Tag Archives: risk management

Creating a Speak-up Culture in the Workplace

speak upMission-based agencies – nonprofits, non-governmental organizations, charities, government offices, schools, etc. – are often thought of as being in the business of doing good rather than the business of making money. We like to believe, therefore, that such programs are naturally, inherently good, righteous, even superior. We like to believe that, at such programs, everyone – employees, consultants, volunteers and program participants – is on the same page when it comes to honest practices and integrity.

However, the reality is that such agencies are run by humans, and humans suffer lapses in ethics, common sense and judgment. Humans are fallible and, therefore, mission-based organizations are fallible.

I don’t know of many nonprofits or government programs that make ethics a written, central priority to their operational strategy. According to the Ethics and Compliance Initiative, research shows that such a practice can reduce misconduct “by as much as 66 percent in organizations with effective programs,” as noted in this article “Before the Whistle Blows: Creating a Speak-up Culture at Work,” from August 2016 in Workforce magazine. Yes, the author is talking about for-profit businesses, but I can’t imagine anything in this article isn’t also applicable, and essential, to the mission-based world.

The subtitle of the article is “Creating an environment in which employees feel empowered to speak up when they suspect wrongdoing starts at the top.” I would love to go to an entire workshop on this subject, and see such workshops offered at any and all conferences for managers of volunteers and conferences regarding any kind of nonprofit management.

From the article:

Creating a “speak-up” culture puts a premium on ethical decision-making across the board with responsibility shared by all. But setting the tone and promoting that culture rests squarely on the shoulders of organizational leaders. Their endorsement and modeling create an atmosphere of openness and trust that reassures employees who are understandably anxious about coming forward, whether out of fear of being let go or fear of being ostracized. Leaders who take employee concerns seriously and follow through send a strong message about integrity.

That should be a wake-up call to all senior staff at mission-based organizations. How many of you have communicated your views to your staff regarding ethical behavior?

The heart of how to create such a speak-up culture is this, at least IMO:

Make sure that managers and supervisors receive thorough training in how to respond to and guide employees who come forward. These sessions may also expand to include full team training with hypothetical scenarios or case studies. Simultaneously, the organization ensures that the ethics and compliance policy is clear on how violations are identified and acted upon. Employees must know what constitutes misconduct within the organization and at what point it should be reported. From there, employees need to know the methods available for speaking up. A high quality ethics program will have multiple methods for reporting concerns.

The profound failures at Penn State to address reports of suspicions of crimes against children and to warn people if their safety might be threatened, all regarding former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, convicted of child molestation while working at Penn State, should give every organization pause. There was no “speak up” culture at Penn State, and not just within the athletic program. I remain flabbergasted as I read about the case – and I read extensively about it – that people did not report what they saw, or if they did report, those who received the information did not act appropriately about it. And I wish I could say it was the exception, but I quiz organizations about their reporting procedures regarding suspected misconduct and, more often than not, find they do not have such. Many will say, in their defense of not having any procedure, “Well, we haven’t had any problems!” And I say, “So far.”

Every organization is different in how it should set up methods for reporting suspicion of misconduct or unsafe conditions, for response to such and for follow-up. In addition to getting legal advice on how it should be done, creating procedures can be a terrific exercise for employees and volunteers – they will be buying in to it by designing it. But you have to create a trusting environment where participants feel comfortable asking questions and discussing sensitive topics, such as what they think they should do if they:

  • hear a client telling a joke that is racist or sexist to a staff member
  • have seen an employee, consultant, volunteer or client use an organization’s device and/or Internet access to visit pornography sites
  • know a staff member is taking equipment home without permission
  • learn that an adult volunteer frequently texting with an under-aged teen volunteer
  • suspect an adult volunteer at your organization is dating a minor he or she met through your organization

How will you create that trusting environment? That’s the subject of another blog.

Also see:

Safety in virtual volunteering

Between my Google Alerts and those whom I follow on Twitter, I see a story at least once a day about the engagement of online volunteers. I put the most interesting or unique ones on the Virtual Volunteering Wiki. It’s so wonderful to see virtual volunteering oh-so-mainstream. I’m not at all surprised: by the 1990s, it was already impossible to track every organization involving online volunteers – there were so many! If there is anyone out there still talking about any form of virtual volunteering – digital volunteers, micro volunteering, crowd sourcing, ework, etc. – as “new”, you have to wonder: have they been under a rock?

But I do have a concern: many of these virtual volunteering initiatives don’t seem to have thought about online safety. Too many, in my opinion, are focused on creating a really complex, feature-rich web site for volunteers to use to sign up and contribute their time and skills, but not thinking about risk management – protecting clients and volunteers.

