• Podsoc #71
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Closet activists and covert workplace activities:

In conversation with Leia Greenslade

Is radical social work dead or does it have a covert presence in modern social work practice? In this podcast, Leia Greenslade shines a light on closet activism.

Leia Greenslade has been a staff member with the School of Human Services and Social Work, Griffith University, for five years and in that time has taught a wide range of courses within both the Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Social Work (Qualifying) programs. Leia is a self confessed geek, which fits well with her current role developing the online Bachelors of Social Work and Human Service programs. Previously, Leia was the Career Services Social Worker for the Australian Association of Social Workers and a freelance writer.

Since making this recording Leia has changed her name from Lyndal to Leia. You will hear Lyndal on the recording.

Recommended citation – APA6th

Fronek, P. (Host). (2014, September 11). Closet activists and covert workplace activities: In conversation with Leia Greenslade [Episode 71]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/closet-activists-and-covert-workplace-activities/.

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  1. Comments
  2. References
  3. Transcript

Greenslade, L., McAuliffe, D. & Chenoweth, L. (2014). Social workers’ experiences of covert workplace activism. Australian Social Work. doi: 10.1080/0312407X.2014.940360.

Greenslade, L. & Vos, A. (2008). Clarify your purpose. The New Social Worker. http://www.socialworker.com/home/Feature_Articles/Professional_Development_%26_Advancement/Creating_YOUR_Social_Work_Career%3A_Clarify_Your_Purpose/

Greenslade, L. & Vos, A. (2008). Creating your purpose. The New Social Worker. http://www.socialworker.com/home/index2.php?option=com_content&do_pdf=1&id=255

Vos, A. & Greenslade, L. (2008). Understand the purpose of social work. The New Social Worker. http://www.socialworker.com/home/Feature_Articles/Professional_Development_%26_Advancement/Creating_YOUR_Social_Work_Career%3A_Understanding_the_Purpose_of_Social_Work/

Australian Association of Social Workers. (2008). Regarding the investigation into possible decriminalisation and regulation of altruistic surrogacy in Queensland. Retrieved from http://www.aasw.asn.au/document/item/2231

Transcription Podsocs 71: Closet Activists and Covert Workplace Activities: In Conversation with Leia Greenslade

Thank you to Amy Thackeray for this transcript.

PLEASE NOTE: Since making this recording Dr Greenslade has changed her name from Lyndal to Leia. You will note Lyndal is used on this recording and in the transcript.

[musical intro to 00.10]

Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.

This morning on Podsocs we have Lyndal Greenslade from Griffith University. Welcome to Podsocs Lyndal.

Lyndal: Thank you very much

Trish: Now, Lyndal, we’re going to be talking about some very interesting research of yours, about covert workplace activities. Tell us a bit about your research project.

Lyndal: Okay so it was part of my PhD at Griffith University and basically, I became really interested in the idea of how people cope in contemporary workplaces when they’re faced with conflict between the social work values and the sort of values and principles, and practices of their workplace. I was working for the AASW in Horizon Career Centre and I was a career counsellor with them. So, I would talk to social workers from all different settings around Australia, from new grads right through to people who were thinking through to retirement, about their work and the challenges that they were facing.

And what I became aware of was about, unfortunately, about 90% of the calls that I had were from people that were really frustrated and confused and fed up with not being able to work from a social justice framework. So, the very reasons why they had gotten into the profession, they felt they weren’t being able to actually work with those values at all in their workplaces.

Trish: And that’s a really big issue at the moment isn’t it, with the changes that are certainly happening in Australia in terms of neoliberalism… changes to how welfare is funded, how organisations are funded?

Lyndal: Exactly, so we know from research into this kind of stuff, that social workers are finding it increasingly difficult to practice, experiencing things like role conflict, increased documentation, really excessive caseloads, a devaluing of what it means to be a social worker. So, working with other professional groups that really don’t value what our profession is trying to do. So, I listened to all of these stories that were really sad and people thinking about leaving the profession after many years or new grads just sort of having a false-start getting out there and thinking, ‘no I can’t do this’.

So that was all sort of a bit depressing, but in contrast to that, I would have these other calls, usually with quite senior people who were in fairly high positions in different fields, telling me that they could do it. That they were having a wonderful experience of implementing the values, of the profession, and often at the really, what we think of as the ‘pointy end’, so, child protection, mental health, the sort of statutory areas. So this really sparked my curiosity and I thought well, how come these people are managing to do it, and most of us are really struggling with it?

Trish: So, were they from the same organisations? Or just different experiences within the same organisations? Or different experiences in different organisations?

