Personal biases in social work and how to handle them

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Persona bias is learned beliefs, opinions or attitudes that people have towards others that lead to incorrect judgments. Case in point, a social worker could be biased towards people living in poverty, believing that they refuse to work hard enough to get themselves out of that situation. Due to this bias, they might treat the people living in poverty with less empathy than those who are not living in poverty. For instance, they might overlook poor people when it comes to referral programs or services. It is worth noting, however, that it’s completely normal for human beings to hold these social stereotypes. This stems from the innate tendency to organize the social world by categorizing everything into ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe.’ Unfortunately, that categorization can lead to skewed decision-making. This article will discuss personal biases – the various types, their impact on social work and how to confront them.

Categories of personal biases

There are two categories of personal bias: implicit and explicit. Implicit bias, also called unconscious bias, is the attitudes or beliefs that occur outside our conscious awareness and control. Factors like cultural context, personal experiences and societal stereotypes influence them. On the other hand, explicit biases are on a conscious level. However, implicit biases can turn into explicit biases once you become conscious of the attitudes or beliefs you may have. That means you can choose whether to act on or against them.

Importance of recognizing personal biases as a social worker

As a social worker, it is incredibly important to provide effective and ethical services to your clients. One of the ways you can do so is by advancing your education by enrolling in an online MSW program. Another essential thing to do is to recognize personal biases you may hold. By so doing, you can remain objective when making decisions regarding your clients. That helps you uphold the ethical code of conduct. By completing an online Master of Social Work Course such as the one at Cleveland State University, students will be able to find roles in many aspects of social work, including counsellors in different sectors, as well as social workers for families, social and the community.

In addition, recognizing personal biases can help you avoid discrimination. Therefore, each client receives fair and equal services. That makes it easy to build trust with clients, which is an important part of the job. Another benefit of recognizing these biases is that it helps you demonstrate cultural competence. You will stand a better chance of communicating with clients and coworkers in a culturally responsive way.

Common biases that social workers may face

Like any other career path, social work has its fair share of challenges. Since it entails dealing with people directly, a social worker’s beliefs and attitudes can easily spill over to their work. Here are some common personal biases social workers might face:

  • Stereotyping

Social workers may generalize about people based on characteristics such as socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity. We gave an example of a social worker being biased toward people living in poverty, viewing them as lazy.

  • Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias occurs when a social worker seeks information confirming their belief while disregarding evidence that contradicts them. This can happen during the assessment of a client, leading to the social worker leaving out crucial information that could affect the treatment plan.

  • Halo effect

The halo effect refers to the habit of forming a positive impression on a person based on one characteristic. For instance, a social worker can put a client on a pedestal based on their physical appearance.

  • Availability bias

Availability bias occurs when a social worker bases their judgment based on readily available information instead of putting effort into uncovering complete information. This leads to a partial understanding of the client’s situation and, consequently, an incomprehensive approach when providing solutions.

Overcoming personal biases as a social worker

We all have personal biases, and identifying them is the first step towards rising above them. Once you know what they are, you can proactively work towards overcoming them. Below are some tips on how you can identify your personal biases and overcome them as a social worker besides advancing your education.

  • Introspection

Introspection refers to looking inwards to examine your thoughts, perceptions and judgments. There are several tests available online that you can take to understand yourself better.

  • Mindfulness

After introspection, you will have an inventory of biases you are struggling with. You will need to practice mindfulness, acknowledging that you might give in to those biases when you are under pressure. If you feel overwhelmed, you can take a moment to assemble yourself.

  • Perspective taking

If you think you could be biased towards people based on a particular characteristic, it will help to put yourself in their shoes. For instance, imagine how you would feel if someone stereotyped you because of your ethnic background.

  • Learning to slow down

Before forming impressions of others, try to slow down and remind yourself of positive examples of people from their group, whether it’s race, class or sexual orientation. You can think of a friend or public figure in that category.

  • Individualism

It’s important to remember that everyone has individual characteristics instead of generalizing when dealing with a group.

  • Check your messaging

It’s incredibly helpful to use statements that embrace inclusivity. For instance, instead of saying that you don’t look at people based on their color, you can say that you appreciate diversity.

  • Institutionalize fairness

While at work, always embrace support and diversity. Learn to welcome different points of view and to take criticism gracefully.

  • Be patient with yourself

It’s not easy to overcome biases that you have probably formed since you were a child. It takes longer than just a couple of days. Besides, the process is not linear. You might notice progress for a month only to catch yourself being biased during a particular instance. Remember to extend some grace to yourself when it comes to deprogramming your biases. It is also worth noting that it’s not a one-time project. It will require constant work and effort.

  • Increase contact with people different from you

You are more likely to challenge your subconscious biases if you spend time with people different from you. You can go to a different cultural celebration or join a club sports team with people from different walks of life.