What's Here? - Table of Contents
If you’ve been a social worker for a few years and want to elevate your career, chances are that you’re looking for fresh opportunities. After all, even in professions without a high burnout rate people want to do better, enter management, and earn more money. For social workers, this can mean changing specialties or taking on additional credentials like a master’s degree or doctorate.
In this article, we’ll look at one of these career advancement options: administration and supervision. This area of social work requires several years of practice at a more basic level, where you’ll learn how to solve problems for clients. You can enter this area of practice with almost any specialty under your belt.
As social workers, we help bridge the gap between clients and the solution to their problems. Whether they suffer from substance abuse, poverty, chronic illness, or anything else, we look to government programs and community resources to improve their lives.
However, social workers can’t easily work in a vacuum. Even clinical social workers frequently have institutional concerns unless they are self-employed and don’t have employees. Not only do social services organizations and other social worker employers have basic tasks like payroll and taxes to worry about, but there are also regulatory and care coordination issues.
These tasks are the reason why we have social work administrators.
Strictly speaking, there’s a difference between administrators and supervisors in social work. Administrators are like the classic “supervisor” or “boss” role in other professions. On the other hand, a “supervisor” is more like a mentor or on-the-job trainer. People work with supervisors after coursework to get a license, or they get a supervisor to switch specialties. In addition, supervisors help when someone needs a career tune-up for other reasons.
There’s an extent to which administrators can also function as a supervisor. After all, administrators can and do mentor their employees to some extent, whether it’s correcting a defect or serving as a sounding board. Plus, any administrator will teach new employees how things work within an institution.
At the end of the day, social work administrators look for solutions to the problems that their organization’s clients are facing. However, they do this on a macro-level through coordination. An administrator will ensure that the social workers on their team work together to accomplish that goal. In addition, they’ll coordinate with community resources and advocate for legislation that promotes the wellbeing of society within their stated specialty.
Let’s break this down.
First, an administrator guides their team to provide client services. This can include delegating responsibilities based on aptitudes of the team. For instance, some social workers might not work well with children, so they’ll focus on the adult members of a family. Or, you might have one team of social workers that concentrates on housing assistance, while a different one helps with food stamps. Either way, all of the work gets done.
Second, social work administrators help coordinate with community resources. For example, if a social services organization has a lot of clients with severe mental illnesses, then the administrator will try to source mental health services in the community. Because many communities have a shortage of these services, the administrator will advocate for more resources, such as a new community mental health provider or an expansion of the existing one. Similarly, the administrator may try to get more funding for mental health services, especially if their organization provides mental health services or supports. Often, this involves getting new laws passed that also improves access to these services.
At the end of the day, social work administrators are essential for many organizations. For instance, someone with a social work license needs to help train new social workers: even with the best education, a new social worker lacks the depth of experience on how to deal with especially tough client problems. Plus, social workers at all levels sometimes need a sounding board when they need to make a tough judgement call because not all decisions are cut and dry. Having a supervisor available for advice and direction is priceless in this high-pressure career and creates a friendly environment everyone loves.
Similarly, a social work administrator should be the person who provides encouragement when something goes well. Often, social workers get involved in court cases or interpersonal conflicts that can take a lot of time and energy. It’s great to get positive feedback from supervisors in this case and recognition for a job well done. Creating these kinds of positive atmospheres can really help with social worker retention and morale.
It almost goes without saying, but sometimes social workers run into brick walls. One example might be trying to get a client into an approved drug treatment program, but there’s a long waiting list and the client can’t wait for treatment. A social work administrator might be able to get an exception to program selections or find a bed somewhere else so that the client gets what they need.
Another example could be convincing a client to accept help when they “ask for a supervisor.” Many social work clients can be combative when told they need help, especially when children are involved. The administrator can build rapport with these “involuntary clients” and get them on the road to success.
Finally, as with many other professions the overall tone of a social work office is determined by the boss. If a social work administrator is difficult to work with, then there’s a high chance they’ll have high turnover and miss out on the best employees. Likewise, a great administrator will attract better employees and achieve better outcomes as a result.
Similarly, administrators can influence company culture and effectiveness by choosing their employees carefully. One administrator from Pennsylvania tried to hire at least some social workers in each department who had once needed help. For instance, someone in recovery to help in situations where the client also had trouble with substance abuse, or a formerly homeless issue to work with shelters and housing authorities. Not only does this boost effectiveness, but it also adds institutional knowledge and increased potential for rapport with clients.
It’s easy to see that social work administrators have a lot of responsibility for how well their organizations are run. However, this is easier said than done. A social work organization or company that employs social workers for other reasons frequently has a lot of moving parts. In addition, social workers have many legal, ethical, regulatory, and practical issues to consider. Here’s how a social work administrator accomplishes these (often complex) tasks.
Social work has a lot of specializations, and while many skills are transferrable between one specialty and another, licensing and credentialing concerns dictate that social workers are limited to certain areas of practice. This is true even within specialties: for example, the mental health niche can have counselors (LCSW), housing coordinators, and case management. Depending on the regulatory requirements, these client files need a division of labor.
Similarly, a social work administrator might need to divide labor along other lines. For instance, in some cases a client might need different kinds of social work, but only need to deal with a case manager. In this case, the supervisor can designate one person to be the point of contact while breaking down the other tasks.
One of the worst things that can happen in a social work organization is having a poor organizational structure. While it’s easy to do some things like help a client get one service with well-defined criteria, some situations require a lot of communication between departments. So, on the flip side of needing to delegate tasks, many clients require coordination between departments that’s much easier with clear communication lines.
