The Rise of Corporate Social Work

people walking across downtown city buildings

By Maren Dale

Jennifer Pelham, MSW, is a self-defined corporate social worker from Albany, N.Y., and currently serves as a senior IT consultant and change management specialist for a major health care provider. She stepped into the corporate sector in 2008, taking on a role as a career development program manager for a major technology company, after serving as a hospital-based individual and group therapist.

Other social workers often ask her about her work and wonder if social workers are needed in the corporate sector. Pelham finds it helpful to explain the opportunities she foresees by making a comparison between a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) and a Master of Business Administration (MBA).

businesspeople standing in front of advocacy and outreach chart

“AI and technology are taking over many of the tasks historically assigned to MBAs, like data analysis, market forecasting, or issues related to supply chain,” she explains. “At the same time, the need for skills that MSWs bring to the table—empathy, active listening, communication and advocacy—are needed more than ever. Who better than social workers to ensure employees are seen, heard, valued and encouraged?”

Although a transition from a traditional social work role to corporate work is not something that can be achieved quickly or easily—and much more work needs to be done to help organizations recognize the value of adding social workers to their ranks—Pelham believes it’s a path where many social workers can find new purpose, passion and better pay.

A Time to Broaden Perspectives

Historically, social workers have served in advocacy and social justice roles almost exclusively outside of the business sector. In fact, there are more than a few who consider that a near-definition of the work itself.

But in recent times, significant changes and extraordinary events have had a massive impact on the social fabric of the nation and the world. For many social workers, this also has been a time of personal reflection, including thoughts on how to continue and contribute as we move into the future.

For social workers who have been contemplating making a change—or perhaps for all social workers and social work students—this may be a time to intentionally broaden perspectives about where social workers can serve and consider nontraditional places where there may be needs. This includes opportunities within businesses and corporations that both exist today and are emerging as new needs that are coming to light.

Creating Productive Cultures

Wagner Denuzzo, LCSW, is a Latino LGBTQIA+ executive and seasoned business coach who works as an independent consultant. He has held a number of leadership staff positions in recent years within the corporate sector, including VP-level roles at IBM and Prudential Financial.

He believes strongly that the skills that make social workers effective in traditional roles, like emotional intelligence, active listening, and taking a human-centered approach, are equally valuable in corporate settings—and are needed now more than ever. Businesses are beginning to awaken to the fact that they must take action to better support their workforce as well as be more socially responsible, says Denuzzo.

“Right now, everyone in the workplace is focused on mental health. What I’m telling leaders is, this can’t just be a trend. From now on, if you want a productive culture, you need to have a healthy culture,” he says. “At the same time, businesses are beginning to recognize and acknowledge that the dynamics of people can either help or derail their strategies. Social workers can have a tremendous impact and are well-equipped to enter into this environment.”

For those who decide they want to pursue corporate social work, he says “take baby steps.” An easy way to take action immediately, while simultaneously reading and learning as much as you can about business and the role you might play, is to become active on LinkedIn.

business people carrying books that say empathy justice active listening

“All social workers should be on LinkedIn,” says Denuzzo. “Use it to research and to connect with professionals in the corporate sector and start discussions about the intersection of social work and business. Writing articles sharing your perceptions is also a great thing to do.”

When it comes time to begin a job search, he also recommends looking closely at start-ups versus large, established corporations, that may be harder to break into and where there often is more competition for roles.

Existing and Emerging Opportunities

Social workers—who are experts in advocacy, outreach, and many of the other human-centered skills needed in this landscape—have the potential to take on roles in a number of divisions within corporations, and not only in traditional areas like Human Resources or Employee Assistance Programs.

For example, opportunities may be found—or created if they don’t yet exist—in avenues that might be surprising to some, such as Product Development, Change and/or Crisis Management; Trust and Safety, Customer Success; DEI; and Marketing.

Responsibilities vary widely from organization to organization, but examples of the type of work social workers may perform in a corporation include:

  • Recommending ways to distribute corporate charitable funds
  • Managing sponsored arts-related programs 
  • Partnering with nonprofits to establish employee volunteer programs
  • Developing mentorship programs
  • Driving organization-wide DEI initiatives
  • Participating in conflict resolution, harassment or discrimination claims
  • Counseling employees during company layoffs or restructuring

The Corporate Social Work Collective

The Corporate Social Work Collective, which began as a networking group on LinkedIn, was first conceived by Pelham after she left a role as a therapist and began working in the IT sector.

