The volunteer as bully = the toxic volunteer

This blog was originally posted 16 August 2010.

So many people — media and corporate people in particular — like to talk about volunteers in the most flowery language possible: volunteers as selfless and hard-working and nice and sweet and huggable. Gosh golly, don’t you love them?!?

I’m not fond of using fuzzy language to talk about volunteers, because I find it degrading and disrespectful. It devalues volunteers and their role in organizations.

While in Australia leading workshops on volunteer management earlier this year, one of the very hot-topics that volunteer managers wanted to talk about was volunteers as bullies. So many were facing a toxic volunteer at their organizations who used abusive language with other volunteers, paid staff and even clients, disrupted meetings and plans that other volunteers were leading or organizing, and were uncooperative regarding following policies and procedures. These toxic volunteers were capable of bringing meetings, planning, events, and even entire programs to a halt.

The volunteer managers felt powerless to deal with the bullies, because these volunteers had often been at the organization longer than the volunteer managers had, because the volunteers were also financial donors, because the volunteers had been honored in the past regarding their service, or because the staff was afraid of the volunteers and didn’t want to provoke them further. Volunteer managers told me that just one volunteer complaint — including complaints about being reprimanded for not following policy —  would result in senior leadership displeasure with the volunteer manager. One person said that her supervisor, in regards to complaints by a long-time volunteer who did not want to follow policy, “I just don’t want to hear it. Make her happy.”

One avoidance tactic upper management uses regarding bullies is to require everyone to go into a conflict management workshop. Those workshops can be really great for other issues, but don’t solve the problem of a bully. In fact, volunteer managers report to me that bullies either come up with a way to beg off attending such or are brilliant at hijacking such workshops, portraying themselves as victims and using the tactics they learn at the workshop to divert responsibility from themselves regarding bullying behavior. And I have to admit that I’ve seen it happen myself.

Since those workshops in Australia, I’ve kept my eye out for good resources regarding bullying in the workplace. One that I found was a blog from the Open University, Office conflict: the impact of workplace bullying. Another terrific resource is How to deal with workplace bullying and how to tackle bullying at work, also from the United Kingdom. My favorite resource, however, regarding petty tyranny in the workplace is the book The No Asshole Rule—Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, which I’ve blogged about before. His book is about paid employees, but it most definitely applies to volunteers.

My own advice as well:

    • Document, document, document. Have dates, places and details about the actions of a toxic volunteer in writing. Have details in writing on the consequences of the bullying, such as other volunteers not participating in activities if the toxic volunteer will be there, volunteers dropping out of participation altogether, little or no new volunteers participating in certain activities, and complaints from other volunteers, paid staff and clients. Be ready to present these to your supervisor, the head of your human resources department, and even the head of your organization. Don’t wait to be asked to present this information, and don’t be discouraged if your initial presentation of such doesn’t prompt action; it may take several presentations to get the message across that the toxic volunteer must be let go.
  • Be consistent in applying the rules to all volunteers, so there is no possibility of a toxic volunteer claiming you are singling her or him out, something she or he will be tempted to claim to other volunteers and to paid staff she or he has a long-term relationship with. This starts to create an atmosphere where the toxic volunteer will start to feel unwelcomed and will indirectly encourage her or him to move on.
  • Be willing to lose the bully, as well as her or his allies among your volunteers, and to answer questions from staff or other volunteers who express displeasure at their departure. If you create an environment where the bully cannot engage in toxic behavior without having consequences for that behavior, that volunteer will probably leave your organization, but not without a dramatic exit, like a fiery letter or email or an emotional final meeting, and she or he may successfully encourage other volunteers to leave as well. Say goodbye and wish them well and calmly move on, focusing on your remaining volunteers, reaching out to volunteers who left because of the toxic volunteer, recruiting new volunteers, staying dispassionate and staying positive.
  • Never, ever trash talk the bully to other staff or volunteers, even if you consider those staff or volunteers sympathetic to you. Those words could come back to haunt you. Be above reproach in any comments you make about the toxic volunteer, even among allies. It’s fine for volunteers to share complaints with you regarding a bullying volunteer, but keep it dispassionate and don’t allow them to cross a line where they could be accused of being bullies themselves.

Be on the lookout for misinterpretations and misrepresentations of your actions, and ready to respond to such immediately, quickly and decisively.