As Susan Ellis and I say in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, and I say in any workshop related to virtual volunteering:

Relatively speaking, the Internet is no more or less safe than any other public space, such as a school, faith community, or sports stadium. Fears of exploitation, abuse, or exposure to sexually-explicit or violent material should not prevent an agency from engaging in virtual volunteering, any more than such fears should prevent the involve­ment of volunteers onsite. There is risk in any vol­unteering, online or face-to-face. The challenge is to minimize and manage such risk. (page 112)

Do you have to interview every candidate for online volunteering? Do you have to check professional references on every candidate for online volunteering? Do you have to conduct a criminal background check on every online volunteer? No, you don’t have to do any of these things IF the tasks they will do as volunteers don’t warrant such – they aren’t going to work with clients, they aren’t going to work with other online volunteers and know their names, they aren’t going to have access to confidential information, they won’t have access to any online systems in such a way that they could even accidentially harm such, etc. Again, back to a quote from The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.:

Every organization will have different interview­ ing and screening methods based on what services volunteers provide and its workplace culture. Even for volunteers working onsite, the issues involved in volunteering for a beach cleanup or simple clerical work are not the same as issues involved in volun­teering to tutor young children or manage an orga­nization’s computer systems.

The same is true for online volunteers. Your screening approach will be different for a volun­teer designing a Web page than for one creating a private online area where your staff and clients will interact and the online volunteer will have far more access to client contact and other confidential information. (page 41)

If an online volunteering role does warrant some degree of screening – and not all do, but most do – then you have to decide how much there will be, and how it will be conducted. First and foremost is that you must follow the law. For instance, many states require a criminal background check on any volunteers that will work with children one-on-one. A volunteer who will come to a classroom one time to speak about his or her job may not be required by law to undergo a criminal background check, but someone who will talk with a child, one-on-one, even if they will always be in a room with other adults and children, probably is required by law to undergo such – apply the same principles to online volunteers in determining what screening is required. Should the online volunteering candidate be interviewed? If the person is new and is doing any task that requires at least some expertise – web page development, translating text from one language to another, moderating an online discussion group, designing a newsletter, editing a brochure, etc. – yes, absolutely! Many more tips for screening online volunteers to ensure they really can do the task that they have signed up for, and have the time to do so, can be found in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

My favorite resource on screening volunteers, online or offline, that will work with clients in any capacity, is free to download: Screening Volunteers to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse: A Community Guide for Youth Organizations. Point one under the section on what to do before the organization starts screening volunteers is this: “Develop criteria that define how screening information will be used to determine an applicant’s suitability.” That will be different for every organization, depending on their mission and the work volunteers will do. You have to think about not only worst-case scenarios – screening out people that might sexually and/or financially-exploit clients, other volunteers, etc. – but also about people who don’t have the skills necessary for the work, people who don’t have the temperament for the challenges, and people who really don’t have time to volunteer, as all of those scenarios, while not criminal, can be harmful to your organization and those it serves.

You also have to clearly define what behavior is inappropriate on the part of online volunteers, how you will communicate that to volunteers, the consequences of inappropriate behavior, and how you are going to be aware of such behavior. As we note in the guidebook, a way to absolutely ensure safety in online interactions between volunteers and clients is to set up a private sys­tem through which all messages are sent, reviewed by staff before they can be read by the intended recipient, stripped of all personal identifying information by the moderator, archived for the record, etc., but that such a system can ruin an attempt to create trusting, caring relationships between volunteers and clients (and we provide a powerful example of how such a super-safe system ended up almost derailing an online mentoring program). Your efforts to ensure safety must balance with your program goals.

Among the many suggestions we make in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, regarding online safety is this:

The best way to ensure that clients and vol­unteers are having positive online experiences is for program staff to stay in frequent touch with both, to encourage an atmosphere of open communication. Also, it is fundamental that you establish and clearly (and frequently) communicate policies regarding online exchanges between volunteers and clients. (page 114)

Clearly, explicitly inform applicants for volunteering about your organization’s policies and procedures regarding safety, abuse prevention, and all aspects of risk management, as well as circumstances that would lead to a volunteer being dismissed. Be explicit. Also share your code of conduct or statement of ethics in writing. Ask applicants if they have a problem with any of the policies and procedures, code of ethics, etc.; such a discussion will help you find out if applicants are uncomfortable with any aspect of such, which can be an indicator that they are an inappropriate candidate. Even though it is not legally binding, require applicants to sign a document that states they understand and agree to adhere to your policies and procedures and code of conduct; again, this can help you find out if an applicant is uncomfortable with any aspect of such, which can be an indicator that they are an inappropriate candidate. It also affirms to volunteers that you make the safety of your volunteers, staff and clients a priority, which can encourage new volunteers to take such precautions with the utmost seriousness.

vvbooklittleThere are lots more suggestions and specifics about risk management, online safety, ensuring client confidentiality and setting boundaries for relationships in virtual volunteering in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, available both as a traditional printed book and as a digital book. Suggestions for risk management are found throughout the book, in the chapters regarding developing and revising policies, designing assignments for online volunteers, interviewing and screening online volunteers, orienting and training online volunteers, basic techniques for working with online volunteers, and online volunteers working directly with clients, as well as the chapter written for online volunteers themselves. Our advice is based on both virtual volunteering practices, including micro volunteering and crowdsourcing, and the proven fundamentals of onsite, face-to-face, traditional volunteer management.