Lyndal: Probably the same sorts of experiences across all organisations. But having said that I didn’t really have a lot of contact with people in the community development field, it was mostly what we think of I guess, as that…

Trish: Institutional?

Lyndal: Yeah, the bureaucratic side of practice, definitely, yeah. And I mean that linked with the research that was telling me that statutory practice was causing the most trouble in terms of this kind of conflict and stress and burn-out. Like we know that type of practice is particularly difficult in relation to these kinds of things.

Trish: So what questions did you ask? What did you want to know with your research?

Lyndal: Yeah, so I wanted to know, you know to begin with, so much! And then I kind of tunnelled it down into what was actually possible. So I chose to, what the research told me was, there was a small amount of research that looks into social workers who resist when faced with these kind of challenges and I called it ‘Covert Workplace Activism’. I looked at what existed within our profession and there was really nothing. So our profession talks a lot about activism, we kind of ‘bang on’ about it all the time, but there’s very little research that actually explores what does it mean to promote social justice.

Our codes of ethics across, you know, most of the codes of ethics that are member countries of the IFSW, tell us that we actually are required, not just to kind of agree with these things in principle, but to actually implement them. But no one really tells you how to do that, and we don’t have research that tells you how to do that, we just talk about it as being a really great thing. And I guess that kind of bugged me, made me sort of think, as an academic myself, we’re training people up to, we inspire them in our lectures about this stuff, about the values, we fire them up and send them out there, and I felt bad for them. I felt that, that was an unfair thing to do without sort of providing you know a context around, this is going to be tough, and here are some concrete things you can do. So that led me to kick off to kind of explore not just what people were doing but why they were doing it.

So, what their motivations were, and how they were doing it and then ultimately to try and build a picture of who are this group of workers, what can we learn about their identity, are there similarities, are their differences, just sort of build like a, I ended up building a typology of a contemporary activist. And then I guess I’ve got so many more questions about is this contemporary radical practice, is this what it looks like now, because of course years ago when we thought about radical practice we thought more about overt kinds of responses, so going on marches, staging protests, joining with other existing groups, that kind of thing.

Trish: So really, is about that observation of social work being a changing profession and adjusting to the environment in which we work and how that affects our practice as well.

Lyndal: Definitely, definitely, so you know, is the radical project dead? Is it something that we look back on fondly with kind of a little bit of humour about gee wasn’t that kind of cute? That’s sort of what I was getting from people I was talking to. But then when I looked into this kind of practice I thought that maybe this is the contemporary form of that, like we know that we sign agreements with our employers now that we can’t publicly make statements about you know, what’s going on, we get in trouble if we do that. So, if you want to keep your job and you want to help your clients, how do you do this? And the answer that I found with this group of workers, and that other researchers around the world are finding, is that people have just gone underground. So, one of my participants called it, she was in the closet, she was a closet radical, and I think that interests me, that contemporary, radical practice.

Trish: So, what were they doing?

Lyndal: What were they doing? That’s the million dollar question. So, they were doing exactly the sorts of things that a couple of other studies, mostly from Canada, have looked into. Things like acting in opposition to directions, so saying ‘yes, sure manager, I’ll go ahead and do that’, but then having no intention to actually do that and sort of flying under the radar. Looking the other way when clients behave in certain ways that they weren’t supposed to behave in. So, an example of that would be someone in the field of mental health who had a client who was on an order and was not supposed to consume any drugs as part of that order to be in the community. And the client disclosed that they were smoking a bit of pot and the worker thought through that very carefully and decided that, that was, although that they were supposed to report that, that was not in their client’s best interest to do that.

It’s creatively filling out forms, knowing the best way to present a client’s situation in order for them to receive the best service and being creative about how you do that. Being flexible with rules, so rule bending on a case by case kind of basis and expanding client entitlements for service. So, knowing that look if we put this down, you’ll actually get that service, but if we don’t put that down, you won’t. Another big one was over-servicing, so there might be, you know, a deadline, and this was particularly in child protection, where it might be ‘right, that’s the end of that service that we’re funded for now,’ but finding a way to continue to deliver that service, those sorts of things.

Trish: So Lyndal, is it choices between or maybe choices is the wrong word, but is it about being a stickler to the rules or a means of exercising professional judgement or does it actually pose some ethical dilemmas for practitioners?

Lyndal: Yeah, yep, great questions. All three, probably. So, my sort of boundary for participation was that everybody had to say that they were primarily motivated by desire to help the client. So, this wasn’t about nicking a pen because your employer bugged you. This was really about struggling with some of these difficult issues that practitioners felt stopped them from delivering a service that they were supposed to be delivering. And they really, really struggled, so you know, and I wondered whether I would find anyone that was sort of just like “I’m just going to do this and I don’t care”, “this is the way I do it so bad luck”, “I know what I’m doing, I’m right, I don’t even question it”. But I didn’t find that at all.