Don’t think that the situation will somehow work itself out. It won’t.

Also see:

16 thoughts on “The volunteer as bully = the toxic volunteer

  1. Johann Jacobs

    Any advice, insight in dealing with the disgruntled volunteer complaing to and or invloving a board member who is a Major Donor in discrediting staff and the institution?

  2. jcravens Post author

    Sure: meet with the board member/major donor and let them know your side of the issue. Tell him or her exactly how you are addressing the concerns of the volunteer, and what the results of your meetings with the volunteer regarding these concerns have been. Have dates written down and summaries of these meetings. Are the volunteer’s concerns valid? Why aren’t they valid? Is the volunteer suggesting things or fighting against policies and practices that could expose the organization to legal issues/liability? Is the volunteer disrupting the workplace? Is the volunteer creating a work environment that makes it difficult or impossible for other volunteers to carry out their duties, that creates a hostile work environment, etc.? All of this needs to be in writing for your files and communicated to that board member and your supervisor.

    If the volunteer is in violation of any policies, this needs to be communicated to the volunteer, in writing, with notice that unless the violations stop, the volunteer will be dismissed. If the volunteer is creating a work environment that is hostile, doesn’t allow volunteers to do their work, is making people uncomfortable, etc., document examples of this – the more the better, with dates and specifics – and meet with the volunteer and review this information. Say what you want the volunteer to do in order to be able to continue: what behavior do you want them to stop? Do you want them to take a break of 30 days? Do you need to remind them of your social media and confidentiality policies? If the volunteer refuses to make the necessary changes, you dismiss the volunteer.

    You will also need to talk with all the volunteers – in a meeting, online, by phone, etc. – and communicate to them, while adhering to confidentiality policies, that the volunteer has been dismissed. You may need to remind all of the volunteers about social media and confidentiality policies. And you may have to engage in a lot of trust-building – volunteers may feel angry or hurt, not knowing the whole story about this volunteer. There is a book on how to fire a volunteer from – you might want to check that out.

    Remember that the goal is always the good of the organization and those it serves – that’s always the priority. If you end up losing multiple volunteers over this, so be it – it happens. Just make sure everything is documented and fully communicated to senior management.

  3. Johann Jacobs

    Thank you for these comments. The donor/board member is tend8ng to side wi5h volunteer and is thinking that resolving the matter to the,satisfaction if the,volunteer my be a deal breaker as far aster funding goes…

    1. jcravens Post author

      Then when you meet with the donor/board member to explain the situation, give him/her FULL responsibility, and detail what the ramifications will be by allowing this volunteer to break policy and how he/she would like to communicate this exception to the volunteers. If he/she is going to make the final decision, then give him/her full ownership/responsibility for such. Make sure it is communicated, in writing, to senior management that you are not responsible for the decision being made, the board member is.

      I had a senior staff member, my supervisor, override one of my policies at a nonprofit. When he told me he was going to do so, I asked him to clarify why. He did, and later in the day, I sent him an email detailing our meeting and saying I would adhere to his wishes. Weeks later, the executive director had a meltdown when he found out the policy had been violated, and came marching into my office to deride me, maybe even fire me, because of the violation, which he thought I was responsible for. I had the email already printed out and handed it to him. My relationship with that senior staff member was harmed irrecoverably, but I kept my job, the executive director decided I would report to him directly after that (which I greatly preferred) and I left eventually on my own terms. In the vernacular, I covered my ass.

  4. Ruth Douglas

    And I thought that I was the only person in a situation of being bullied in a volunteer environment. I am very nervous as I now have to front the Committee with a Statement of how I am being bullied and harrassed. I have the backing of the majority of the Committee. However, the President of the bully is her husband. And she is the Treasurer. I am a long standing member of the organisation (soccer club) and they are relatively new. I was not on the Committee at the time of their appointments but was asked to re-join as there was a vacancy. As Treasurer, the bully, ignored a decision of the Committee and spent club money to promote her own agenda. I opposed her actions (as did other members of the Committee) but because I was the first one to hold her accountable she made me a target of her harrassment. She failed to realise my history with the Club and with previous Committees and now it is all coming to a head.
    I really don’t understand why there are people like this. We are their for the children and to leave the Club a better place than when we arrived. Between this husband and wife combination, our reputation in the community has dropped significantly. I am hoping that after I read my statement and the Committee has a full understanding of this behaviour, they will no longer be an issue. I would hate to have to leave a club where my family is 3rd generation members, where my children have made great friends and a club that has supported me through some of the toughest periods of my life.

