On the darker side of volunteer work

Scott Millar Aug 2015_croppedScott Miller
Chief Executive
Volunteering New Zealand

Conflict. Never particularly enjoyable,  but a reality for almost 80% of organisations that involve volunteers, according to our soon to be published State of Volunteering Report.

This darker side of volunteer work can obviously can take many forms, but through today’s blog, I want to shine a light on two forms of conflict that Volunteering New Zealand regularly hears about: bullying and the disregard for natural justice.

Bullying

Possibly the most insidious type of conflict that can have long and devastating consequences for volunteers is bullying.  For some people, be they youth, migrants, or people with a disability, volunteering can be an excellent step towards paid employment, social (re)integration or new skills and experiences. However, starting out as a volunteer may also come with a power imbalance that exposes the risk of bullying. Such conflict generally arises from more established volunteers or paid staff negatively influencing or yielding power over the social experience, task, or access to recognition of ‘other’ volunteers.

Reflect briefly on your organisation. When was the last time you were made aware of the code of conduct or complaints process? Did the leadership structure act quickly and consistently when a complaint was raised? It doesn’t take long for a culture of cohesiveness to shift to a culture of “us vs them” or worse, to see such conflict being ignored by those with the capacity to intervene.

(Un)Natural justice

While natural justice might sound like a legal term to be used in a court of law, it is perhaps for this reason that the principles of natural justice don’t receive sufficient attention in our sector, and to resolving acts and outcomes of conflict.

Natural justice can be regarded as the rights for both parties to have a formal complaint procedure that has:

  • freedom from bias; and
  • transparency and fairness.

It is discomforting to acknowledge that we at Volunteering New Zealand receive almost weekly phone-calls from distressed volunteers calling to describe their dismissal, suspension or other exclusion from their coveted volunteering role.

Often, we hear a narrative of carte blanche power being exerted by one party unprepared to engage in a constructive dialogue with the other, often more vulnerable party. Often, we hear of a disregard for natural justice – volunteers not receiving  prior notice of a case to be answered, a fair opportunity to answer the case,  and the opportunity to present their case properly.

Typically, the question we end up receiving is “what legal rights do I have as a volunteer?” Duly, we describe the few workplace provisions afforded to volunteers seeking an avenue to recover their role, dignity or otherwise, by referring them to the available legislation provided through the Bill of Rights, Human Rights Act or Health and Safety at Work Act. Unfortunately, such legislation is often all but too lofty a pursuit through such institutions for our callers.

In conclusion

While conflict is certainly natural in all work contexts, is there sufficient attention paid to natural justice in our sector?

The other side of the story that we don’t hear might indicate a different set of events leading to dismissal. We certainly also hear our share of founder’s syndromes, hearts ruling heads and reckless disregard for personal and others’ health and safety.

For us back at Volunteering New Zealand – raising the awareness and value of more effective management and leadership of volunteers is vital to better outcomes for our workforce of 1.2 million volunteers.

That this work ultimately rests on our collective efforts, reveals the true potential of the diversity and depth of our workforce when we get it right –  as I believe we do more than most other countries.

This blog has been contributed by a member of ComVoices

ComVoices  actively promotes the value that community sector organisations and their people, both paid and unpaid, add to New Zealand’s economic and social wellbeing through information,  political advocacy and dialogue.

Click here for our website:  http://comvoices.org.nz/