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girls night outAs I sat in a meeting with volunteers Darla and Jo, and the supervisor, Cindy of the department that they volunteer for, I found myself wondering how we got to this point in the first place. We were meeting because the volunteers were unhappy with a certain staff member, Kay, who directed them on a weekly basis. They wanted to air their concerns with Kay’s immediate supervisor, and asked me to sit in as the buffer. I was only too happy to do so; I wanted to protect the volunteers and to also learn why things go so wrong.

The supervisor, Cindy, was defensive at first and I watched the volunteers’ expressions sink. For a moment they thought their concerns would be dismissed, but they pulled out a scribbled list of examples to show that they were being treated like indentured servants. After two hours, Cindy finally decided that it was a “personality issue” and she would address it with Kay. What I got from Cindy’s comment is that both sides were somewhat at fault. However, Cindy assured us all that she would follow-up. Interestingly, even though seemingly treated very poorly, Darla and Jo did not want to quit; they said they loved the organization and wanted to continue and felt “part of the mission.”

Perhaps something Darla and Jo said might explain their loyalty. They mentioned that they often went out with other staff members in Kay’s department. Really? And they dropped some hints that the other staff members had run-ins of their own with Kay. Hmmm. So, what that means, is when out socially, away from work, these staff members let loose and talk about the organization and other employees in front of volunteers. These staff members complain and criticize and draw the volunteers into the politics of their department. Nice.

Now, maybe the volunteers are correct about Kay’s actions. But how much of what they offered is because they are “in” with some staff who happen to not like Kay for whatever reasons? That’s a whole other issue. After the meeting ended, I privately said to Cindy, “In the volunteer realm, it’s a very bad idea to socialize with the volunteers and air grievances. If staff is going to invite the volunteers out to a function, then they’d better invite all of them and they’d better not make the volunteers privy to the inner workings of the department or organization. They are not here to be pawns in some personal battle.”

So, Cindy, who is the supervisor of all in question, shrugs and says, “they’re on their own time, what can I do?” Really? How would you like it if your supervisor invited a couple of staff members out for drinks and they trashed you?

Eventually, after much discussion,  I used my old standby CYA line (which I use more and more frequently). “I’m going on record as saying that allowing staff members to fraternize with volunteers on off time and discuss work issues makes for a harmful work environment and should be stopped immediately.” And I will be noting this conversation.

The supervisor looked at me hard and said, “you’re probably right. I’ll talk to all of them.” Then she sighed a very big, put-out sigh. I knew what was going through her head. She didn’t need another petty annoyance. Well, guess what? Taking care of the volunteers is everyone’s business, not just the volunteer department’s. Grow a spine and tell your employees to treat them with respect and don’t let them play volunteers and suck them into conflicts. They don’t deserve that. And this chess game is what you get. And frankly, you seem to have “bigger” issues in your department.

I have a volunteer who helps me in my office. From day one, I have said to her that “it’s not that I don’t want you to be privy to things, it’s that I don’t want you to be burdened with things. You’re here to do good work and you deserve to be shielded from the nonsense.”  She’s taken that to heart and now when I have a conversation with someone in front of her and it gets a bit deep, she excuses herself before I have a chance to, and she laughingly says, “I don’t need to be a part of this.” Bravo!

So, when staff thinks they’re being nice or cute or they just want some pawns in their game of complaints, they need to realize that fraternizing might be great for them, but it’s always a bad idea for the volunteers. Let the volunteers see the greatness of the organization, not the back room where stuff is all chaos and disjointed. And if staff want to grouse about their jobs, then make sure that “girls’ night out” is with staff girls, not volunteers.