Nonprofits are skilled at maximizing every resource at their disposal in an effort to make the world a better place. One sensible economic tactic may involve bringing in volunteers along with regular, paid employees. Volunteers are vital to a nonprofit’s success, but they also bring with them occasional discipline problems.

The big question: When faced with difficult situations, can you discipline volunteers the same way you would employees – or are the rules different for unpaid workers?

Discipline Is Never Easy, but It May Be Necessary

Your community outreach may be charitable, but your tolerance of problematic volunteers doesn’t need to be. For many nonprofit leaders, the first hurdle in disciplining volunteers is often emotional. You may feel that:

  • Volunteers are good and generous people, so they don’t deserve correction
  • You’ll take any free help you can get, even if it’s not ideal
  • You could hurt your reputation with other and/or future volunteers by using discipline

These concerns are legit, but the bigger risk is maintaining relationships with volunteers who are breaking policies, slacking at their duties or, worst, putting your staff in harm’s way. For all the reasons you would step in and address an underperforming or policy-defying employee, you can do the same with a volunteer. Here are a few tips on how to handle problematic situations properly:

    1. Be clear upfront. First things first, include disciplinary information and internal procedures in your volunteer onboarding or training materials. Outline expectations for behavior and company rules so you have a point of reference if lines are crossed. Although you’re not legally obligated to have a formal employment agreement with volunteers, it helps to establish expectations from the get-go.
    2. Intervene and counsel on minor issues. If a volunteer commits a major violation, such as threatening violence or harassing a client, you can dismiss him or her immediately. (Notice, this is considered a “dismissal,” which is different language from termination or firing, which implies an employment relationship). For other matters, such as frequent no-shows or lackluster performance, plan on face-to-face discussions and include practical improvement recommendations.
    3. Consider lateral movement within the business. For volunteers who show potential despite some minor concerns, consider moving them to another position. Perhaps the person doesn’t work well with a particular coordinator – or would be better suited in another area of your business.
    4. Utilize progressive discipline when necessary. With paid employees, progressive discipline involves a verbal warning, followed by one or more written warnings before proceeding to termination. This cautious approach protects your business from a potential lawsuit. Although you’re not required to follow a set procedure with volunteers, a similar tactic may be beneficial. You also may want to take intermediary actions such as putting them on probation for a month, or downgrading them to a role with less responsibility or client contact.
    5. Cut ties when it’s time. If the above efforts don’t make a difference, it may be best to show the volunteer the door. Assuming you handle the situation carefully and objectively, you should be shielded against any legal repercussions. Federal, anti-discrimination protections under Title VII don’t specifically include volunteers, but fair and consistent treatment of workers is always a sound business practice, no matter the dynamic.
    Handy-Dandy Dismissal Policy

    As part of your volunteer introduction package, consider providing a disciplinary policy that states:

    “Volunteers who do not adhere to the rules and procedures of the agency or who do not satisfactorily perform their volunteer assignments are subject to discipline and/or dismissal. Disciplinary action shall range from verbal warnings to immediate discharge, depending on the seriousness of the offense in the judgement of management. Possible grounds for immediate dismissal may include: gross misconduct or insubordination; theft of property or misuse of agency materials; abuse or mistreatment of clients, staff or other volunteers; not abiding by agency policies and procedures; and not satisfactorily performing assigned duties.”

    Work Smarter, Not Harder, in 2018

    To support your business efforts in the communities you serve, we’re extending a special offer to small, U.S.-based nonprofit organizations: free access to select HRdirect Smart Apps for one year! This includes our Progressive Discipline Smart App, which can guide you through proper documentation of disciplinary actions. You’ll gain access to other free apps that can help you with volunteers and paid employees alike, such as recruitment, mandatory new-hire paperwork, attendance tracking and employee recordkeeping. Click here to sign up.

    So, what did you think? Did you find this information helpful? If so, there’s more available whenever you need a little guidance. New for 2018, we’ve launched the HR Recordkeeping [R]evolution campaign to help small businesses make the move to online recordkeeping. Through educational resources and step-by-step instruction, we show just how easy it is to upgrade to the latest electronic HR solutions.

    Key Takeaways
    • Don’t let your emotions prevent you from taking appropriate disciplinary action.
    • Keeping a problem volunteer on board may do more harm than good.
    • Have a policy that states how you treat disciplinary action with volunteers.
    • Progressive discipline or relocating a volunteer may help resolve the issue.
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