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:

4 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.


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