I found that this group were incredibly self-reflective and really agonised over this stuff. I had one participant who, you know, lay awake at night asking all the sort of questions that are around these issues, “am I an ethical practitioner or am I kidding myself?”. “If I bend the rules, what does that mean for other client’s that can’t get a service because I’m still servicing someone else?”. So, they were very aware of the kind of dilemmas around this work, but ultimately felt that their connection with the values of our profession, which were also their own personal values in their private lives, meant that they could work no other way. So, if they were to stay in the profession, this was the only way they could do that and feel that they were working with integrity.

Trish: So, it sounds like they did go through an ethical decision-making process and actually did weigh up all the pros and cons.

Lyndal: Yeah definitely, and for some of them that would be after the fact. Some of them it would be in supervision, usually outside of the organisation. Some of them they had trusted colleagues, so there were little clusters. One of my participants talked about a rogue cluster in their particular group where they all got together and were practicing covertly but kind of as a team. And some of them just carried this as a burden. Like they just really didn’t know if they were doing the right thing and continued to question it. So, it was an ongoing struggle that they continued to work through. But on balance, all 15 of them felt that they would continue to work in this way.

Trish: So social work values trumped in the end?

Lyndal: They did, and I meant that’s interesting because in our codes of ethics. that’s exactly what those codes specifically say. That if you find a situation where your organisation is in conflict with your professional values of social work, social work values are supposed to take precedence. And there’s lots of qualifiers around that in our codes of ethics, there’s lots of yes but, you know you have to stay within the law and you have to try and raise these things openly. But where this research left me was thinking, there’s kind of this unspoken thing that many, many people are doing, that we’re not quite sure where we stand with it. We don’t know, we know that we’re supposed to be implementing our values over those of our profession, over those of our workplaces sorry, but you know, who’s going to help us with that? If we get in trouble with that, who’s going to help us? What are our professional associations going to do? Are they going to back this us up? Or do we need to keep hiding it?

Trish: So, what are the implications then in terms of social workers practising in this environment? I mean is there things that the profession should be addressing? Should we be legitimising this? how should we deal with this?

Lyndal: Yeah well it’s kind of tricky because if our professional associations were to go ‘this is absolutely valid because you’ve hired a social worker and you’ve hired us knowing these are our values so we’re going to implement those values’, ‘if you don’t want a social worker that’s going to try and implement these values, go hire someone else’. Now of course the risk there is that they go ‘okay’ and go hire someone else.

Trish: Are they maybe doing that anyway, some organisations?

Lyndal: Yeah, I think that is where it’s headed, I think that maybe the more noise we make in this kind of welfare delivery environment, maybe it would mean being more side-lined. So, do you go the other way and pull out these sort of values from our profession and say ‘look that time has passed, we actually can’t do this so let’s make it much more general’. The nursing codes kind of elude to equity and social action but they don’t actually explicitly require nurses to act on those so do we need to step back? Or thirdly, do we go business as usual and just keep it covert. And my sense of it is, look I’d love to go with ‘this is who we are and this is what we do’ and try and bust down some doors, but I don’t think that would be a very safe response in this context…

Trish: ...for the profession

Lyndal: Yeah so, therefore if we take that middle option and we go look let’s just keep quietly doing what we’re doing, then I think we need some kind of support for workers who are all out there independently doing this. And whether that exists outside of the professional association, so kind of almost like support groups I guess, because my participants felt really pleased to learn that they weren’t the only ones and you know I’ve kind of had visions for some kind of collective, covert action.

Trish: And it really highlights perhaps the need for external supervision.

Lyndal: Yea, definitely, definitely, and also some kind of warnings for new graduates I guess that, this is a very risky practice. This is something that you really need to think through the implications of. For example I had one worker who was working in a housing support service and they had these rules around locking up the food during the day, like you could only have cereal in the morning, you couldn’t have cereal in the afternoon, so they locked it and they had keys for it, and you also couldn’t get entry into your own room during the day. The keys were centrally held and if you wanted to go in there, a worker had to take the keys accompany you there.

Trish: It sounds like a 1940s institution.

