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slippery-slope1Who doesn’t hate being wrong? I certainly do, because it makes me, well, wrong. I hate being wrong about football picks, hate being wrong about that Sushi restaurant being open on Monday, and I hate being wrong about the dreamy guy that I recommended to fix my friend’s air conditioner. She’s still mad at me for that one. But what I hate most is being wrong about something I’ve done for so long that it should be part of my circulatory system.
Last week a volunteer manager, Garth, called me to ask for some advice. Garth and I go back a few years to a charity event where we occupied the same table in a frigid tent along with six other frozen event goers. It was cold, damp and thoroughly miserable, but we all exchanged business cards and kept in touch.
Garth manages a small museum and oversees maybe twenty regular volunteers. His volunteers are long-term, most having been there longer than he has. But occasionally, he will accept a student who needs school credit, especially if that student has an interest in history. So, Garth called and said he wanted to bounce something off someone who would understand.
Me: “Hi Garth, what’s going on?”
G: “Hey, good to talk to you, I have a slight problem and I was wondering what you think. I took on a high school student, Lizzie as a volunteer a few weeks back. Lizzie told me she needed to complete about 50 more hours for her scholarship application. She’s been coming in for a couple of weeks but now here’s the problem. Lizzie came in yesterday afternoon with a paper that I needed to sign for her hours. I looked the paper over and while it is a statement of completed hours, it’s not for a scholarship. Seems she got into trouble at their homecoming dance and she has to complete 50 hours for that. Now, there’s no court involved, it’s just the school requiring this.”
Me: “Hmmm, so she did not tell you this upfront?”
G: “No, I remember her saying scholarship. This is totally different.”
Me: “When is it due?”
G: “That’s the other kicker. It’s due tomorrow and I can’t seem to locate all the sign-in sheets for her, so I don’t think she completed 50 hours, or at least I can’t prove that right now.”

Now here’s where my brain opens up a whole can of stewed memories of volunteers who just needed a signature for court or school or whatever. We’ve all had them, the student who needs to do community service and sneers at you during training, the adult who openly lies about hours done “off the clock” to clear a charge and the parent whose child just sits there blankly while the parent extolls their offspring’s brilliance and dedication.

So I said…
Me: “Ah, that’s a shame, you have to give her credit for being creative.” ( this is where I snorted with lame, unhelpful laughter)
G: “I might refuse to sign it although I know she’s done hours, maybe not 50, and frankly, at this point, is it worth my time to deal with this anymore? Or I can just sign it, tell her to not darken this museum’s door anymore and be out of it. Lesson learned.”

Ahh, here we are. This is the vulnerable spot that some creative “volunteers” will poke because our hectic schedules force us to consider just signing off on whatever is required so that we don’t have to spend more of our valuable time fighting something not worth winning. And let’s be honest, sticking to our principles sometimes loses its luster against the magic eraser that will make a problem go away quickly.

So I said, “Garth, are you comfortable signing something you are unsure of?”
G: “No, I’m not, so I’m not going to sign the paper. I’m going to write on the paper that I can’t verify 50 hours at this time. That’s what I’ll do.”

At this point, I have to admit, I jumped to conclusions. Based on Garth’s recollection, I just assumed that Lizzie was trying to put one over on Garth. I had never met Lizzie, I didn’t know the situation and yet I thought I knew exactly what had happened. I realized that when you’ve been burned, you can either choose to heal or choose to look at that spot every time you come near fire. I called Garth the next day.
Me: “How did it go with Lizzie?”
G: “Well, funny thing. Not only did she remind me that she did tell me about the school ordered hours, we found the sign in sheets that proved she was here for 45 hours. She promised to do five hours this weekend and I signed the papers. So, when I called you yesterday, I was completely wrong.”

Just as it may be easier to sign off on undocumented hours than try to prove them, it is sometimes easier to assume that a volunteer is not telling the truth when confronted with conflicting evidence. But in both cases, it’s a slippery slope and we need to take the time to do the right thing, even though we are very busy. Like it or not, we are the examples our volunteers follow and if we expect them to act in a professional manner, then we had better show them the way.
Besides, being sloppy is worse than being wrong.