      1. Ruth Douglas

        I just wanted to say thank you for your great comments and links to articles. They really prepared me for all outcomes. One of the outcomes what that things would not go my way, so I was well prepared emotionally for this situation. And that is exactly what happened. I won’t go into the details but the President and Vice-President just did not want to deal with my complaint. They said I was being overly dramatic and it was just a “girl” thing. (I would like to hear their comments if a member of their family felt they were being bullied). No resolution was made. So I stepped down and so did my son.
        Many of the life members of the Club have now taken up the cause, as Bullying is just not on. Under the Constitution, this matter should have gone to a Disciplinary Committee (which I knew was supposed to happen) but the new people did not know. The Life Members of the Club are taking it further. Many of these Life Members have known me and my children for 20 years.
        I actually feel relieved that I said something and that it is now out of my hands.
        I will still continue to manage my daughter’s team and watch the children play every weekend and be a regular mom for a while.
        Having a site where you can get information to help you prepare is awesome. Thank you so much.

        1. jcravens Post author

          Thank you so much for following up. I’m horrified that they would say such a sexist comment to you – that it was just a “girl” thing. That’s horrible! I’m glad you said something, and I hope that things do change. Again, thanks so much for followingup.

  5. Peach

    We are also dealing with major bullying in our volunteer organization. Unfortunately, there are 2 bullies that have chased away members, bullied and threatened board members if things are not going their way. We also have one bully that volunteers to chair committees then silently drops committee members if they don’t agree with her plans and replaces them with someone else. The president of our organization is a friend with the bullies so doesn’t want to address the issue for fear of loosing them as members. We are on the verge of loosing half of our board due to the bullying. With a President that will not listen, we are at wits end on what to do anymore.

    1. jcravens Post author

      I’d ask for a meeting with the President, take as many allies as you can, and then lay out the situation and say, “Here are our options. How would YOU like for us to proceed?” In other words, force the President to take responsibility for his or her inaction.

  6. Karen Fogelquist

    What if the volunteer doing the bullying is a Board Member (the President in this case), and the entire organization is a non-profit corporation staffed ONLY by volunteers (none of the board members receive any compensation except POWER over others)? The new President operates a “dictatorship” and has bullied the entire Board into complacency. The President also bullies and verbally attacks other volunteers, the general public, and patrons of the organization. There is NO ONE in charge except the President. This organization is a “Senior Center” that serves people who are mostly unable to assert themselves or speak up if there is a problem.

    The facility where this organization operates is owned by a municipality. Is it possible that the city could have some responsibility for allowing this bullying/hostile work environment to occur, even though it is happening without their knowledge or consent?

    1. jcravens Post author

      “bullied the entire Board into complacency”

      The board holds the purse strings. They have all the power. They aren’t bullied – they support this person.

      There are a few options for those upset about what’s happening at the organization:
      – they can quit, and write a letter to the board and to all organizations and agencies that fund this organization noting why they are quitting and what would have to change, exactly, for them to return
      – they can post to social media and send a letter to the press about why they are quitting. However, they need to remember to stay fact based and respect any confidentiality agreements they have signed.
      – they could meet with the family of clients to tell them the situation in the organization

      “Is it possible that the city could have some responsibility for allowing this bullying/hostile work environment to occur”. No.

      Also see:

  7. CatGal

    I’m struggling with this right now at the animal rescue where I volunteer. One volunteer is often verbally abusive in public view, making both herself and our organization look unprofessional. I wrote a long letter to my board about my experience witnessing her berate another volunteer for over an hour (while others did NOTHING), and nothing ever came of it (I think they asked her to stay home for a week or two). I now am at the point where I refuse to work shifts with her. The board is aware of her behavior and basically shrugs. I hate being a quitter, but this seems like a bad environment. I have enough stress at my job, and I’m considering leaving to go help at another shelter. I vacillate between not wanting to let one immature person force me out, and also feeling life is too short to tolerate this kind of nonsense.


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