Lyndal: Well yeah, and really you know where is the self-determination in that? And you know this worker tried to raise this overtly and most of my participants had tried that and tried to raise issues overtly and just got nowhere. So, you know, on occasion they would hand out the key and let the person walk to their own door and open it. Now big deal, right? Like you look at that and just think well that’s just good social work but actually it is a big deal because it’s breaking the rules and the repercussions are quite severe. And they also you know they would provide cereal whenever anybody felt [like it], the same as if you’re at home and you want cereal at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, well you’re gonna have cereal.

So, they did that as quite a new-grad and really had no, you know that person could have just lost their job really, really fast. They had no connections, hadn’t yet built a professional reputation to kind of fall back on. So, you know with students that I teach, I tell them about this, and I try and raise the kind of issues around how difficult it can be to implement our values. But I definitely also caution that you need to consider what the repercussions are of this. Because if you get fired, then you can’t do anything for that client in that organisation so it’s a constant weighing up of risk and benefit I think.

Trish: Look it’s a real minefield. It’s difficult enough for experienced social workers, but for new graduates, it is a huge minefield because you don’t have the experience or the developed skills, I suppose, to really think a lot of these issues through without good, supportive supervision. But then there’s a risk you know if you don’t act on some of these things do you become consumed by the agency whose values clash with our values or do you maintain who you are as a social worker. It’s a real dilemma isn’t it?

Lyndal: It is, it is, it ends up really messing with people’s identities because you go into this profession fairly closely, you know, believing that you’re a person who feels very strongly about social justice and I know when I chose social work, my thinking around that was I wanted to stop. I wanted to get off the couch and stop yelling at the television and actually get up and do something about the things that bugged me. So when I got out there in practice I had the same thing it was just sort of like a ‘gee have I chosen the wrong career, have I got this wrong’, because I’ve just come from uni where we have these awesome and passionate discussions about things but I feel like I’m trying to practice with my hands tied behind my back. And I think in reality most people that feel like that, that feel very strongly connected to those values just end up taking the risks anyway.

Trish: And Lyndal, it must have some positive benefits too? Because people must feel like they are able to help the clients more effectively?

Lyndal: Definitely, definitely, and I asked that question and I said look let’s identify the challenges and you know the sort of pros and cons and people could list all of the challenges, a lot of which were around personal risk. But then when they looked at the positives, it was really quite lovely, like they had quotes from clients who had sent them cards saying ‘I really appreciated what you did’, do you want me to share one more story that was really quite touching?

Trish: Sure

Lyndal:I had a participant who was working with a dying client and the client had been in and out of hospital, it was a homeless person, and for some reason he, as he was dying, he wasn’t really speaking that much anymore but he was very agitated. And this participant leant forward, everyone was very busy with the process of hospital death, and this social worker leant forward and tried to understand what this client was sort of mumbling and what the client was asking for was their phone.
And as a homeless person, they had hardly any possessions but for some reason this phone was really, really important, so this worker knew that they had very, very little time to do anything about this, and that from a rational point of view the phone was not going to make any real difference. But they used a transport, they didn’t have a car themselves, so they just zipped out and used a hospital transport to go to where this person’s phone was and to bring it back and they gave the person the phone and the person passed away peacefully.

Now they used that hospital transport, they weren’t supposed to, they weren’t supposed to be leaving work, but that person in that moment made that decision that client’s need was important and facilitated that. So, stories like that in difficult practice environments where you can’t at the end of every day go ‘wow I really had a win’, these little moments where you really touch someone.

Trish: Well they’re big moments really

Lyndal: They’re very big moments that in fact is how you sustain practice in these kind of really challenging environments. You’re not suddenly going to solve the problems of child protection, you know, it’s too big. But that one moment where you reach out and a client knows it’s beyond and above what you’re supposed to be doing or even with all the challenges and the problems and the ethical dilemmas etc. that human-to-human moment makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Trish: And it must have some benefits in terms of work satisfaction and burnout prevention because we know that if people are unhappy in their work burnout is a greater risk.

Lyndal: Yeah definitely, I mean the people that I spoke to when I was at Horizon who were doing this stuff were just delighted. They loved their jobs and I mean not all of my participants were sort of like ‘ra, ra, ra’, they struggled with this but they didn’t leave and research tells us that people either, with these kind of challenges - organisational professional conflict- they either leave or they burn-out, so this is kind of a third option, I’m not gonna leave, I’m not gonna burn out, I’m going to take action here and push back against some of these things that I find abhorrent.

Trish: And Lyndal maybe talking about these things and talking about the fact that it can produce better outcomes for clients at the end of the day might influence organisations.

