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“There was something about Jules,” Jake recalled, “something just off. She didn’t seem to connect with the program nor with other staff and volunteers. She never looked me in the eye. She made off the wall comments to other volunteers.She even started to call me after hours with odd requests about volunteering; for example, she called me one Sunday night to see if it would be okay to bake doggie cookies to bring to any staff that owned dogs . Frankly, I had an uncomfortable feeling about her but had no idea what to do about it because she passed our background check.”
Oh boy. We deal with all types of people who are potential volunteers. And unless we are conducting clinical psychological testing sessions with each one, we have to pretty much trust our instincts and judgement when working with volunteers who set off that gnawing gut feeling that something is just “off.”
But. on the flip side, we also walk alongside some pretty amazing people who might be going through common personal issues that render them sensitive such as:
Grief/Loss of job/Loss of home/Loss of identity
So, if the overwhelming majority of volunteers are wonderful, then isn’t it overkill to treat every volunteer as potentially snapping? On the other hand, do we blissfully think we can fix everyone’s challenges by our cheery encouragement? Or is there a professional medium?
I recall a brand new volunteer, Kristof, who had a very strong, almost in your face personality. He passed all background checks. He said the right things in training. But a long-term volunteer, Jim, who was a fellow member of a club Kristof belonged to, told me in confidence that Kristof had threatened to hit a fellow club member.
Now what do we do with second-hand knowledge? Could I hold that against Kristof? Was he a violent man? I hadn’t witnessed violent behavior, but proactively, I assigned Kristof to a seasoned, mentoring volunteer. Also, in the agreement that Kristof and all other new volunteers signed, it stated that he was under a six month probationary period during which he would be evaluated and could be terminated at any time for rule violation, including threatening or inappropriate behavior.
Sure enough, after about three weeks, one of the mentoring volunteers came to me and said that Kristof had made a threatening gesture towards him. It seems that Kristof did not appreciate being told that he could not go and do whatever he wanted.
So, I called the head of security, Charles and asked him to accompany me and a senior manager in a meeting with Kristof. Thank goodness for Charles. He stood like a statue in the closed doorway, saying nothing, but speaking volumes about our seriousness. I talked with Kristof about the presumed threat. He got angry and said to me, “I see what this is about. I know what you are doing.” I reiterated our policy and he looked at Charles. “I don’t want to be here anyway,” he said. “I quit.”
We walk a fine line here. Being proactive with volunteers prevents surprises and even tragedy down the line. Here are a few things to keep in mind when those little red flags start to flutter before your eyes:
- Be aware and monitor-enlist trusted volunteer mentors to help monitor all new volunteers
- Have expectations and rules written out and signed by each volunteer
- Put probationary periods in place for all new volunteers
- Never counsel volunteers alone
- Involve security if necessary
- Document all “red flag” behavior
- Create a step by step procedure to address situations before one arises
- Script a conversation that is neutral, professional yet firm
- Involve appropriate staff members within the organization
- Know risk management assessments, volunteer rights and legal pitfalls
While volunteer managers excel at coaching, inspiring, mentoring and cultivating volunteers, we cannot stick our heads in the sand. Nice people and nice organizations can sadly sometimes be a place that feels right for folks with less than honorable intentions.
Was Jake wise to be concerned about Jules? Yes, because he trusted his instinctive ability to lead. With his heightened awareness, he could then proceed to monitor and/or cultivate Jules’ volunteering. Having a plan in place to act quickly and professionally does not mean that you are suspicious of everyone and everything. It just means that you are prepared to handle difficult situations should they arise. And you are prepared to be a leader.