Managing Volunteers in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, January 16, 2020

Volunteers can be a fabulous resource in any business. Generally, they bring enthusiasm, true passion for the organisation's ethos and purpose, and a "can-do" attitude to the job.

However, volunteers in the workplace can also bring their own set of challenges for organisations. Even though they are not on the payroll, volunteers enjoy the same protections as paid workers are entitled to. Indeed, the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Cth) defines volunteers as "workers", thereby putting them on equal footing.

So let's look at some tips and tricks for managing volunteers in the workplace.

Employee and volunteer conflict

One of the risks inherent in relying on volunteers is conflict with employees. In part, this may be due to a "us against them" perception. Further, staff who are employed in the business on a daily basis, may perceive that volunteers have less of an understanding or practical knowledge of how tasks should be completed, or how things are done. Employees may also resent the apparent flexibility afforded to volunteers. A pertinent example is the longstanding feud between paid and volunteer Country Fire Authority staff in Victoria, which resulted in the CFA being devolved into a volunteer-only organisation in early 2019.

Difficulties managing volunteer conflict

In addition to the everyday personnel issues facing organisations, additional challenges involving volunteers include:

  • An unwillingness of volunteers to raise concerns or "rock the boat", largely due to the fact that they may already feel isolated or otherwise segregated from employees. Any conflicts or issues may not be raised with management, for fear of reprisals or concerns about not being taken seriously.
  • A lack of understanding of protections. Many volunteers may not be aware that they are entitled to the same protections as paid staff, and may consider it pointless to raise any conflicts or concerns with management.
  • Lower priority for the organisation. Even if volunteers do raise concerns, management may deal with these issues less expeditiously, because volunteers could be perceived as being easily replaceable. 

responsibilities of volunteer-active workplaces

Employers who rely on volunteers or who are considering welcoming them into the workplace, have a duty of care to provide a safe work environment. They must therefore take steps to protect volunteers from bullying and harassment.

In the same fashion, employers remain vicariously liable for volunteer's conduct and behaviour. For example, if a volunteer engaged in an activity on behalf of the organisation and negligently or otherwise causes injury to a third party, the employer could be found liable. This is despite the absence of any financial relationship between the volunteer and the business.

Organisations need to ensure that policies are updated (where required) to identify that they also encompass volunteer staff. Volunteers should be provided with copies of all policies, and their workplace rights and obligations should be clearly communicated.

When commencing a relationship with a volunteer, it is also important to ensure that there are very clear volunteer engagement "Agreements" in place. These should be carefully drafted to ensure that both parties are well aware of their rights and obligations under the agreement.

Volunteer-based organisations, like all workplaces, have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for all their workers. All conflict and alleged misconduct should be taken seriously, whether it relates to paid staff and/or volunteers. If your organisation needs assistance managing a challenging workplace conflict, WISE offers both supported and full investigation services to provide you with the flexibility you need. 

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