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The field of human services may be broad, but what the essence of the industry boils down to is that everyone deserves to have their basic human needs met. Those who study human services can go on to work in a variety of roles, but some of the most common include social workers, therapists, community health professionals, and counselors.

If you have been considering a career in human services, this is most likely because you want to make a real difference in the lives of others. No matter what realm of human services you end up in, you will be in contact with people from a wide range of diverse cultural backgrounds. To best serve these populations, cultural competence is vital.

Cultural competence is a term that is being used more often not just in the human services field but across disciplines—and for good reason. By developing a better idea of what cultural competence is, what it entails, and how aspiring human services professionals can assess and improve their own competence, you will be better suited to serve your clients’ needs.

What Is Cultural Competence?

Before we can dive into the role of cultural competence in human services work, it is important to broadly define the concept of cultural competence and explore its evolution within the field.

Defining Cultural Competence

Cultural competence refers to a person’s ability to recognize that their own cultural beliefs and values may differ from those of other cultures—as well as an individual’s ability to adapt to these differences, particularly in their work. In human services specifically, cultural competence is a reflection of how effectively a system or agency is able to work with the different beliefs, values, and customs of a client or community in mind.

The National Prevention Information Network (NPIN) maintains that organizations practicing cultural competence must:

  • Have a set of values and principles, as well as policies and structures, that enable them to effectively perform their work across cultures.
  • Be able to not only value diversity but also assess their own cultural competence and adapt to the unique cultures of the communities in which they work.

It is also worth noting that cultural competence skills are not something that a person develops overnight. Instead, it is an outcome of concerted, ongoing efforts.

The Evolution of Cultural Competence Concepts in Human Services

While the idea of cultural competence is nothing new, the reality is that we are just beginning to see a shift in focus—particularly in the human services and social services fields. This is especially true after studies have found that some cultures (including racial and ethnic minorities) receive a significantly lower quality of healthcare than non-minorities. These differences in care also impact the quality of care received in human service capacities.

In recent years, there has been a greater sense of agreement throughout the field that, in order to provide the highest standard of care, cultural competence must be the focus across all disciplines of human services. This applies not only to the understanding and adaptation of care to specific cultures but also to taking other factors into account (such as sexual orientation and socioeconomic status) when creating a foundation for care.

Cultural Competence Skills

There are some critical skills that human services workers must possess to exercise cultural competence in their everyday work. This begins with the ability to actively listen and ask questions instead of making assumptions about others. This may seem simple enough, but the reality is that so many of us are operating with implicit biases that the importance of asking and listening is so easily overlooked. Human services professionals should always be focused on giving patients the opportunity to speak freely and without judgment, allowing social workers and other professionals to obtain the information needed to best serve them, regardless of their differences.

Developing a mutual respect and awareness of different cultures is another important step toward cultural competence in human services. An ability to understand another person’s culture and background while leaving all judgment at the door is easier said than done, but maintaining an open-minded approach is a skill that will help human services professionals serve their clients well.

While respect, awareness, education, and active listening are all essential skills to focus on when working on your own cultural competence, it is crucial to understand that there is no finite set of skills you can acquire to designate yourself as culturally competent. Instead, it is better to view cultural competence as an ongoing continuum where you can never possibly understand every single culture—but you are always striving to do so.

The Need for Cultural Competence in Human Services

So, why is cultural competence necessary in the field of human services? There are many reasons why this field needs professionals who are sensitive to other cultures, ranging from building trust to the impact of cultural competence on certain populations.

The Role of Cultural Competence in Building Trust and Respect

One of the most significant ways in which cultural competence affects the human services field is in a worker’s ability to build shared trust and respect with their clients. Unfortunately, when a human services professional (such as a social worker) fails to understand and respect a client’s unique culture and background, it can start the relationship off on the wrong foot. Something as seemingly insignificant as a turn of phrase or body language may offend someone with a different cultural background, breaking any foundation of trust that may have existed.

When there is a lack of trust or respect between a client and human services worker, very little progress can be made. By embracing diversity in human services and practicing cultural competence whenever possible, clients and human services workers can build stronger relationships built on a foundation of trust. This, in turn, improves outcomes and allows workers to better serve their clients.

