HR Clinic: The art of managing volunteers

How should we manage volunteers who are unreliable?

Your organisation depends on a combination of professional staff and volunteers to provide its services. Members of the paid staff have had to step in at the last minute to cover some of the volunteers' work, causing them to complain about feeling exploited and overworked.

This is an interesting reversal of that old chestnut: volunteers complaining that members of staff get paid for doing work that they do for nothing. Both arguments are based on a false premise, because there are distinctly different roles involved.

I suggest introducing agreements to set out the expectations of both the organisation and the volunteer. These are not legally enforceable because no benefits change hands, and they can state that they do not form an employment contract.

On the one hand, agreements can address matters such as the need for reliability and punctuality, and how duties should be approached and performed. On the other, they can cover possible rewards of volunteering, such as job satisfaction and experience.

In the long term, this should go some way towards improving the situation and relieving your employees' concerns. But in the short term, certain things need to be pointed out to them.

First, these people are employed because they can do what volunteers cannot. They have specialist skills that your charity is prepared to pay for, whereas volunteers are often able to provide more general services that would be more expensive if paid staff delivered them.

Second, voluntary sector employees are expected to work flexibly, deal effectively with the unexpected and go the extra mile. Finally, they have a duty in their employment contracts to do anything reasonable to meet the employer's needs. So when a volunteer lets you down, it's reasonable to expect your employees to pick up the pieces.

Of course, that must not happen too often, and it appears that your organisation might be nearing breaking point. If you feel that the pressure caused by volunteer failure really is too great, then you need to consider alternative short-term strategies, such as bringing in some temporary paid assistance.

In the longer term, you might consider fundraising to change the balance between volunteers and paid staff. That might make a marginal difference, but the real improvement will come when your volunteers are better managed.

Send your HR questions to personnelsolutions@btopenworld.com.

- John Burnell is director of Personnel Solutions 

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