by grouping them into consultancy, resource management, and education. Consultancy refers to the professional activities through which social workers and their clients plan, initiate, and pursue actions toward desired change. Resource management refers to the act of coordinating, systematizing, and integrating resources and services needed to support social functioning, meeting needs and resolving problems. Education refers to the provision of knowledge and critical information necessary for empowerment practice that facilitates informed decision-making, increased abilities, and gain access to opportunities and resources for a client.

Competencies of Social Work

These cover all necessary skills and personality qualities needed by the profession to perform their various roles and skills. Foundationally, social work requires the following abilities and skills (DuBois & Miley 2008):

  • think critically;
  • build and sustain relationships;
  • execute empowering processes;
  • use practical methods;
  • analyze policies;
  • communicate effectively;
  • strong cultural and intercultural competence;
  • good computer literacy;
  • conduct research;
  • do social planning;
  • perform crisis intervention; and
  • sound time management.

On the other hand Segal, Gerdes, and Steiner (2005) suggest a host of functional competencies that social workers should be capable of, such as:

  • handle case management with various clients and population groups;
  • perform direct practice depending on the needs of the client and the environment in which the social worker operates;
  • conduct mediations among parties especially where one party is socially disadvantaged;
  • make referrals to appropriate agencies and service sectors needed by the client;
  • in gerontological context, perform program planning and administration in numerous settings;
  • in mental health setting, function as case managers, advocates, administrators, therapists, and to use research as a basis for problem-solving and choice of intervention in empirically-based practice; 
  • in the school system, analyze the transactions between students, teachers, parents, and the school system;
  • in the judicial system, make the system more fair and beneficial to both convicted criminals and their victims; and
  • pursue social change on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals, eliminating economic inequality and poverty.

In addition to these, social workers should have the capacities generic to all helping professions: empathic, compassionate, observes confidentiality, has a sense of humor, and others that are made more explicit in the .code of ethics for social workers. Compassion is necessary in working with people who are socially marginalized or suffer deprivation. They require a deeply empathic and non-judgmental social worker who intends to empower them. Listening skills will also occupy a very special role in the social work toolkit. It allows people, regardless of how they take in that information, to make sense of and understand what they are saying. Listening skills allow a person to understand what someone is talking about no matter how difficult the subject or issue may be.