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gossipingDo volunteers have a right to privacy? While we’re on the subject, how much privacy do we, employees have? What can employers divulge about us and what should we divulge about our volunteers?

I guess we can all run to our legal departments and get an official statement but what is our real policy? For an example, a couple of months ago, I was approached by a senior manager and the following conversation took place.

SM: Hi, I just needed to ask you a question. Do you have a volunteer by the name of Abigail Drake?
Me: Yes, Abigail is one of our volunteers.
SM: Oh, ok, I need to talk to you about her.
Me: Please, sit down and let’s talk.
SM: Well, yesterday, they sent me a call from a woman who said she was Abigail’s neighbor.
Me: Oh? Is Abigail all right?
SM: That’s not it. The neighbor said, I don’t know how to put this, but the neighbor wanted us to know something about Abigail.
Me: (eyebrows raised) And what might that be?
SM: She said that Abigail has been on medication for severe depression for years and the neighbor feels like Abigail might come off the medication in the near future, which would make her a risky volunteer.

(Are you sensing something very wrong right now?)

Me: I see.
SM: You’re not going to let her volunteer are you?
Me: Well actually, yes, I am.
SM: But the neighbor assured me that Abigail is a risk. We probably need to talk to her.
Me: Abigail has been through every one of our requirements to become a volunteer. She has passed all of her background screenings.
SM: But what about her severe depression?

(Ok, I have to admit, at this point I was flabbergasted that a Senior Manager would be so naive)

Me: All I can do is treat Abigail just like I treat every other volunteer. If for some reason she shows signs of risky behavior, we will address it promptly, I can assure you. But I have to say, I never discuss our volunteers with anyone.
SM: Hmmm. I did tell the neighbor that we would take her comments under advisement and that I would speak to you. She said she knows you.

Me: (eyebrows raised even further because here’s the part that gets bizarre and I swear it’s true) Oh, really?
SM: Yes, she said her name was Laura Cramer or Kranmore…
Me: Laura Cramer?
SM: Yes, you know her?
Me: She was a volunteer with us a long time ago and we had to dismiss her.
SM: Oh?
Me: Yes, it did not go well and I believe she has harbored a grudge ever since.

Just the name Laura Cramer stops me like a hockey forecheck. Her dismissal was ugly and it is never pleasant to remember.

The senior manager left and I’m guessing forgot about the whole thing fairly quickly. It bothered me though, that an intelligent representative of the organization would chat about the private life of one of our volunteers with an unknown voice on the phone. I started wondering: If a neighbor of mine decided to call in and say I beat my dog or had a drinking problem, would someone discuss that with a total stranger?
I’ve been called by folks looking for a volunteer’s phone number or address, mainly because they want to thank them. But I protect the volunteers like a mother black bear hearing the snap of a twig. “If you give me permission,” I say to them, “I will pass your number along to the volunteer in question. Or you can send a card here and I will personally deliver it to our volunteer.” And fortunately, people are always understanding and grateful that our volunteers’ private lives are protected.

Frankly, I don’t care about the legality of volunteers’ privacy. When I volunteer somewhere, I want to know that my personal information is kept locked up tight and that I matter. And when it comes to volunteers, we, volunteer managers, should lead the way in all HR management by doing better than what is required by law and regulations.
We might even want to teach all staff in our organizations to protect our volunteers as well.