Is Child Protection a Priority in Your Volunteer Organisation?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Volunteer organisations have a special place in the heart of every community. The vital work that they carry out most often involves providing assistance to those who are in need. Issues of poverty, homelessness, abuse, infirmity and mental illness are just some of the challenging aspects within the day-to-day operations of many volunteer groups.

Volunteering and our kids

Children and young people can often have a strong connection to one or more volunteer organisations in the community. This might be as a recipient of food parcels, being minded while parents sort out finances, or assisted to find accommodation. On the other side of the equation, children are increasingly involved in volunteer activities themselves as parents encourage their children to do their bit. Whether planting seedlings in waterways, helping to sort second hand clothes or lending a hand at the local pet shelter – children are involved members of many volunteer organisations throughout Australia.

It is sobering to say the least to necessarily consider child safety concerns within volunteer organisations. Education and training are essential for any adult volunteers working with children, as is a police check and Blue Card or Working with Children Check.

But it goes beyond this. Continuous improvement of policies and procedures relevant to child safety will be the hallmarks of a truly safe volunteer organisation.

Constant evaluation of child safety initiatives

Due to constraints upon virtually all resources within a volunteer organisation, it is perhaps inevitable that some tasks are put on the ‘back burner’. Administrative duties can be the first to be overlooked in the face of relentless service demand from clients. Yet if one area of volunteering must be continuously examined and improved for possible flaws, it is the organisation’s child safety strategy. Laws, criminological knowledge and technology are constantly changing. Volunteer management staff must be vigilant when it comes to assessing and reassessing their internal policies around children. 

As the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse has demonstrated, there are some recognisable patterns to the behaviour of adults who seek to cause harm to children. Specific procedures are necessary for example around the prevention of grooming behaviours by perpetrators, as well as the creation of opportunities for abuse. 

Yet the commission emphasises that there is no one set of looks or behaviours that mark out a child abuser. This is a complex and ever-changing area and expert advice and auditing services are at times required to ensure that volunteer organisations remain up-to-date with their child safety obligations.

The broader child safety equation

The Australian Human Rights Commission developed its Child Safe Institutions Report in 2013, as part of a response to the ongoing royal commission. Importantly, child safety is seen to entail a broad notion of the potential dangers faced by children within organisations – educational, religious, volunteer, sporting or otherwise.
When we consider hazards such as the availability of inappropriate computer or television content at volunteer sites, physical and emotional damage from clientele interaction, bullying from other volunteers, accidents, or the potential for sexual abuse where inadequate supervision exists, it becomes clear that child safety within volunteer organisations should be much more broadly conceptualised that it perhaps is currently.

Child-safe systems and culture

We understand that operators of volunteer organisations are pulled in all directions. However, child safety is simply one of those ‘non-negotiables’ within 21st century organisational contexts. This is a growing and changing field of workplace knowledge, and involves the variables of procedural systems, workplace culture, legal compliance and training. All these skills are a key component of our specialy tailored investigations course to provide you with the skills necessary to investigate abuse in care complaints whether you work in a volunteer agency, not for profit or government agency. 

Offering courses in Sydney and Melbourne this year our Investigating Abuse in Care course will include investigating grooming behaviours, markers of a pedophile, conducting interviews, drafting allegations, dealing with respondents, risk assessment and weighing evidence to make sound decisions. 

Register for your place online and receive an information pack on what to do next. Book now for 2017 courses.

Nepotism and Bias in Volunteer Organisations: A Thorny Issue

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Managers within volunteer organisations are renowned for their ability to run operations with incredibly limited resources. Working with both paid staff and volunteers, there is a sense of needing ‘all hands on deck’ within busy community and charity groups. 
We explore today some of the hidden dangers of unconscious bias and nepotism that can arise in volunteer organisations, particularly when time is stretched and personnel decisions need to quickly be made.

The easy decision

It is perhaps not surprising then that particular workers– paid or otherwise – are more likely to receive preferential treatment. With an eye to quality service provision and being as efficient as possible, management might unwittingly be biased towards promoting the ‘easy going’ people – those with the same thoughts, ideas and humour as themselves.  And if the volunteer organisation is all about saving time, money and energy, then surely there is no necessity to run through a long and bureaucratic recruitment process? 

Problems with the ‘in group’?

Yet this is a dangerous way to think about differential treatment of paid and voluntary staff. What is occurring in these situations is the phenomenon known as ‘in-group bias’ or alternatively unconscious bias. Volunteer managers might unconsciously favour certain people or groups within the organisation – and these become the ‘in-group’, being given opportunities that the corresponding ‘out-group’ cannot access. 

The changes can be slow to build – for example, official recruitment processes can be short cut once a favourite is chosen, and information on transfers and training opportunities might only become known by a chosen few.  But what is the actual problem with this scenario?

