Protecting and Managing Volunteers in the Workplace

by Vince Scopelliti

Most of us agree that volunteer work is an excellent initiative; one of those ‘win-win’ situations where both the organisation and the community benefit from the unpaid work of kind citizens.

We also understand that even the best work-related relationships have their challenges. These include issues around workers compensation, clashes between paid and voluntary workers, navigating child protection requirements, plus the spectres of nepotism and bias in volunteer organisations.

LIABILITY FOR WORKERS COMPENSATION AND VOLUNTEERS

It is not surprising that for some employers, it can be a little unsettling to think about workers compensation and related implications that come with having volunteers on board. After all, when goodwill brings people to your organisation, the last thing on your mind might be the possible costs of work-related injuries.

Across Australia, workers compensation and/or public liability regulations relevant to volunteers tend to vary, with jurisdictions and insurers assessing coverage and liability in different ways. But the overall repercussions tend to be the same for employers – volunteers who suffer a workplace injury are entitled to seek compensation under the organisation’s relevant insurance cover, whether public liability or workers compensation. This can have obvious impacts on staff levels, premium costs and overall levels of productivity.

For some employers, this aspect of securing volunteer workers can go overlooked. It is certainly a much-appreciated boon when volunteers come on board in organisations. Yet, like any aspect of a corporate endeavour however, the possibility of injured volunteers should be viewed from all angles.

CULTURAL CLASHES BETWEEN VOLUNTEERS AND PROFESSIONALS

When volunteers come to provide help within an organisation, the reception from paid staff can sometimes be mixed. First of all, new volunteers need training and help with integration into the site’s culture and systems. Regular staff can feel burdened with the extra work and time that this entails. An ‘us and them’ culture can also lead to silos of information, based upon a sense of ownership.

This can emanate from both categories of staff – paid workers may feel like the ‘real’ employees, while volunteers might have a sense of being there for the ‘right’ reasons.

At a more particular level, awards and industrial organisations might have varying conditions relevant to the two groups of workers.

Should this be cause for concern? Bearing in mind that such issues of cultural clash can often lead to stress claims and overall disruption of productivity, the answer must surely be yes. We perhaps do not have to look any further than the current Victorian CFA fire fighter dispute to see the powerful and potentially damaging results of volunteer-versus-paid worker clashes.

Getting culture right in a volunteer-led group is no easy task and the dissatisfaction of unpaid workers is one of the first signs that problems are developing.

Further, if paid or volunteer workers develop a psychological injury from work-related stress, bullying or inept change-management, then employers certainly have a problem on their hands – and more than one claim arising from the situation is a definite possibility.

CHILD PROTECTION AND VOLUNTEER ORGANISATIONS

Having volunteer workers available can be a definite plus for businesses and community alike. Undoubtedly, the positives inherent in volunteer arrangements are well known. One volunteer situation that requires close analysis, however, is the protection of children in any scenario where volunteers are involved. In churches, sports organisations and youth clubs for example, there is significant reliance upon the assistance and kindness of volunteer workers.

It is essential for employers in such organisations to ensure that all legislative and practical measures are employed to ensure the safety of children. A targeted workplace audit of policies, procedures and work practices relevant to volunteers and children can help to ensure that unnecessary risks are eliminated. Necessary alterations might include Blue Card applications or shift work controls – as examples – or indeed might extend to more far-reaching initiatives relevant to child safety. Sourcing expert advice on these issues is paramount.

NEPOTISM AND BIAS IN VOLUNTEER ORGANISATIONS

A further issue that can infiltrate volunteer-based organisations involves favouritism, both real and perceived.

While volunteers are not paid, they certainly devote themselves to their chosen organisation. The desire to be treated fairly is shared by both paid and volunteer workers. Accordingly, employers need to be aware that treating workers with equal respect can be an essential part of ensuring workplace cohesion.

Any impulse to ‘cut corners’ in volunteer situations in order to employ, train or favour certain people must be carefully avoided. Nepotism and bias in work allocation can be real temptations when one or two people seem particularly competent.

When the financial situation is challenging it can seem like an obvious solution to rely on ‘unpaid’ workers rather than rostering paid employees on shifts. Yet the ethos of volunteer organisations generally requires a more nuanced approach to staffing arrangements. For example, when a rare paid position arises in the organisation employers should ensure that no bias is exhibited towards any particular volunteer. In order to prevent cultural problems arising, clearly articulated policies and procedures are a necessity.

PRACTICAL SOLUTIONS

In organising workplaces to successfully accommodate both paid and unpaid workers, attention to detail is paramount. What may appear on the surface to be an industrial ‘good news’ story in fact has the potential to foster resentment, tension and even bullying.

Volunteer-based organisations have the challenging task of juggling safety and compensation issues, as well as cultural and merit-based concerns. It pays to thoroughly audit the processes and safety mechanisms currently in place, keeping in mind the delicate nature of staff-volunteer relationships. Experts in the field of volunteer workplaces can give employers the peace of mind necessary to navigate this specialised work environment.

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