Cultural Competence in Social Work


Cultural competency is one of those words that may seem like a bit of a buzz word, but is actually very important to being an effective counsellor. The National Center for Cultural Competence cites the definition given in Cross et al. (1989), which is that “Cultural competence is a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency or among professionals and enable that system, agency or those professions to work effectively in cross-cultural situations.”

Having an awareness of different cultures and how they influence the counselling process helps you ensure that your work takes into account the unique values, beliefs and circumstances of individuals and do not impress your values on them.

For instance, if a Vietnamese student tells you that his family wishes him to study medicine, and he does not want to do so, you may advise him to assert his individuality and tell him otherwise. Unfortunately, in a collectivist society like Vietnam this would be considered an extreme social violation and could lead to the father never speaking to him again.

The APA has developed a set of guidelines for multicultural competence, while Ivey, Ivey & Zalaquett (2007) in their book Intentional Interviewing & Counselling explain the RESPECTFUL Model as a set of multicultural dimensions that can help you identify areas where you are similar or different than your client for the purpose of assessing potential cultural barriers.

Assessing Cultural Competency

The National Center for Cultural Competence has produced a variety of assessment tools, including ones for organizations to build their competence, and a number of individual cultural competence assessment tools depending on the area you work in (including family service, youth, and primary care.)


  • Religion/Spirituality
  • Economic/Class Background
  • Sexual Identity
  • Personal Style and Education
  • Ethnic/Racial Identity
  • Chronological/Lifespan Challenges
  • Trauma
  • Family Background
  • Unique Physical Characteristics
  • Location of Residence and Language Differences

In order to develop your cultural competency, it is important to not only be aware how you differ from your clients in the above dimensions, but also allowing your client to take the lead and explain to you the impact their culture has on their unique experiences.

Etic and Emic Multicultural Counselling

Daya (2011) reviews the two opposing schools of thought in multicultural counselling, that it should focus on elements unique to specific cultures (emic) or universal to all cultures (etic). The etic approach focuses on the basic counselling relationship and the specific techniques that the counsellor uses, while those who believe in the emic approach stress the importance of knowing the specific beliefs and values that the client brings into the counselling session.

Cultural Competence Interventions

Sue et. al. (2009) explored a variety of interventions for cultural competence. With African Americans, he noted a study that used “spirituality, harmony, collective responsibility, oral tradition, holistic approach, experiences with prejudice and discrimination, racial socialization, and interpersonal/communal orientation” to work with African American clients, while story telling was found to be helpful for those of a Latino background.

With individuals of an Asian background, Iwamasa (n.d.) recommends challenging myths such as asians being a “model minority” or always academically or financially successfully, and recognizing cultural specific mental health issues like hwa-byung and taijin kyofyusho.


Cross, T., Bazron, B., Dennis, K., & Isaacs, M., (1989). Towards A Culturally Competent System of Care, Volume I. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Child Development Center, CASSP Technical Assistance Center.

Daya, R. (2011) Changing the Face of Multicultural Counselling with Principles of Change. Canadian Journal of Counselling. 35(1). 49-62.

Ivey, A.E., Ivey, M.B. & Zalaquett, C.P. (2007) Intentional Interviewing & Counselling: Facilitating Client Development in a Multicultural Society. Brooks/Cole: Belmont, Ca.

Iwamasa, G.Y. (n.d.) “Recommendations for the Treatment of Asian-American/Pacific Islander Populations”. American Psychological Association. Accessed electronically on Jun 4 2016 from

Sue, S. Zane, N. Hall, G.C., Berger, L.K. (2009) Annual Review in Psychology. 60: 525–548. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163651

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2016), "Cultural Competence in Social Work," retrieved on November 15, 2019 from
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