Lyndal: Maybe, yeah I mean it definitely has effects in terms of if clients access services again, like they tend to be, able to be, that piece of work is able to be completed particularly for those workers who are extending services, often only by you know a month outside of what they’re supposed to but that client feels well enough or able enough to kind of move on so I guess that’s kind of a budgetary saving. I think it has to affect money, like I think the bottom line in welfare these days is the money so I don’t imagine that there would be many organisations that would welcome this kind of activity unless you could point to budgetary savings. You know it would have to be about stats and dollars I think. That’s really cynical isn’t it?

Trish: Not necessarily, but it is about that short-term outcome and that long- term outcome and if you can resolve a problem, in, well actually resolve it rather than just patch it, it has to have ultimate longer-term savings surely.

Lyndal: Yeah that’s right, and I mean client satisfaction surveys would be much higher I would imagine for people who had felt that they were serviced in a way that their dignity was maintained and they felt that real connection with the worker.

Trish: And we’re not talking about illegal things, we’re talking about activities that benefit the clients?

Lyndal: Well, we are talking about illegal things.

Trish: Are we?

Lyndal: We are, so it’s kind of a continuum you know, everything from probably that example that I gave you with the person with the mobile phone, you know, the small scale stuff like hugging a client if you’re not supposed to but you know, you make a professional decision that that’s an okay thing to do in that moment right through to illegal activity. Now, I didn’t find like a great deal of illegal activity, people working in income support, every time they bend a rule, that’s actually illegal, because they’re implementing laws. So you know there’s that, but there were some things that people were doing that were definitely illegal, very, not all of my participants were doing that, and the ones that were, I would call, they actually self-identified as radical, so only three of my participants self-identified as radical. Most of them used terms like human-rights activists, ethical practitioner, critical-reflective practitioner, those kind of words, but three said that they were radical. Those three also were quite political. They had quite strong links to sort of leftist political groups. Some of them had histories of activism both overt and covert in other settings like in their personal lives, and they were probably the most, this is what I do this is part of who I am, I fight and I will actually choose a job that allows me to fight. So, they would purposefully seek promotion into areas where they felt that they could do this kind of stuff to the most benefit for clients.

Trish: So individual social workers really need to think through the consequences of their actions, it’s not only the consequences for clients but it’s also the consequences for themselves.

Lyndal: Totally

Trish: And working this through as best they can I suppose

Lyndal: Yeah definitely, and where possible with support you know, like I think the kind of work we do regardless of whether you’re doing covert work or not, having really good professional supports and groups of colleagues that you share a practice kind of approach with, if you’ve got that kind of support, I think standing alone with this stuff is a heavy burden to manage, but obviously you don’t want to announce it in the tea room either.

Trish: No, it might not go down very well

Lyndal: No, you need to be able to think through and make those kind of decisions, about, you don’t want to be caught on the spot, you don’t want to be in that moment and make that decision on the spot. You want to have kind of thought through these things beforehand I think.

Trish: Did they talk about any protective measures for themselves in this process other than perhaps secrecy by the sound of it.

Lyndal: Yeah, they did, some of them actually had sought out like-minded colleagues, some were using online social work blogs or zines, there’s a couple of really good radical zines for social workers like an online magazine format and they were kind of building connection that way. But really most of my participants were quite isolated and hungry for this kind of collegial connection to talk through some of these issues and to celebrate as well. This is a, whatever you think about what these people are doing, the many ethical minefields that exist. I think this is a courageous choice of action to make and I think resistance is never easy and it’s kind of admirable to take a stand.

Trish: And certainly from an educational point of view perhaps this is something we need to be paying more attention to in the universities.

Lyndal: I think it’s a big one and I think, you know, those of us that are in the universities probably need to start telling the truth about what it’s like out there, not in kind of a negative ‘it’s all impossible way’, more in a connection to those kind of, what we like to think of as, the roots of the profession, connection to social justice and some really clear ideas of how you do that. So, I mean, what I would love to do with this, is you know, so I’ve published an academic article, but what I would really like to do is a book full of practitioner stories about how people are actually implementing social justice in contemporary practice. So, you know overt/ covert like how you actually do the job in this current environment?

Trish: So, should they be contacting you Lyndal?

Lyndal: I think that academic journals are fantastic but I think that in reality there’s another way of reaching people at a much more grass roots level that this stuff connects, connects really well with.

Trish: Fantastic, Lyndal any final words?

Lyndal: Keep fighting is my final words, however you choose to do that. Keep fighting because I think that if the voice of our profession is lost, it’s kind of a bleak landscape out there.

Trish: Lyndal, thank-you so much for being on Podsocs.

Lyndal: Thank-you for having me, it’s been fun!

[Musical outro 29.55 to END]

Interview ENDS: 30.21