What is professionalism in social work? (Tips and benefits)

Updated 25 May 2023

Social workers provide care in difficult family and socio-economic situations and adhere to a certain level of professionalism to protect the people they help. Social work is a profession that requires a high degree of knowledge and skill and a strong commitment to ethical principles. If you're new to the field of social work, you may wonder how to maintain a high level of professionalism in your new job. In this article, we look at the importance of professionalism in social work, tips on how to maintain it and what makes someone professional.

What is professionalism in social work?

Professionalism in social work means you have a passion for helping others and a commitment to their well-being and safety. It means that you strive to improve yourself and your practice and that you never stop learning new things. You also feel confident working with clients who may not want your help or who may not be able to accept it.

You know how to keep them safe while still respecting their autonomy. Being an individual in social work also includes treating your colleagues with respect and dignity, regardless of where they are in their careers or what they look like on the outside. You know that everyone deserves equal treatment regardless of their background or identity.

Related: How to be professional at work and why it's important

Why does social work require professionalism?

Social work is a profession that requires a high level of professionalism to avoid misunderstandings. Social workers frequently interact with people at their most vulnerable moments. Social workers who maintain a certain level of professionalism and empathy, especially when dealing with clients who may be in crisis or suffering from stress, can build more trust. Professionalism in social work is the ability to act appropriately in any given situation.

This includes being able to communicate effectively and manage client relationships. Social workers also adhere to ethical standards set forth by their employers, which can include confidentiality measures or strict emotional distancing measures for themselves. All of the skills required for the role help to maintain a high standard of professionalism that's crucial for every part of the role.

Related: Why is professionalism important and how can you improve it?

How to maintain professionalism in the workplace

Here are five ways for social workers to maintain professionalism:

1. Dressing professionally

To set a professional first impression, dress smartly. When you work with different people, making sure that you dress appropriately helps to make your appearance more professional. Dressing professionally can mean wearing smart shirts, blouses, suits or trousers. This helps you maintain a level of professionalism and lets others have a good first impression of you when your first meet them.

2. Being polite

To ensure that you maintain a professional demeanour in your social work practice, be polite. This means that you treat everyone with respect, including your clients, their families and anyone else who may come into contact with your work. Maintain a polite tone in every situation. It's also good to avoid slang and jargon so you can get your points across as clearly as possible.

Related: 10 professionalism characteristics and why they're important

3. Maintaining a positive attitude

Maintaining a positive attitude is a key component of maintaining professionalism in social work. When you have a positive attitude, you can keep your head up and face challenges head-on. This helps you maintain the professionalism expected from social workers and helps you to create an environment that encourages collaboration and efficiency amongst your coworkers. A social worker works with many kinds of people going through various difficult situations, so a positive attitude can go a long way, especially when working with families and children. A positive attitude helps you to approach these situations with a positive and uplifting mindset.

4. Being willing to learn

Being willing to learn is something that can help maintain professionalism in social work. It's beneficial if social workers can keep up with the latest developments in their field and this can help them continue to be effective at their jobs. Also, being willing to learn means that you have an open mind and are willing to accept change.

5. Being reliable

Being reliable is an instrumental part of maintaining your professionalism. Social workers usually work with individuals and families who've experienced traumatic events. Arriving on time and keeping your appointments can put them at ease and build rapport. Showing up to appointments on time and meeting deadlines are just a few of the requirements of the job that depend on you to be reliable. It also helps you to come across as more honest and trustworthy.

Related: Key attributes of professionalism in the workplace

What attributes make someone professional

Here are some attributes that help to make a social worker professional:


Competence is the ability to perform a task, activity or job successfully. Social workers are responsible for helping people who might be suffering from mental health issues or other hardships in their lives. Completing intake forms, conducting interviews and organising information are just some of the tasks which require competency.

Having these skills enables social workers to provide the proper assistance and forms to their clients. It also empowers them to feel confident when emotions rise. Competence also makes clients trust the social worker. Formalities in this job serve to protect both the client and the social worker. This applies particularly when dealing with an individual who has been through something traumatic like abuse or neglect as a child, these types of clients are typically very emotional and require special attention.


Knowledge is the foundation of professionalism. It's what allows social workers to understand how mental illness, addiction and other issues affect their clients and their client's families. Social workers don't just require confidence in knowing the right things to say or do, they require a thorough understanding of the underlying causes of their clients' problems so they can address those causes in treatment. Social work is a complicated field that requires a deep understanding of human nature, psychology, sociology and more.

For example, social workers practise recognising when someone is experiencing domestic violence or other forms of abuse before they can provide appropriate support. They also study cultural differences between different groups of people so they can effectively communicate with them about sensitive issues like mental health or substance abuse.


Integrity is the ability to do what you say and promise only what you can do, whether that's keeping your word or following the rules. Professional social workers act with integrity, which means they're honest and trustworthy and they prioritise their client's best interests. Integrity also encompasses other qualities like being reliable and having strong moral principles.

It's a key attribute in any profession but it's particularly useful for social workers, as they handle situations which require them to keep information confidential and maintain objectivity. Social workers protect sensitive material with care and respect. They also maintain objectivity when working with clients who may have different viewpoints than themselves.

Related: What is professional behaviour at work? (With examples)


Respect is a beneficial attribute to have as a social worker. It's the foundation for all of your relationships with clients, families and coworkers. Respect is something that you show others by listening to them and taking what they say into consideration. You're also respectful when speaking with clients and their families about sensitive topics such as mental illness or domestic violence. You show respect for your colleagues by not interrupting or talking over them during meetings and team sessions.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, assess and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It's a skill that helps you make decisions based on what you feel in the moment rather than what you think you're supposed to do. Social workers identify their own emotions and understand how they affect their interactions with clients. They manage their reactions to help clients manage theirs. This is why emotional intelligence can help social workers become more professional. It allows them to be honest during difficult conversations or interactions with clients.

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