Similarly, all offices deal with internal issues, such as getting time off approved and logging sick time. With a good chain of command, it’ll be clear who each person should consult for these issues. Then, you won’t have the type of miscommunications that snarl workflows and lead to employee disputes.
In many smaller organizations, the first-line managers have a significant role in staff hiring. After all, they want to make sure that each new hire is a good fit for the organization. This involves a delicate balance between human resources and the manager to ensure that the person hired is suitable.
Even in the nonprofit sector generally, hiring decisions are heavily dependent on the candidate’s immediate supervisor, and social workers are no different. Except that with social workers and other licensed professionals the manager needs to pay special attention to credentials. A social work administrator knows what questions to ask and where to verify information in a way that HR doesn’t. In addition, the administrator knows the rest of the team and can generally tell if the candidate is likely to “fit in.”
Of course, hiring someone is only the beginning. Even the most experienced social workers need to learn how their new employer performs different tasks. There are time sheets, employee login information, company phones, transportation, and a host of other administrative tasks. Human Resources does a lot of the more mundane tasks like payroll and other hiring paperwork, but the social work administrator still needs to sign off on those items.
Additionally, some social work organizations have very few support staff. Often, this means that the administrator must do all or most of the onboarding tasks. In this case, they’ll do the paperwork and send it to appropriate people for processing, many of whom might be outsourced companies. It’s fair to say that social work administrators have a lot of behind-the-scenes tasks that the rest of us don’t think about.
Finally, a social work administrator will have to welcome new hires. While the chances are that the new hire met the administrator as a candidate, nobody else knows who they are. Therefore, the administrator will introduce their new employee to the team and explain who does what around the office.
Like many other administrative professionals, a social worker administrator will supervise the staff. As we mentioned earlier, the term “supervision” in social work refers to on the job training and coaching. This is different than the common language meaning of “supervisor,” or someone with oversight or a “boss.” As a rule, administrators will have supervisory responsibilities in both senses of the word: they’re the boss of their work group (or even the entire organization) and do training.
This is unsurprising when you consider that in many states you need ongoing supervision to get and keep your social worker license. Because using an outside supervisor would be expensive, many organizations have the administrator do some or all of the supervision. In addition, much of the pre-licensing supervision is done in an on-the-job training modality (essentially, an internship).
Practically speaking, social work organizations find it easier to recruit and retain social workers when they provide supervision rather than making their employees find it themselves. For this reason, having an administrator also act as a supervisor is a win-win for all parties.
Finally, administrators serve as supervisors in the other sense of the word by doing performance evaluations, employee discipline, regulatory reporting, and authorizing vacation. This means that social work administrators do a lot of different tasks and have a lot of responsibility.
In brief, a work plan is a document that outlines institutional goals and priorities, then fleshes those plans out with the assignment of resources. In other words, organizational work planning is a strategic document that determines how an organization’s resources are used.
What does this look like for social work organizations? Depending on the size of the organization, each one has different goals, but some are more important than others. For instance, child welfare organizations want kids to grow up in safe and stable homes whenever possible. However, achieving this goal requires a lot of moving parts. Social workers must investigate families, remove the kids from a home or perform interventions, coordinate services, attend court hearings, manage foster placements, and find adoptive parents when appropriate.
However, each of these child welfare tasks, while important, require different resources and efforts. In addition, some of these items involves coordination with other divisions of an agency or even different organizations entirely. Therefore, the organizational work plan will outline which resources are expended for each step or aspect of the child welfare process. Other specialties have similar pressures and assign resources accordingly.
No matter what client constituencies an organization serves, its effectiveness depends in part on staff communication. After all, even the least complex cases often involve a social worker and support staff, like an office receptionist, to advise and do paperwork. These support staffers need to know what’s required and when.
In addition, many social workers need to testify in court. When this happens, another social worker might need to “fill in” for the colleague who’s testifying. Sometimes, a single client or family will have multiple social workers who are dealing with different challenges, such as housing and mental health. Communication between colleagues is critical in both of these situations to ensure that everything goes smoothly.
Although many colleagues work well together on their own, the social work administrator is the person who’s responsible for intra-office communications. For one thing, the administrator may need to pass information from one unit to another in order to preserve confidentiality. For another, larger organizations in particular need some protocols on how to contact other units.
However, red tape isn’t always necessary or desirable. Therefore, an administrator should foster communication between colleagues. Communications should happen within certain parameters to ensure client confidentiality, but it also needs to be open to the greatest extent possible. A competent administrator will know where the line is and teach employees how to balance those priorities.
Whether a certain social work agency is a nonprofit or a governmental organization, community outreach is important. For instance, an organization’s clients can often benefit from non-governmental assistance, such as a low cost health clinic or a mentoring program. Helping clients before they get involved in the courts is a critical link in the chain that keeps our communities happy and healthy.
In addition, many of these organizations need support from the broader community. That can include donations of professional services, material support like free diapers or used furniture, and monetary donations. Some people or organizations can even help raise awareness or do publicity.
No matter what support a social work agency needs, the social work administrators play an important role in obtaining those resources. For instance, the administrator may make presentations at dinners or other fundraisers, hold question and answer sessions, and even call on specific people to help. Simultaneously, an administrator builds a professional network of people who can potentially provide resources and advice.
Practically speaking, a social work administrator functions as a voice of the organization. This can be true to a greater or lesser extent depending on the institutional structure and how many supervisors an organization has. However, at the end of the day an administrator is responsible for not only the employees, but the welfare of an organization.
Social work administration is truly a high calling.