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.