The New Role of Social Workers in Strengthening Employee Engagement
What do social justice, emotional resilience, individual rights, and community development have to do with an organization’s bottom line? If you believe that fostering employee engagement, team collaboration and community involvement contribute to your company’s success, then you already know how important it is to address each of these core areas.
Organizations looking to improve company cultures have turned to HR leaders to drive initiatives that promote wellness and social consciousness. Despite their best efforts, companies are finding that the majority of their employees are still not engaged. Sadly, the showed the average engagement rate at 34 percent—and that was a high since 2000. Although there has been improvement, more needs to be done. To close the gaps between current engagement levels and corporate goals, forward-thinking companies recognize the need to expand their reach to find people with specialized skills and knowledge who can help.
Social workers in the corporate environment
Social workers have traditionally been associated with mental health, crisis management and community outreach. Many of us undoubtedly picture individual and family counseling, health and human welfare, crisis intervention, and community development as typical career trajectories for social workers. While these careers offer valuable paths for social workers, organizations seeking to create healthier, happier communities within their walls as well as beyond them are looking to these professionals to lead the social work of employee and community engagement.
Companies such as are hiring individuals with degrees and backgrounds in social work, public health, and other social sciences. These companies are recognizing the expertise of social workers in handling a host of people-focused issues including: workplace equity, work-life balance, diversity and inclusion, workplace culture, sexual harassment, privacy breaches, hiring and onboarding, team development, corporate social responsibility, and neighborhood gentrification, to name a few. More and more, organizations seek to build resilient businesses that foster stronger leadership, collaboration and customer service.
The bottom line of corporate social consciousness
Skilled in human interactions and behaviors, social workers can bring a fresh perspective on the internal community of an organization. Using their unique training, these practitioners of wellness can design and initiate policies that respond to the actual needs of employees while building bridges with local communities that enhance the company brand. In addition, employees trained in the social sciences can provide expert guidance that helps companies avoid—or better respond to—ethical lapses that may cause reputation damage.
As a result of programs aimed at a higher social consciousness, organizations can begin to foster trust and respect internally and externally—a missing element for many companies. Once a foundation of trust has been established, employee productivity improves along with talent recruitment and retention. A positive workplace culture and good community image have a positive effect on customer relationships leading to greater customer loyalty and ultimately stimulating the bottom line.
As an example, an employee with a background in social work would be hired by a financial institution that wants to promote itself locally. Skilled at tuning into the needs of the community, the social worker recognizes the value of providing a local education program in financial literacy run by employees who volunteer their time. As a community resource, the program strengthens local ties, builds good will and educates people about financial products.
The company now has the trust and opportunity to provide small business loans, mortgages, and other products and services—services that benefit the local economy. At the same time, employees begin to feel a sense of purpose in giving back to the community and pride in working for an organization that is aligned with their values.
Raising emotional IQ with soft skills
Surveys have shown that employers are placing more emphasis on finding people with soft skills, such as communications, teamwork, adaptability, leadership, and strategic thinking and analysis—and are having a harder time finding them. Often, these soft skills are as critical to an organization’s success as hard skills, if not more so. Not surprisingly, social workers often have these in abundance.
This fact has not been lost on colleges and universities, a growing number of which are helping their social science graduates prepare for corporate roles. At the University of Southern California, the Doctor of Social Work program has been an early adopter of this approach, preparing students not only for traditional social work roles, but also for non-traditional private industry jobs. Students study organizational leadership, public dialogue facilitation, innovation and change, technological fluency, and data-driven decision making. The program emphasizes collaboration, community organizing, and presentation as core skills that are transferrable and valuable to business settings.
“What our students bring to this is the human element,” says , a clinical associate professor in the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at USC. “We’re training [students] on management; we’re training them on leadership; we’re training them on how to look at finances of an organization and how to make decisions on finances.”
Courtesy USC Master of Social Work program
Elevating the employee experience
As every HR professional knows, the near-record-low unemployment level is requiring organizations to deliver superior employee experiences to attract the best talent in an era where the employer-employee relationship is more fluid than ever before. Technology, globalization, and an evolving workforce are changing how people work, where they work, and their expectations for their experiences at work.
In the new employee relationship economy, workers seek meaning and mobility, the flexibility to work remotely or to pivot between careers—or between work and professional development, such as returning to school to gain additional skills. Employees may change roles internally or leave their full-time jobs and return as consultants, freelancers, or partners. They may even boomerang, returning to a previous employer. Engaging this flexible workforce—or even embracing the gig economy with a talent-as-a-service approach—requires adapting to a host of employee needs and expectations. And, as five generations of people now must work together in teams and organizations, HR professionals are having to think anew about how to develop structures that address the multitude of issues their employees care about.
Social workers and others trained in the social sciences understand the new currency of engagement, loyalty, and trust. They bring interpersonal skills of listening, behavior analysis, communications, facilitation, and conflict resolution to promote mutually beneficial relationships that enhance the ability of an organization to achieve its mission and goals.
Social workers in the corporate structure
Social workers can use their soft skills to understand needs, develop programs, educate participants, and provide resources in a variety of corporate positions.
Here is a sampling of the types of corporate roles suited to social workers:
- Management: Organizational administration, program management, policy development
- Human Resources: Personnel development, change management, workplace culture, diversity recruiting strategies, work-life balance policies, student loan repayment policies, employee feedback and surveys, sexual harassment policies/issues
- Learning and Development: Mentorship and internship programs; training in diversity, sexual harassment, and communications skills
- Coaching: Group facilitation, leadership skills, organizational change facilitation
- Counseling: Stress management, behavioral health, interpersonal conflict facilitation and resolution, substance abuse, community resources
- Financial literacy: Employee and customer financial education programs, resources for financial planning, assistance with understanding/using company products
- Employee Assistance Programs: Employee assessments, counseling, and referrals; emergency response situations
- Community Development: Program/services development and resourcing to improve community health, well-being, wealth and opportunity
- Corporate Social Responsibility: Identify societal needs to establish philanthropic campaigns, provide resources, support organizations that nurture large populations
Wisdom for job seekers and HR
For those with education or practical experience in social work, shifting from a traditional career to the corporate world can seem like an unlikely stretch. After all, you may have entered the field because you are oriented toward helping people in need who often have inadequate resources. The idea of working in a for-profit organization with plentiful resources may seem contradictory. But as one USC alumna now working in human resources for NASA explained, “Pain is pain, no matter ... where it is it is, and where you can impact and help alleviate pain, that’s what you should be doing.” In addition, happier, more engaged employees make happier, healthier people who are more engaged in their families and communities. People who experience charitable endeavors in corporate avenues are more likely to reach out in other ways. It all translates to a healthier business and a healthier world.
While the intersection of corporate needs with social work experience is a recent development, companies that invest the effort in seeking employees from non-traditional backgrounds and an abundance of soft skills frequently find hard evidence of the value of this approach in delivering five-star employee experiences and nurturing a growing number of dedicated customers.