Recruiting robots: the language of social work job adverts

“Social work is about life, treasuring humanity, building connections, sharing and promoting fairness. It is about creativity, care and love – being there to help people overcome obstacles and oppressions that hold them back. For people using our services, a social worker should be someone to trust and believe in – someone who helps you believe in yourself. Sometimes we must hold boundaries, protect rights, advocate and challenge. We are always in the midst of the messy stuff, finding ways forward.”

Ruth Allen [1]

Social work is fundamentally about people working alongside other people as fellow human beings. It’s about rights and relationships. Challenge and creativity. Advocacy and activism. Humanity and hope.

Or is it?

A not very scientific but reasonably extensive trawl through recent job adverts for social workers suggests that despite the very explicit shift away from the days of care management signalled by the introduction of the Care Act 2014, industrialised approaches to social work still dominate, and as such we’re basically just recruiting robots to process referrals through the machine of social care. Baggage handlers to carry cases on and off the conveyor belts of our system.

In this blog I’m keen to explore the language of the job adverts we’re using in local authorities to recruit social workers either directly or through recruitment agencies, and what this language suggests about our values and our cultures and our priorities.

You will be responsible for…

Adverts for social workers tend to focus first on the tasks and duties you’ll be responsible for or required to undertake. Here’s a sample of phrases from the adverts I looked at.

You’ll be responsible for:

  • “reviewing waiting lists for prioritisation and screening”
  • “screening referrals”
  • “screening and risk assessing cases”
  • “assessing service users” 
  • “care management”
  • “designing intensive care packages”
  • “reviewing placements”
  • “carrying a caseload of service users”
  • “picking up referrals when CHC funding has ended”
  • “managing complex cases”
  • “reporting any delays with service users”
  • “ensuring customers and families remain central to the processes they are part of”
  • “helping to achieve the 28 day performance targets, whilst reducing the waiting time for new referrals”
  • “protecting and enhancing the lives of the most vulnerable.”

You will be required to:

  • “undertake screening and duty work”
  • “gather information and make decisions about which pathways to follow for different contacts and referrals”
  • “work with complex cases in accordance with statutory responsibilities”
  • “deal with complex and varied cases”
  • “be responsible for a non-complex caseload”
  • “hold a reduced case load with a higher proportion of complex and contentious cases”
  • “hold a caseload where the majority of cases present complex issues, requiring complex solutions”
  • “hold long term cases that are complex in nature and may include hoarding, non-engagers, DoLS challenges and court cases”
  • “carry a case load of highly challenging complex cases with multifactorial needs”
  • “manage a caseload of service users” 
  • “manage straightforward and complex cases”
  • “manage and monitor a diverse caseload”
  • “manage and monitor a workload of complex cases”
  • “work autonomously with highly complex needs”
  • “ensure the patient receives the correct healthcare plan and maintenance even after being discharged from the hospital”
  • “keep the user and any future potential users at the centre of all activity and address user needs within the legislative framework.”

Screening. Prioritising. Assessing. Reviewing. Managing. Monitoring. Dealing with.

“It is a fast-paced team, and you don’t hold cases for long”.

Busy busy.

“You will ensure that all cases are progressed efficiently through the system within this fast paced environment.”

The language of transactions.

Conveyor belts.

The social care sorting office.

While the ‘p words’ (pathways, processes, packages, placements) sum up the transactional nature of the local authority social work role, it’s the ‘c words’ that really grate. Customer. Case. Caseload. Complex. Challenging. Dehumanising, blaming terms that appeared repeatedly across the adverts I looked at.

You’ll be working with…

Here’s a selection of the phrases used in the adverts to describe who social workers will be working with (doing to):

  • “customers and potential customers”
  • “patients”
  • “people with the most complex needs”
  • “vulnerable people”
  • “people who are vulnerable and struggle to engage with services”
  • “vulnerable adults with mental health”
  • “some of society’s most vulnerable individuals”
  • “vulnerable service users”
  • “vulnerable service users within learning disabilities”
  • “older people and service users with disabilities”
  • “our service users”
  • “service users with a range of complex needs”
  • “complex cases”
  • “challenging cases”
  • “safeguarding cases”
  • “transitions and complex needs cases”
  • “the most complex and challenging adult cases”
  • “complex individuals, which will include those with mental health problems, learning disability or a diagnosis of personality disorder”
  • “those with either a physical disability or frailty”
  • “those who access services”
  • those
  • others.

OK so I added the last couple of bullet points. But effectively that’s what these adverts are saying. What’s happened to the social model of disability? What’s happened to strengths-based practice? What’s happened to our basic humanity?

