I have to fire a volunteer. The first time I had to fire a volunteer was sheer torture. My palms itched so bad and my stomach felt like the volunteer in question had reached in and gleefully begun to twist my insides. How dare she act in a manner that MADE me have to do this? Why couldn’t she be a good little volunteer like all the other good volunteers? Why did she have to go and tell the people at her church about a client’s private financial status?
Honestly, as a newbie volunteer coordinator, it never occurred to me that firing a volunteer existed. That was bogey man stuff, not reality. My original boss way back in the day never fired a volunteer, so I was left to dive off the cliff without knowing what rocks lie below. And I didn’t know whether to wear a wet suit or armor.
I have to be honest, it didn’t go well. I babbled something about privacy and confidentiality and threw in a measure of “I’m sure you didn’t mean to say that the client was dirt poor,” but all in all it went horribly. She left, most likely confused, because I told her how wonderful she was, while firing her. Contradictions rained down and I had no umbrella.
That night I dreamt that she came back, completely unaware that I had dismissed her. I had to fire her all over again. While that did not happen, I could see how it might have, given the fact that I told her she was a great volunteer. (What?)
The second time I had to fire a volunteer, (which thankfully did not happen until two years later) was in some ways worse than the first. It conjured up memories of the original debacle. Unnerved, I searched for answers. The internet was just starting to yield expert advice and I found some theoretical help there. But I needed personal help. How was I (loveable, kittens and flowers me) going to fire this volunteer?
I was tasting yesterdays lunch.
Quite accidentally, if there are accidents, I found myself at a good friend’s house that evening. Her husband, a gentle man in private and a shark in business overhead me discussing my upcoming day of horror. I caught him listening and thought, “oh boy, he’s probably fired hundreds of people and thinks I’m some sort of cry baby.” Instead, he came over, sat down and asked me these pointed questions.
“Did this volunteer violate your rules more than once?
“Yes, several times and we’ve given her the chance to correct her behavior.”
“Do you, personally, think that she needs to be dismissed.”
I had to think deeply about that, but then I answered, “yes, I do. I don’t believe she is willing to change.”
“Then,” he looked me straight on and asked, “who is the best person to dismiss her? Who will deliver the message in such a way that she does not feel wrongly accused and who will make her realize that your clients come first while protecting her dignity and self-image?”
I knew the answer. I had known it all along. I just never had thought of it that way. “I am.” I whispered.
“And,” he added, “I never fire anyone. I have a conversation with them about how my company and their expectations do not match. I’m clear, don’t get me wrong, but I dismiss them and wish them well. You can point out a person’s good traits but make it clear that there is not a place for them in your organization.”
With that he went back to his home office.
My friend smiled. I could see more clearly why she married him in the first place.
So, how do you do the hard stuff? Because of my friend’s husband, here’s the way I look at it now. If it has to be done then who better to do it than someone who feels some emotion about it; who better to deliver a tough message than someone who doesn’t want to do it? Do I want senior management to dismiss our volunteers? No, not really. It would be easier for me, but in every case, I realize that I’m the right person for the tough job. I will twist it over and over in my head to find the right words. I will have somewhat of an established relationship with the volunteer. I will call upon my years of volunteer involvement and treat this person with respect. I will do it justice, at least to the best of my ability.
Not every volunteer will work out. Some will not be appropriate on day one.
I know volunteer coordinators who like to use the “I’ll just not call that volunteer and they’ll get the idea eventually” tactic. But who benefits from that tactic? Only the coordinator who chooses to avoid the situation. Not me now. Let me talk to the volunteer and be clear. Volunteers deserve that and I’ve known volunteers, who after discussing concerns, turn out to be good volunteers. And on the flip side, I’ve had former volunteers call me years later because they were never clearly told that they did not fit in the organization. How cruel is that when you think about it?
So, as hard as it might be, I’m going to have the conversation. And I’m going to feel the pings in my stomach and not shirk my responsibility. I’m It.
I will be kind and I will be clear.