The Impact of Cultural Competence on Specific Populations

Cultural competence efforts can benefit all populations, but this is perhaps especially true of specific populations that have been disproportionately burdened by human services and social services issues in the past. Consider, for example, that Latino Americans are less likely than any other minority to have health insurance and a regular doctor. These kinds of disparities must be recognized and considered when providing care. The same applies to populations such as the elderly who have statistically lower literacy rates and may therefore face more obstacles accessing the care they need.

How to Improve Cultural Competence in Human Services

Whether you are already working in the human services field or plan to, there are some specific strategies you can employ to enhance your own cultural sensitivity as you strive for cultural proficiency in your everyday work.

Strategies to Enhance Cultural Sensitivity

Begin by taking proactive steps to improve your own cultural sensitivity. It is essential to understand that this is not the exact same concept as cultural competence. Instead, sensitivity refers to the idea that all cultures, similarities, and differences between people exist without assumption or judgment.

To enhance cultural sensitivity, human services students and workers alike can begin by learning to recognize differences across cultures. This may include differences in the ways people communicate, the types of goals they set for themselves, how they experience stress, what they value, and how they interact with others.

From there, the focus should be not just to notice these differences, but to do so without judgment or assumption. We often carry biases about others without even realizing it. By taking the time to recognize these biases and work to overcome them, we can do better – not just as human services professionals but as members of society as well.

Ways to Move From Cultural Awareness to Cultural Proficiency

It is also important for human services workers to understand the differences between cultural sensitivity, cultural awareness, cultural competency, and cultural proficiency. Whereas awareness and sensitivity are more about recognizing that differences in cultures do exist, competence and proficiency are more about understanding cultural differences among various populations and using that information to best serve a population.

So, what are some strategies that human services workers can employ to better service a diverse client base in the United States? Perhaps first and foremost, human services organizations need to have staff who can speak the language of the people they represent. This includes ensuring that clients have access to an interpreter or translator whenever needed. An easy way to do this is to employ diverse workers who already speak the language.

Likewise, human services professionals should be mindful of providing accessible hours and locations to the people that they serve. This may mean offering weekend or evening hours to those unable to meet during “traditional” business hours, as well as considering the accessibility of a meeting place by public transit and other forms of transportation.

When working with clients, human services should also be conscious of cultural norms and mindful of how their body language (or other interactions) could affect a client. For example, being even a minute late to a meeting with a client from a cultural background where punctuality is highly valued can get things off to a rocky start.

Finally, human services professionals can work toward cultural proficiency by going beyond the understanding that all people come from culturally diverse backgrounds and instead go out of their way to better understand these backgrounds. This is done by asking questions and keeping an open mind, rather than making assumptions or allowing biases to affect decision-making.

How Can Human Services Professionals Assess Their Cultural Competence?

Human services professionals should get into the habit of routinely assessing their own cultural competence. Doing so can help these professionals determine the degree to which they are addressing the needs of the diverse groups they serve, as well as making plans for improvement.

There are many ways to go about assessing your cultural competence objectively. A quick online search, for example, yields several online tests and surveys that can be used as a viable starting point. The key is to take these assessments regularly and make an active effort to improve cultural competence in between assessments. This way, it is an ongoing process with gradual improvement over time.

One helpful resource for self-assessments is the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s website, where you can find “check-ins” on culturally responsive practice, gender inclusivity, and more.

Pursue Your Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services With Post University

There is no overstating the importance of cultural sensitivity and cultural competence in the human services field. Not only do cultural competence skills allow you to build trust with the people you serve, but they also allow you to address your own implicit biases and perform your work with greater humility and empathy.

At Post University, we celebrate cultural diversity—and that is reflected in our Bachelor of Science in Human Services program. Through this program, students have the opportunity to learn the skills needed to better recognize and overcome their own biases while considering the cultural differences of others and applying ethical decision-making in delivering human services. Get in touch to learn more about Post University’s Bachelor of Science in Human Services or start your application today!

Please note jobs and/or career outcomes highlighted in this blog do not reflect jobs or career outcomes expected from any Post program. To learn more about Post’s programs and their outcomes, please fill out a form to speak with an admissions advisor.