You will need to have…

“We’re looking for experienced Social Workers who can prove their ability to carry a caseload.” 

So now we’ve established that the social worker role is to screen, assess and manage challenging, complex cases, who are we looking to recruit?

“If, like us, you believe that social work is a vocation, a strong impulse or inclination to follow, a path rather than just a career, then you must also understand that the social worker is who you are, not what you are… Social work is about having an innate value base and a fire in your belly to live it and practice it.”

Elaine James, Rob Mitchell and Hannah Morgan [2]

Actually, we’re not really interested in who you are… just what you hold (alongside cases).

You’ll need to have:

  • “a recognised Social Work qualification”
  • “a valid Social Work England registration”
  • “a valid UK driving licence and vehicle”
  • “access to your own laptop and mobile phone”
  • “a clean UK driving license with the ability to commute to and from work independently”
  • “a driving licence and car – or the ability to meet the mobility requirements of the role through other means”
  • “the willingness and ability to travel around the county”
  • “the right to work in the UK”
  • “IT skills preferably experienced with Mosaic”
  • “experienced knowledge with Liquid Logic”
  • “relevant IT skills”
  • “clear and valid DBS disclosure”
  • “satisfactory references”.

Basically our adverts suggest we’re more interested in whether you can use our IT system and have a car, than in who you are and what you believe. We care more about the paperwork in your hands than the passion and principles in your heart.

I’m not dismissing or devaluing qualifications, registrations and references – just reflecting on the prevalence of these lists of commodities in the ‘essential requirements’ section of our adverts, and the lack of equivalent detail about required values and behaviours.

Scanning through numerous job adverts to write this blog was like playing words that make me go hmmm bingo. Several terms are overwhelmingly present, used repeatedly by local authorities and recruitment agencies in bland, generic, dehumanised adverts: case, caseload, vulnerable, complex, service user, challenging, screen, assess, process. Several terms are glaringly absent: people, relationships, rights, advocacy, trust, compassion, hope.

For a profession that is (or should be) fundamentally about people and relationships, most adverts were about processes and transactions. There was little evidence of the human qualities required in social workers, and even fewer references to the unique identity and humanity of the people they’re being recruited to serve.

It’s by no means all bad out there. There were some glimmers. Some adverts gave me hope, but I couldn’t find a standout job advert which really conveyed the purpose and possibility of the social work role, and the passion and principles required… so I wrote my own. It’s by no means perfect, but it doesn’t contain any of the dreaded ‘p words’ or ‘c words’ – or the ubiquitous ‘v word’!

Job vacancy: social worker

We want the people we serve to live good, ordinary lives in the place they call home with the people and things that they love, in communities where they look out for one another, doing what matters to them. If people need some support, we start by understanding what a good life looks like for them, and how we can we work together to achieve it.

We’re looking for social workers to work alongside people seeking or drawing on support to live the lives they choose to lead, whatever their age or stage of life.

You’ll be responsible for:

  • building trusted relationships
  • having conversations with people based on what matters most to them
  • making sure people’s wishes, feelings and beliefs are central to decision making
  • supporting people to live as independently as possible, for as long as possible
  • connecting people to wider networks of opportunity and support
  • increasing people’s hope, self-esteem and creative potential
  • responding quickly in a crisis and sticking with people until things are better for them
  • being involved in people’s lives in the least intrusive way – and always in their best interests
  • keeping in touch with people to check how they are, how things are going and if anything needs to change.

You will be required to:

  • listen
  • respect the dignity and diversity of the people you’re working with
  • understand and respond to people’s unique needs and aspirations
  • be curious
  • be useful
  • be kind
  • uphold human rights and social justice
  • question the status quo
  • do no harm.

Essential requirements include:

  • recognising that people are the experts in their lives
  • communicating respectfully with and about people
  • thinking and acting creatively
  • challenging circumstances and environments that marginalise, exclude or oppress
  • critical reflection and a desire to keep learning.

This advert isn’t saying anything new, or anything radical. The responsibilities and requirements within it are embedded in – and extracted from – legislation, professional standards and established definitions of social work.

Rewriting job adverts is the easy part.

The challenge lies in dismantling the social care sorting offices that still exist within our local authorities and liberating social workers from the process and bureaucracy of the current care management machine.

Until we do that, we might as well be recruiting robots.


[1] Welcome new social workers, Ruth Allen, Professional Social Work, September 2018

[2] Social work, cats and rocket science, Elaine James, Rob Mitchell and Hannah Morgan, 2019

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