Great discussion of a difficult and important issue!
Thanks Katherine! Volunteer managers truly take to heart the well-being of each and every volunteer. Dismissing a volunteer feels like a failure on our part but if it absolutely has to be done, then sadly we need to take some small comfort in the idea that we are the right people to do so.
June Bass said:
Thank you for writing this. Firing a volunteer is never easy but if it left to fester it always turns out worse. Many times I find these situations could have been handled differently early on by a staff supervisor but the tendencies to wish the problem would go away often happens. So issues are not directly addressed. Then it gets to a point where it is messy and hard. My volunteer services staff is working hard to talk to our volunteer supervisors about having conversations and addressing behavior directly when it happens. When handled that way firing seldom happens..
Sue Hine said:
“deliver the message in such a way that she does not feel wrongly accused and who will make her realize that your clients come first while protecting her dignity and self-image”.
That’s the trick of Being It. It never gets any easier, but that’s being honest and honourable, and thoroughly professional. Let’s take pride in that, and know the pings in our stomach are signalling our humanity.
Cissy Hansen said:
Yes, it is difficult. However, if you have a clear position description, a guidebook that explain acceptable behavior, rules and regulations, explain why the rules/regulations exist (to protect clients and your agency Mission) and YOU have each volunteer sign off on the training and the agreement to follow the rules, then every volunteer knows the requirements. I also added the terms of corrective action. It began with a verbal and written warning at the same time. The volunteer read and signed off that they understood the next infraction would be their resignation or dismissal from the program.
Sound harsh? Not if you think of the effect on your clients or your agency. With this in place your conversation is just a clarification that the corrective action was at a critical stage already and you expected the volunteer to change their behavior.
These steps alone make any future dismissal or corrective action consistent and clear. Volunteers want to do a good job so make it easier for them and yourself in recruiting, training and supporting volunteers who care for your Mission and will gladly abide and remain a supportive partner in your agency. Sometimes you have a volunteer who is a square peg in a round hole. They need to be set free to find a place where their skills and passions can be a better fit.
Thank you Cissy and June for your great insight. Sometimes I marvel at the evolution of volunteer management. The rules and regulations that volunteers sign has grown exponentially over the years and as a new situation comes up (and sometimes takes me by complete surprise), it gets added to the list. I’ve joked that by the time I retire, volunteers will have a small book to read and sign. But it is the nature of what we have to do. It’s so heartening to hear that most of us in the profession have moved into the realm of clear, defined direction for our volunteers. The vast majority of them appreciate clear instructions, clear boundaries and clear dismissal guidelines.
Marty O'Dell said:
When I grow up I want to be just like Cissy. She is able to say exactly what I think. Nice job Cissy.
Jenn Van Dyke said:
Our volunteers go through orientation prior to their first day of training on the job. Orientation is all the policies, procedures, expectations of their position; they read through them and then sign and are put into our NetLearning system. We also do an Annual Update training of policies and procedures. I like the addition of corrective action Cissy. It will make it consistent and clear, which volunteers like. They appriciate clear direction, instruction, and affirmation as well. I have always ‘reassigned’ volunteers prior to firing them. If they are not working out in one area, as Cissy mentioned ‘a square peg in a round hole’, we look for another area their skills are better suited.
Great discussion, very clear.
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Karen B. Kaplan said:
The boundaries, rules, warnings and so forth are essential for a volunteer to feel that the dismissal is fair. But as a last final check before dismissal, the volunteer coordinator (as any supervisor or boss) needs to ask him/herself whether the real reason for dismissal is mostly about how the volunteer causes the coordinator to feel outgunned, repulsed, uneasy and the like.
Thanks Karen, you are correct, we all need to be aware of our personal feelings towards anyone we supervise. I believe that most volunteer managers truly do not wish to dismiss a volunteer and will try everything in their power to rehabilitate them. Sadly, there are situations in which rules such as privacy are dismissible offenses and then there is no choice. Best then, to be clear and direct, yet kind.