Also see:

Keeping volunteers safe – & keeping everyone safe with volunteers

Why don’t they tell? Would they at your org?

Safety of volunteers contributes to a shelter closing

volunteer managers: you are NOT psychic!

Photos & videos by & of volunteers online – privacy issues?

Research: Immunity under the Volunteer Protection Act (USA)

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing work of volunteersVolume 6, Issue 1 (Apr 2015) of the Nonprofit Policy Forum features research by Patricia Groble and Jeffrey L. Brudney, “When Good Intentions Go Wrong: Immunity under the Volunteer Protection Act.” It’s research about a law in the USA. The abstract says:

The Volunteer Protection Act (VPA) was enacted in 1997 to encourage volunteerism by protecting individuals from liability for their negligent actions while volunteering. Proponents intended to provide legal safeguards for volunteers, whom they claimed were deterred from volunteering by fears of liability. Little attention has been paid to this legislation since its enactment, however. This article examines the implementation and interpretation of the VPA through the lens of case law to determine whether the act has had its intended effects for volunteers. Our analysis of all court cases in which the VPA has been cited shows that volunteers are at risk for lawsuits over a variety of actions during the course of their volunteer activities. This analysis also demonstrates that although volunteers can avail themselves of the VPA’s protection, their success in invoking this defense is mixed.

A must read for managers of volunteers… however, it’s cost-prohibitive for most of them: the article costs $42.00 / 30,00 € / £23.00 to access (the entire issue of the journal is $235.00 / 172,00 € / £129.00. I’ll be heading to my local library to see if I can access it through them (I suspect I’ll have to schlep 100 minutes by mass transit one-way, all the way to downtown Portland via the bus and train to read it, in order to read it). The Nonprofit Policy Forum is an international journal that publishes original research and analysis on public policy issues and the public policy process related to the work of nonprofit organizations.

Also see: List of

List of research and evaluations of virtual volunteering, as a practice in general or focused on specific projects (much of the research is free to access).

Is your organization a buzz kill?

Is your organization a buzz kill to new ideas? Does your organization cry “It’s against our policies/It’s not in our policies!” when an employee member or volunteer suggests an activity – and the response isn’t because what’s proposed isn’t good idea, but because somone at the organization is afraid of… well, something?

Stephen Colbert has been trying to start a political action committee (PAC). At first, his parent company, Viacom, said it was illegal. So Colbert consulted with a lawyer and came up with a way to make creating a PAC legal. But the parent company for his show, The Colbert Report, still said no, sent Colbert a letter explaining why, and asking him not to read the letter on his show. So Colbert paraphrased the letter thusly:

We are stupid lawyers who hate fun. If you do this, we’re all scared because people might get mad at us. I think we just peed a little. So, even though we know it is totally legal and everything, and everybody wants you to do it, we’re not going to let you.

Sincerely,
Admiral John Q. Buzzshackler, Esq.

I laughed and laughed and laughed. I have gotten this message myself, not from lawyers, but from colleagues at organizations where I’ve worked or where I’ve volunteered – one fairly recently, when I made a very simple suggestion regarding a one-time social media activity to a very well-known nonprofit organization I won’t name now, but will be happy to if you buy me a beer. The emails I’ve gotten over the years, including most recently, can be paraphrased similarly:

“We are stuffy nonprofit/NGO/international development agency senior managers who hate fun and new ideas. If you do this, we’re all scared because people might get mad at us or someone somewhere may say something negative about it or we might have to work differently. Or we might have to actually work. I think we just peed a little. So, even though we know it is totally legal and that thousands and thousands of organizations are doing this successfully and it could lead to more volunteers and more support, and most everybody wants you to do it, we’re not going to let you.

Sincerely,
Secretary General John Q. Buzzkill

Happy Friday, everyone!

Security Management in Violent Environments

The Humanitarian Practice Network has published a new version of Good Practice Review 8 on Operational Security Management in Violent Environments. The new edition both updates the original material and introduces new topics, such as the security dimensions of ‘remote management’ programming, good practice in interagency security coordination and how to track, share and analyse security information. The new edition also provides a more comprehensive approach to managing critical incidents, in particular kidnapping and hostage-taking, and discusses issues relating to the threat of terrorism. It’s published by the Humanitarian Practice Network at ODI.

One of the unique aspects of this publication is an entire chapter on sexual aggression, which offers blunt advice to both women AND men regarding how to prevent rape and sexual abuse during aid and humanitarian deployments.

The Humanitarian Practice Network at the Overseas Development Institute is an independent forum where field workers, managers and policymakers in the humanitarian sector share information, analysis and experience.

I really hope that the Peace Corps will read this report, per its recent and apparently ongoing mishandling of the sexual assaults on some Peace Corps members. The document’s frankness and specifics are something the Peace Corps could learn from.

No matter what your role in humanitarian actions/aid work, no matter what agency you are working with, download and read this publication, and then compare it to the manual/policies for your own agency. If you see a need for improvement in your agency’s practices and policies, speak up!