“I was involved in career development and doing work related to systems, people and engagement—all things social workers care about,” Pelham explains. “So, although my job title was not corporate social worker, I started calling myself that on LinkedIn and started the group for people interested in corporate social work.”

Michelle Rojas, MSW, is a social worker from Brooklyn, N.Y., who was exploring less traditional career pathways and connected with Pelham. The two found common ground and eventually Rojas helped Pelham further the group and launch the Corporate Social Work Collective website. Today, they are thriving, hosting live educational events, maintaining a job board, offering networking opportunities and more.

“We went into it without strong expectations—and it grew like wildfire,” says Rojas, who works for a health care organization helping lead DEI efforts. “Now, just three years in, we have more than 3,000 followers.”

Ways the Work Plays Out

At Rojas’ employer, she has been able to help drive change in many ways, and points to an employee retention program she helped spearhead in 2020 that made a difference and drew heavily on her social work background.

Data showed that Black and African American employees were leaving the organization, and Rojas was tasked with finding out why and what the organization needed to do to prevent more from leaving.

“We needed the human element, for someone to ask them why they were leaving,” explains Rojas. “They said they wanted mentorship opportunities so they could progress, so we piloted a mentorship program.”

Rojas helped design the program, developing curriculum and helping to make matches between mentors and mentees. The first cohort included 40 people.

“It was a huge success and people said they wished it was more than 8 weeks,” she says. “Recently, a third cohort of 520 participants completed the program and we worked with a third party vendor in order to scale the program to this size.”

Like Rojas, Denuzzo has found both professional opportunities and personal rewards as a result of working within the corporate sector. He explains that, most recently, he has been able to use his skills to volunteer as a consultant on a project with an NGO in South Africa that will impact the lives of 750,000 children. He says his social work lens fueled his desire to help, but without the knowledge he built working within the corporate sector, he would not have been able to carry out this large-scale work effectively.

Pelham says the places where meaningful work within a corporate environment can sometimes come unexpectedly. One project that stands out as highly meaningful was an opportunity to help her organization, a leading IT company, launch a software feature that allowed individuals to choose and add the pronoun they preferred in their email signature. The change, which may sound small at first, was not. It impacted thousands each day through the millions of emails they sent and continue to send, and helps keep gender identity and preferences top of mind.

Tips for Transitioning into Corporate Social Work

Denuzzo, Pelham and Rojas agree it’s important to recognize that many organizations do not yet actively recruit social workers and there will need to be more broad education to the corporate sector to help them understand how social workers can contribute to their business initiatives.

For social workers interested in transitioning into corporate social work, they offer some guidance:

  1. Research what is out there. Pelham suggests going to the “Careers” page of companies that interest you and viewing job openings in areas such as DEI, Internal Communications, and Change Management. “Look at the language they use and begin to familiarize yourself with what they are looking for and where you might fit in. Consider using this same language on your resume,” she says.
  2. Build up business skills and consider earning business certifications. The Society for Human Resource Management is one place to consider—they offer certification, education and networking to members and promote the role of HR as a profession. Certifications related to project management and change management can also be valuable.
  3. Create a professional presence, especially on social media. Keep in mind that having an up-to-date resume/CV is just one piece of the puzzle. It’s important to do more, such as have a website, create a business Facebook page, or write a blog.

Where to Go from Here?

woman with laptop sitting atop city buildings

Forward-thinking businesses, many who have supported Corporate Social Responsibility and Employee Assistance Programs for decades, are starting to double-down and realize they need to do even more. They also know they need to move swiftly if they are to thrive—or merely to survive.

Other corporations that have lagged behind are now waking up to the fact that they will never return to “business as usual.” If they want to continue to be profitable, they will need to make major changes to better support the holistic needs of their employees—the ones who drive their businesses success or failure.

Finally, if you decide to pursue corporate social work, know that it will take effort—but don’t get discouraged.

“We are paving the way and competing with people who have business degrees and those who have backgrounds in human resources,” admits Pelham. “It is hard work and it won’t be easy to make the switch. But social workers have perseverance. Educate others, be proud of your experience, and know it is needed in these corporate spaces,” she says.


Social workers need to do their own research to determine which companies may be right for them. Here are some places you may want to look at as you begin your exploration:

  • America’s Most Responsible Companies 2023, Newsweek
  • The 2023 World’s Most Ethical Companies® Honoree List
  • Best Brands for Social Impact 2023, Forbes

Social Work Advocates Archives Page for past related articles

Social Work Advocates Archives Page for past related articles

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