As 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.
Great post! Over the past year our organization has hired several volunteers to paid positions. I’ve had a couple interesting conversations with them in the past few months about how their experience is so different now. I think they really appreciate that employees (for the most part) don’t vent their frustrations on/around volunteers.
thank you for that perspective and wow, that’s my next subject: volunteers who are hired-it is an interesting shift!
I read this post with great interest as I’ve recently had conversations about this very issue. I’m wondering if you have a hard and fast rule about volunteers and staff mingling outside of work hours or if your blanket warning only covers ‘when things turn to talk of staff matters”? I have myself had coffee on occasion with one of the hospice doctors (to talk about our mutual writing interests), other volunteers (where sometimes we do talk about hospice issues and concerns), and even a staff member. To me, it feels fine to socialize outside of hospice, bearing in mind that there can be internal morale issues and conflicts that I would not want to touch or discuss (as I wouldn’t at my own university workplace if I were socializing with admin. staff – as I have). In the main, I view us all as adults, and I chafe when I feel I’m prohibited from seeing or talking with people… I’m wondering if others have similar reactions to this.
As always, I truly appreciate your desire to protect and defend hospice volunteers!
Great points and herein lies the problem. We do not have any rule on “socializing.” Why? Volunteers are really unpaid staff members and we cannot prevent staff from socializing with each other, besides, how authoritarian is that? What I want staff to realize, is that airing the “politics” in front of volunteers is wrong. Would they do that in front of donors? I would hope not. And I socialize with volunteers all the time. There is this fine line: We want volunteers to be “one of us” but without the stress and worries and it is the job of the staff to make that happen.
thanks for your insight and thanks for wanting to see the mission prosper.
Jayne Cravens said:
“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.” But isn’t that true of paid employees as well? Shouldn’t ALL staff, paid or not, be discouraged from discussing staff conflicts and inter-departmental matters outside of the office? A lack of paycheck doesn’t make anyone less trustworthy than someone with a paycheck. Why not a universal policy that covers ALL conversations outside of work?
Hi Jayne! You bring up a really good point and there is such a fine line here. What I’m thinking is we, volunteer managers, need to really look upon ourselves as managers, If a bunch of paid staff go out with each other, they go out as peer to peer. When a department manager starts socializing with only a few of his or her paid staff and excludes others, then trouble begins. Volunteer managers who maintain a professional relationship seem to have a better time of it, but it’s really hard, because we use encouragement and interest in the volunteers’ lives as part of our strategy. Tough stuff!
Pingback: Volunteers and the Game of Complaints | volunteerplaintalk