Navigating Human Service Organizations


Margaret Gibelman wrote the above entitled book (Lyceum: Chicago, 2003).  It is a helpful book in a number of ways and I have tried to capture some of that in the following quotes.  However, like most general and textbook discussions of organizations, it is very conservative and basically tries to get you to accept the status quo.  I strongly believe that is a tragic mistake that only encourages our sick society to tolerate the intolerable.  When you tolerate the intolerable you get sicker, never better.  Our society is cancer plagued and the “modern” organization plays a key role in the continuation of the plague and plays no significant role in its cure.  With that cautionary statement, let us look at some of the more helpful tips Gibelman provides.


“One might think that human service organizations, whose mission it is to assist in the growth and development of individuals, families, and communities, would provide a people-oriented workplace, different from that of business.  This is not necessarily the case”  (p. xiii-xiv).


“The fact is that social workers are seldom fully prepared for the realities of the workplace.  They are often disappointed and disillusioned” (p. xiv).


“To practice effectively, social workers must understand their organizations.  They must be able to intervene through systematic problem solving to address impediments to the delivery of services and to enhance the quality of the services that are provided” (p. xiv).


“The more you know about how organizations work, the more possible it becomes for you to identify creative possibilities for programs, services, and practice that me4t professional standards and are consistent with the best interests of the people served” (p. 4).


“Most social workers practicing within an organization can describe in detail the organizational problems that influence their practice.  These include lack of time, large caseloads, poor communication, lack of supervision, burdensome administrative requirements, too much paperwork and not enough attention to client needs, and seemingly arbitrary rules that are subject to frequent change through new directives.  Such workplace issues affect workers’ attitudes toward their jobs, their clients, and their profession” (pp. 4-5).


The job search


“There are times in a social worker’s career when learning about an organization is critical.  One obvious time is during the job search process, when one must make decisions about the fit between oneself and a job” (p. 12).


“You need to ask yourself: Do I want to work in a small agency or a large one?  Do I want a formal environment where I wear a suit or a more relaxed atmosphere?  What’s most important to me---how much I get paid or how large my caseload will be?  We all know that the people interviewing us are sizing us up.  Do we have the necessary qualifications?  How good are our skills?  Will we get along with coworkers?  However, interviews should be two-sided.  This is the time to ask questions.  Ask staff members about what a typical workday is like. What are the real work hours as opposed to hose posted?  How do people interact?  What’s the ‘feel’ of the place?” (p. 13).


“Managers tend to view it as a plus when potential employees do their homework in advance and can speak knowledgeably about the organization and their ‘fit’ within it” (p. 14).


Some agencies practice open book management.  “Each month, when financial statements are prepared and distributed to the board, staff also receive a copy.  This action allows staff to become more aware of the relationship between finances and programs and the factors that affect the financial bottom line.  Such involvement, in the view of some managers, helps motivate staff to work together to make the organization more fiscally viable” (p. 61).  Ask about this with any program you are considering working for.  What is their view on open book management?  Not only does it work to motivate employees, it also motivates managers to not play games with the staff and the agency resources.  If everyone knows where the money is going, then the manager is less likely to play favorites amongst the staff which usually leads to an undermining of morale.  I strongly urge you, if at all possible, to choose an agency that is open in this way with their resources and other information.


Shared Values


The following is a list of shared values of a national organization.  You might want to see what kind of values the organization you are working for or want to work for has openly stated.



Strengths Perspective


“The strengths perspective…can be applied to addressing the challenges that arise for practitioners within their organizational setting of practice.  The vocabulary associated with the strengths perspective includes: competence, membership, empowerment, vision, assets, growth, potential, and responsibility.  These are positive words that help create a mind-set in which improvement in how we function within organizations and how organizations function to help people is possible” (p. 187).




“Mentoring has been identified as a major factor in promoting a positive job attitude and achieving success on the job…Mentoring here refers to a process characterized by a cooperative and nurturing relationship between an experienced person and a less experienced person toward the goal of helping the less experienced person develop in some specified capacity…If the organization does not have and is not able to initiate a formal mentoring program, find yourself a mentor anyway!  Approach a colleague or manager in the organization who has been there a while, knows the ropes, and is respected.  Ask the person if he or she would be willing to be an informal mentor to you” (pp. 205-7).


Since mentoring is a very important factor in your success, at the end of this page you will find a list of books and articles on mentoring.




I would like to close with a couple of examples of how Gibelman is too conservative for my tastes.  At one point she says that: “…it is the vision, priorities, work style and preferences, and management skills of the organizations’ leadership that set the tone for how the organization functions” (p.67).  Although this may be true, it hides a very dangerous ideology.  It is only true because workers allow it to be so.  Organizations can effectively be led by the rank-and-file.  The world’s greatest example of this is the Mondragon system of worker ownership.


“In recent years, there has been considerable discussion of the merits of a ‘flat’ organization---one in which all staff have a voice in how business is conducted.  Unlike a hierarchical structure, a flat structure allows and encourages input into decision making, with the assumption that those ‘on the line’ know better, or at least as well, what the organization needs to do and how to do it.  However, this kind of horizontal structure exists more as an atmosphere within the work environment than in pure organizational form.  Ultimately, someone has to be responsible for decisions” (p. 104).  Here Gibelman reveals her elitist view of humans and violates much of what she has said in terms of empowerment of workers.  Worker ownership has long proven its effectiveness.  The workers can be the group responsible for decisions.



Mentoring Bibliography


Johnson, H.E. (1997). Mentoring for exceptional performance.  Torrance, CA: Griffin.


Peddy. S. (1999). The art of mentoring: Lead, follow, and get out of the way.  Columbia, SC: Learning Connections.


Shea, G.F. (1997). Mentoring: How to develop successful mentor behaviors.  Menlo Park, CA: Crisp Publications.


Zachary, L.J. (2000). The mentor’s guide: Facilitating effective learning relationships. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Schlee, R.P. (2000). Mentoring and the professional development of business students. Journal of Management Education, 24(3), 322-337.


Segal. J.A. (2000). Mirror-image mentoring. HR Magazine, 45(3), 157-166.


Teixeira, R. (1999). The mentoring process: Beneficial to manager, employee, and organization.  Clinical Lab Management Review. 13(5), 314-316.


Walsh, A.M., & Borkowski, S.C. (1999). Cross-gender mentoring and career development in the health care industry.  Health Care Management Review, 24(3), 7-17.


Murrell, A.J., Crosby, F.J., & Ely, R.J. (1999). Mentoring dilemmas: Developmental relationships within multicultural organizations.  Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.