Social Security Experience Panels: Social Security Scotland staff

This report details the themes and findings from research into client expectations of staff members working for Scotland’s social security agency.

Social Security Scotland staff

Focus group participants were asked to describe what their ideal Social Security Scotland staff member would look and act like, what they would know and how they would interact with clients.

What should Social Security Staff look like

Participants felt that staff should look 'friendly and approachable'. When this term was explored further, participants said it included what staff were wearing, their facial expressions and their body language. These factors combined would contribute to making clients 'feel at ease' when visiting agency offices and speaking to staff.

Participants also used words such as 'open', 'natural' and 'warm' when describing how staff should look. Negative body language, such as crossed arms or looking unhappy or inpatient were listed as examples of what staff shouldn't look like.

'Not standing there with arms crossed and a grumpy look on their face. Doesn't have to be a smile, just not closed off.'

Figure 1: Consolidation of visual output from focus group sessions – the 'ideal' staff member

Figure 1: Consolidation of visual output from focus group sessions – the 'ideal' staff member

Identity and uniforms

Many participants told us that the clothing worn by staff influenced their perception of the quality and competence of the service provided by the agency. Most participants felt staff should be dressed in an 'appropriate' and 'presentable' manner, with a balance between formal and casual, however there was less consensus on what this meant in practice.

'Smart casual clothing' according to participants typically included polo shirts, black work trousers and open collar shirts, but not suits or ties. Smart casual was seen by some to be more 'approachable' and 'less-intimidating' than more formal clothing.

'Smart casual is fine, but people have the assumption that those who wear a suit will behave like they are above the clients.'

There was also a concern amongst some participants that overly-formal clothing could make some clients reluctant to visit agency buildings and interact with staff as they could be 'intimidated' or 'feel nervous'.

'Shirts and ties would intimidate people, would avoid that.'

For these participants, it was important that staff members look like 'ordinary people'.

'Something that makes them look like ordinary people. Need to make sure they're not hard to talk to…'

This view was not shared by all participants. Some felt that more formal clothing projected a more positive image about the agency itself. To these participants, wearing less formal clothing was a sign that the service overall would be poor.

'Very casual clothing' defined by participants as including jeans and sandals was rarely seen to be appropriate. Some said they would feel the service was 'less professional' if staff wore t-shirts or jeans.

'Staff shouldn't wear jeans and t-shirts…'

Participants had mixed views about how to identify staff members, and whether they should wear uniforms. Some said that uniforms could be 'useful for accessibility' and make it easy to identify a staff member when at an agency building. This may be particuarly valuable in cases where the agency shares a building with another organisation. For others, a uniform was a way of portraying a 'consistent', 'professional' and 'accessible' image.

Participants who favoured a uniform felt it should be relatively 'casual' – for example, an embroidered polo shirt with an agency logo. Anything more formal was seen to be a risk of 'putting people off'.

Participants who did not want a uniform pointed out that uniforms were not necessary in order to portray an image of professionalism and to inspire confidence in service providers.

'Doctors don't wear uniforms and clients are happy to see doctors. It's not about what they wear, it's about how they talk and listen to them.'

Being able to easily identify agency staff was also not seen to be universally positive, as some participants did not want others to see the uniform and know who they were talking to.

'Privacy is important and uniforms would detract from this as people would know you were speaking to an 'official'.

This was particularly problematic if speaking to an agency staff member in a public building.

'If based in a library a uniform will not be okay, as everyone can identify why you are there and know who you are talking to.'

Some participants felt a uniform could be 'impersonal' and 'too full on'. They raised concerns that disabled staff members may not find uniforms comfortable to work in.

Participants were asked how staff should be identified if uniforms were not worn. Some participants suggested name badges and lanyards. One participant said that a badge with a first name would help make staff feel more 'approachable'.

Staff attitudes and behaviour

Most participants could recall times where they felt the attitudes of staff within DWP had been poor.

'Whenever I've had to deal with people at the benefits agency – you sometimes feel that they're paying your benefits out their own pocket – it's their attitude.'

Participants said staff should have a 'welcoming', 'open-armed', 'non-judgemental' attitude and be 'willing to help'. Staff should avoid making assumptions about clients based on initial appearences.

'For example, if someone is shabbily dressed, you might automatically assume they are homeless, or if someone is in a suit that they are well off…'

For some participants, not making assumptions was closely linked to the idea of trust. It was felt that staff's default position should be to trust clients rather than assume they are being dishonest.

'Don't pre-judge or make assumptions on the client, situation or medical condition. Don't assume the client is lying.'

Participants also felt that staff should be 'genuine' and 'authentic' towards clients.

'They should be pleasant, but not 'fake' – remember, this is not a pleasant visit for the client.'

These traits were termed 'soft skills' by some participants. 'Soft skills' also included things such as adjusting body language to the situation and managing client expectations of the service they would receive.

