Nepotism and Bias in Volunteer Organisations: A Thorny Issue

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.

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