Favouritism causes fractures

The idea of one person being more deserving than another will inevitably cause serious fractures to appear within the organisation. 

If objective merit is overlooked within volunteer organisations, then the unfortunate consequences are rather predictable. 

Accusations of nepotism and bias within management can begin as a whisper on the organisation’s shop floor – but then soon occupy much of the energy of both paid and unpaid workers. 

While everybody is on the same side when it comes to helping others, it can become acutely demoralising to be left out of management’s favoured group. Clients can also suffer as the outflow of acrimony from paid and unpaid staff begins to affect the very quality of the organisation’s good work.

Unhealthy biases

Equally substantial are the possible repercussions for workplace health and safety. As with any organisation, volunteer groups have an obligation to ensure a safe workplace, wherein bullying and discrimination are not tolerated. Safe Work Australia notes that volunteer organisations have a duty to guard against the possibility of these damaging problems arising in the workplace. 

Importantly, having the organisation located within a common law state does not mean that these obligations can be avoided. Specific advice on the WH&S requirements for your actual volunteer organisation is a must-have. 

The merit-based volunteer organisation

Nepotism and bias can certainly creep up upon the culture of volunteer organisations. With such great work being done, it can be disheartening to see one group of people getting just that bit more of a ‘fair go’ than another. 
Attention to the details of recruitment, training and other opportunities becomes necessary, in order to ensure that all decisions are made with a clear view of individual merit. 

Unconscious bias and nepotism in decision-making can be difficult to see from our own vantage point. Most managers do not deliberately set out to recruit a work mate or nephew over other people. 

Yet, ensuring that all hiring decisions and opportunities are dealt with purely on the basis merit can sometimes require a fresh pair of eyes. Our professional workplace trainers, advisors and investigators can provide custom-made strategies and preventative measures for a truly fair volunteer-based workplace. When these elements are in place, the important work of the group can continue without any unnecessary internal challenges.

Keeping up with process and procedural fairness in the workplace can be challenging. That's why we have developed the Workplace Investigation Toolkit.   Provide best practice principles and keep your business out of the Fair Work Commission.   Get yours here today.

Liability for Volunteers: The Question of Workers Compensation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Workers compensation is one of those central issues that necessarily impacts upon the thinking and planning of Australian employers. To use the old phrase – “accidents happen.” And indeed, it is this inevitability that leads to the simple, no-fault basis of most Australian statutory workers’ compensation schemes. 

Yet workers compensation is a variable beast, and not all issues are as simple as they might first appear. For example, the ongoing tension between the definition of ‘workers’ and ‘contractors’ is just one of the many complexities within the arena of work-related injuries. 

Add to this the many jurisdictional variances in applicable laws across Australia, and it becomes clear that claims for injuries sustained on work sites might well require some careful navigation. Volunteers can certainly add an interesting element to the liability equation.

The injured volunteer

One issue that can often be overlooked is the potential liability that attaches to volunteers who are injured in the course of their work for organisations. On first glance it might seem a simple answer – volunteers are, by definition, not workers – so workers compensation is clearly not payable. But is that strictly correct in every case? 
In unravelling the possibilities, it is necessary to examine the three interrelated issues of definitional challenges, the employer’s broader duty of care, and the complexity of state and federal differences in this arena.

Worker versus volunteer

We have pointed to the seemingly basic logic that volunteers are, by their very nature, not workers. And in many workers’ compensation schemes across Australia, volunteers will be specifically excluded from the workers compensation definition of worker, as well as from the matrix used by insurers to ascertain premium costs. But this is unlikely to be the end of the story. Complexities can arise for example where volunteers take on some paid duties from time to time, or are paid some form of honorarium. 
Will this make them ‘workers’ for the purposes of workers compensation? 
The answer will of course depend on a number of issues, beginning with the state or territory in which the injury occurs. 
From there, the issue of payment and questions of control over the person’s actions will assist in establishing whether the person is – for the purposes of the law – either a worker or a volunteer. 
If found to be workers for the purposes of the relevant workers compensation scheme, then the issue might well be cut-and-dried under existing legislation.

Volunteers and the employer’s duty of care

Yet even if an injured party is clearly a volunteer and outside of the workers compensation realm, the employer will almost certainly be liable for the costs and/ or damage associated with any injury that a volunteer sustains while engaged by the employer. 
We know that employers understand the over-arching duty of care that attaches to all persons who set foot upon a work site – and the volunteer work force is no exception. The duty stems from the legal need for Australian business owners to ensure the health and safety of all persons who are present at premises or sites of the organisation. Naturally, this includes volunteers. Managing the risks associated with the duty of care owed to volunteers, staff and others at work is a crucial and ongoing exercise for employers. It is vital that organisations are clear on the coverage of their insurance for these differing groups of individuals. 

