The term engagement has been defined as being actively involved in, a part of. When applied in a social work context, the same definition holds true. For a client to be engaged it means they must be actively involved in and a part of the process from the beginning until the very end. The National Association of Social Worker's Code of Ethics bespeaks the importance of client engagement in the client-practitioner relationship. Many of the factors outlined in the NASW Code of Ethics such as social diversity, cultural competency, respect, and freedom from discriminatory practice offer guidance as to how the client-practitioner relationship should be established (1999). Following is an examination of the similarities and differences in engagement strategies with clients; specifically focused on self-examination as to how one would want to be regarded as a client and the factors important to that engagement process as well as an examination with a hypothetical client, different from the practitioner should be engaged and those factors that are important in the engagement process.
There are a number of factors that would be important to this writer when considering engagement as a client in a professional social work relationship. Although the NASW Code of Ethics offers very specific guidelines as to how these relationships should be established, in the absence of the code, many of the factors highlighted would be important to this individual in a professional social work relationship. In order for the practitioner to engage this writer in a professional social work relationship, it would be important that no presumptions be made as to who I am and what my presenting problems may or may not be based on information they have been provided; most often demographic information. It would be important for the practitioner to operate as though I were a blank slate and make no presumptions about my character, personality or issues based on demographics. Of course there is much scholarly literature that bespeaks the importance of cultural competence which suggests that a practitioner is aware of their own cultural and world view, their personal attitudes toward cultural differences and individuals representing a different culture as well as a working knowledge of various cultural worldview and practices (Moule, 2012); however, for me, competence would need to be more than just verbiage. It is this writer's opinion that too often because there are directives and guidelines that indicate how a practitioner is to respond and engage a client that many address these very important issues in a cursory manner; not really doing the work necessary to critically evaluate and examine their stereotypes, prejudices, opinions, feelings and history regarding issues of race and ethnicity and particularly and to a lesser degree gender.
What would also be important in the engagement process in a professional social work relationship is not assuming that if the practitioner and this writer have some commonalities including gender, race, ethnicity, religion, life experiences, socioeconomic status, etc., that there is as assumption of understanding as though somehow because of the similarities that person knows me or understands me.
Not only are cultural knowledge, understanding and competence important, such is competence as a practitioner. Once again it is important to refer to the NASW Code of Ethics (1999) with regard to this issue. Practicing within one's area of expertise is very important as the goal of seeking professional assistance is often to remediate and/or rectify issues and problems the client presents with. It would be important to me as a client to not be generally treated. If I present with a specific area or concern, it would be important to have a competent and knowledgeable practitioner who operated from a theoretical as well as real life perspective in helping me to process through those issues. Having theoretical knowledge is not enough especially if it cannot be applied in the real world and made relevant to the client.
Although the code of ethics bespeaks the importance of respect as it relates to fellow practitioners, this writer insists that in order for a professional social worker to successfully engage the writer or any other individual in a client-practitioner relationship, there must be respect for the client, who they are and the presenting problems that have caused that individual to seek services in the first place. That being said, I would not be seeking an individual who felt they needed to fix me. In order to successfully engage in a professional relationship with a practitioner, it would be important that they operate from a strengths-based perspective and assist me in finding ways to rectify the issues or problems that I may present with. "At the foundation of the strength based approach is a belief that individuals are unique and have individual skills, talents, life events, circumstances in addition to needs that may be unmet" (Olson, Whitebeck & Robinson, 1991 cited in Epstein 1999).
Hypothetical Client Examination
One of the greatest concerns expressed by many scholars when it comes to client engagement is the power differential between the client and the practitioner (Dietz & Thompson, 2004). This point is very clear in my mind as a practitioner and it important to the engagement process in a professional social work relationship. Because of the high level of expectations I would have from a practitioner, I would expect a client to have no less expectations of myself as a practitioner. In the hypothetical client situation, the client is middle/low class older white male from rural South Carolina. He is a Republican Conservative, married and retired from a factory job whereas the practitioner is a middle class African-American young adult woman from a large city, democratic, liberal and comes from a two parent household.
It would be important as a practitioner that I make no assumptions about the client, and make no assumptions because of differences in race and ethnicity that this person may have preconceived notions of me. If however, through the process of attempting to engage the client and the initial phase of the professional social work relationship it was determined that this individuals perspective, prejudices, biases, or level of comfort was significantly impeded because of the differences in age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, political affiliations and so on, that I would be able to put my own reactions and feelings aside and try to find the best possible match for that individual. True, this practitioner could engage in discussions to try to address those issues; however, it would be important to weigh those issues against why the client sought services, as well as whether or not the client was interested in addressing those issues. In other words, it would be counterproductive on the part of the practitioner to address the issues from purely based on self. The client would have to want to address them and if not, and if the engagement process could not transpire because of them, it would be important that the practitioner recognize it and find the client services where those factors would not be a hindrance to addressing the presenting problem or issue. As outlined in the NASW Code of Ethics (1999) the goal and primary focus of the practitioner is respect for the client, wherever they are in their social, emotional and psychological development and to help the client who is in need; not operating in their own self-interest.
The issue of client engagement in a professional social work relationship can be a very complex situation. There are many factors that could be considered as prohibitive to the engagement process particularly if the practitioner is unaware or not willing to approach each client as a unique individual with their own set of unique life circumstances and presenting issues. The NASW's Code of Ethics provides valuable guidelines for practitioners to follow…