Staff knowledge of social security

Having staff who are 'knowledgeable', 'well-informed' and 'competent' was important for many participants.

When asked their expectations for staff knowledge, participant views differed slightly however their expectations tended to include a broad basic knowledge of the social security system, with the ability to seek answers to more specific queries if required by the client.

'I would not expect them to know every regulation word for word…'

A often mentioned point was the need for staff knowledge to be consistent. Some participants could recall being told different things by different members of staff.

'I think it needs to be consistent – no matter who you talk to, it needs to be the same information you get.'

Participants expected staff to have knowledge beyond understanding their own social security policy. For example, one participant suggested staff should understand the rights of clients under Scottish law.

'One thing they certainly need to have an understanding of [is] people's rights, particuarly human rights. Rights to social security are guaranteed by the UN, but everybody has human rights and they have to be aware that human rights apply specifically in certain circumstances.'

Participants also felt knowledge of the interaction between Scottish and UK-wide benefits could be important.

'If they are an advisor they need to be knowledgeable with some of the retained benefits as you have people who are crossing over.'

Other participants suggested that wider knowledge of the support networks and services available would be useful so that clients could be referred to these organisations if required.

In addition to being knowledgeable, participants felt it was important that staff managed client expectations as they wouldn't be able to solve every problem a client had.

'Whilst it's important to inspire confidence, staff should be wary of promising that they can solve everything. You need to strike a balance…'

Understanding the client experience

It was felt that agency staff should have a well-rounded understanding of what it was like to claim social security and interact with the social security system. This knowledge would, participants said, help staff understand things from a client's point of view.

'[It can be] quite a degrading experience, so it has to be supportive and understanding.'

'Understanding that three weeks means nothing to the person behind the counter, but it might be a very long time for the client.'

'When you're claiming benefits, it feels that people own you and you've lost your freedom, control what you can and cannot do.'

Participants felt that agency staff should recognise and understand the impact of claiming benefits on clients and how 'stressful' and 'anxiety-inducing' it can be. They also wanted staff to understand that a client's interaction with the agency often comes at a time in their lives where there has been an extreme and abrupt change in their circumstances.

As personal circumstances can be different for every client, some participants said it was important that staff do not have an attitude of 'we know what you're like' or 'we know what people who live in your postal area are like'.

Participants felt that staff should acknowledge and recognise the stress placed on clients and take this into account when talking to them.

'Acknowledge it. […] Don't be condescending. Keep reassuring. Don't add fuel to the fire.'

Understanding disability

Staff having a good understanding of disability was highlighted by many participants as being very important.

'Staff [should be] very well trained in disability awareness, on how to guide you as it can affect your mood if not done appropriately. Full disability awareness training.'

Understanding disability was felt to be important in putting clients at ease as soon as they entered the building. Understanding a client's specific needs before meeting them was seen as valuable.

'Staff should be aware of who they are meeting and if they have needs, for example if they have anxiety, heart attack, wheelchair, so they know.'

How agency staff achieve these standards

Participants made a number of suggestions as to how staff could best meet their expectations for behaviour and knowledge. Many of these suggestions related to agency culture and how staff were treated.

Some participants felt that it was important to create a 'good working culture' for staff, combined with effective management and good support structures. They felt that part of the working culture of the agency should be the ability to share information with, and get support from colleagues.

'They need to feel like they can talk to their other colleagues to get information.'

'…if you do a long assessment, and it takes a few hours, you need to be able to come back to the office and talk to your team about it as it can be emotionally draining on both sides…'

Some participants also felt that developing and maintaining high standards was important.

'You need to ensure standards are upheld and staff are accountable – use the standards that exist and have processes such as supervision on home visits.'

However many participants advised against making staff focused on targets. It was felt by some that being 'target-driven' would lead to an inferior experience for clients and result in staff feeling 'pressured'.

'I think I have a concern if staff are target driven on the amount of claims they do a day – you have someone you could do quickly but someone else might need hours.'

'And it shouldn't be a competition about how many people you assess – it says nothing about how well you do it.'

Other participants made specific suggestions about how staff could embody the suggestions around their behaviour, such as showing clients what they have written on the screen.

'Showing clients what you are doing on the screen is helpful […] clients want to see what you are doing for them as there is no secrecy, total transparency…'

Some participants wanted staff to help them move around the building before and after their appointment:

'After an appointment, staff should say on your way out turn left and down the corridor, etc.'

Other suggestions included:

  • Setting client expectations about the appointment in advance, and stating what will happen if there isn't enough time to cover everything;
  • Respecting client privacy when speaking to them in public areas;
  • Give clients time if they are upset;
  • Giving clients choices (for example, in how they addressed them); and
  • Having sufficient levels of staffing to avoid staff burnout.

Ultimately, participants felt that a disability-positive organisational culture combined with good staff training and behaviour would go some way to allowing staff and the agency to meet their expectations.


Email: James.Miller@gov.Scot

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