State and federal differences

Once risk is analysed in relation to the volunteer presence of an organisation, employers may need to address the question of appropriate insurance coverage for injuries sustained by volunteers. States, territories and the Commonwealth can have subtle but important differences around the reach of their particular schemes. Are injured volunteers subsumed under workers compensation in this state? Does a common law duty of care apply in this territory, rather than statute? Do I need to organise coverage for volunteers beyond my general public liability cover? And so on.
The liability of employers for injuries sustained by volunteers will be a complex question to answer. We often hear that organisations are deeply grateful for the valuable work of their volunteers, and are motivated to ensure their health and safety during their endeavours. Preparation is necessarily central to meeting our obligations in this complex field. Whatever the jurisdiction in which your volunteers are engaged, seek expert advice on the question of liability, should a volunteer injury occur at the work site.

Keeping up with process and procedural fairness in the workplace can be challenging. That's why we have developed the Workplace Investigation Toolkit.   Provide best practice principles and keep your business out of the Fair Work Commission.   Get yours here today.

Conflict in Volunteer Organisations: Lessons from the CFA

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The CFA dispute between paid and unpaid volunteers has been a salutary tale for any Australian organisation with a mix of volunteers and paid workers. In many cases, these groups work together in relative harmony. After all, paid staff and volunteers tend to share similar values and goals in these workplaces.

But how, when and why do things tend to go awry for volunteer-dependent organisations?

We examine the particular ‘hot spots’ within this space, including the underlying cultural tensions that can balloon into all-out conflict in the volunteer-based workplace, and set out simple tips for diffusing tension within this important segment of the Australian workforce.

Roles and resourcing

Many small charities and non-profits begin operations on a few dollars, a band of passionate volunteers and a dream to ‘do good’ in the world. As service demand grows – very likely when free or low-cost community services are provided – executives within a charity can quickly find themselves scrabbling to deal with competing legal, accommodation, client, staffing, volunteer recruitment, cash flow and supplier issues.

It is perhaps no surprise that the task of addressing cultural issues can quite rapidly shift down the list of priorities in volunteer bodies. Take for example the common disparity between the numbers of paid and volunteer staff. Dollars are sparse and it can seem logical to invest in the recruitment of an unpaid force of volunteers. Yet large numbers and intermittent shifts for volunteers can leave paid staff feeling confused and undervalued, particularly if the role of paid staff is overlooked in the effort to make volunteers feel appreciated.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, paid workers might then draw information and resources closer to their chests in an effort to protect their positions in an uncertain work space.

The volunteer’s dilemma

On the other side of the issue, volunteers can feel as though the treatment from paid staff in unfriendly and unhelpful. Intent on carrying out a community service, volunteers can find themselves excluded from knowledge and decisions to which paid employees are privy. Before long, an ‘us versus them’ mentality begins to grow. Yet all of this might go undetected by management. With important work to carry out for the organisation, issues of culture and conflict can quite understandably become overlooked. However, we do so at our peril – as the CFA debacle has so clearly illustrated.

So protracted has the struggle been between paid and volunteer Victorian firefighters that the federal government has felt compelled to get involved with a controversial amendment to the Fair Work Act 2009. This demonstrates just how far worker/ volunteer animosity can go if left unaddressed by employers.

Solving the conflict

We cannot emphasise enough the importance of early action when clashes between paid staff and volunteer workers begin to surface. At the first sign of difficulty between these groups, consider conducting a thorough workplace investigation to establish the nature and extent of the cultural problems.

Internal investigations can be helpful, yet there are many factors to consider when collecting data. These include strict adherence to the requirements of fairness, impartiality, privacy and completeness when conducting the inquiry.

In many cases it can make sense to call upon the services of a workplace investigation professional to assist with or carry out the process. Unfortunately, when some employers attempt to look into general issues of workplace culture themselves, well-meaning mistakes can be made in trying to ‘get to the bottom of this’. And the detrimental consequences can be considerable – should bullying or discrimination issues arise, a flawed investigation can mean that future formal processes will be hard to successfully manage.

Being forewarned

In volunteer-based organisations, it is essential that core business is not made the only issue that is worthy of energy. After all, the noble endeavour of fighting fires for the Victorian community has now become a poor second to the relentless issue of conflict between paid staff and volunteer firefighters. There are many pro-active and positive methods for dispelling conflict between the people in such worthy organisations. The key is early action, involving a swift, professional and fair investigative process into any brewing cultural difficulties.

Keeping up with process and procedural fairness in the workplace can be challenging. That's why we have developed the Workplace Investigation Toolkit.   Provide best practice principles and keep your business out of the Fair Work Commission.   Get yours here today.