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When a Volunteer Transforms into an Employee
Just as I was thinking about this months Hot Topic subject, an e-mail from a colleague raised one. She asked whether I could direct her to written materials describing what happens if a volunteer is hired to fill a paid staff position. Although I have heard many conversations on this subject over the years, I was hard pressed to identify much that had been written down. So instead I offered to make this the Hot Topic this month and request the good thinking of our site visitors in the response section.
Ill admit to conflicted feelings about tapping volunteers to become employees. On one hand, this naturally feels complimentary, since it sends the good message that the organization views volunteers as a talent pool of equal merit to its employees. On the other hand, I see three possible concerns:
- If a volunteer comes on board in the hope of eventually becoming an employee, it transforms what ought to be the freedoms of volunteering into more of an audition. In other words, the volunteer is less likely to criticize or give unconventional input, will accept tasks that may not be his or her first choice, etc. -- all in an effort to show how s/he would fit in as an employee.
- Being paid is not necessarily a promotion out of volunteering. If there are too many congratulations or comments like this person used to be a volunteer but now weve hired him/her, listeners might infer that the new employee was elevated rather than transferred. Given that the majority of volunteers dont even desire full-time employment with the organization, such an implication is unfair.
- Finally, Id advise great caution against saying or even hinting to any volunteer that contributing services might lead to a paid job. This could lead to false expectations and even a lawsuit, should the employment not materialize.
When It Happens
In the real world, of course, volunteers who really do want to join the paid staff of the organization will apply for vacant positions. And their experience as volunteers ought to weigh in their favor, presuming that they have been competent and productive. However, anecdotal evidence reveals that making the transition from volunteer status to that of an employee is often much harder than anticipated. Here are a few factors:
- Employment generally means a change from a part-time volunteer
schedule to full time. These extra hours can change both how the
ex-volunteer feels about the workplace and how colleagues view him
or her. Small irritants that seemed insignificant when only encountered
once or twice a week for a few hours now magnify into more serious
issues. The enthusiasm of focusing volunteer attention on tasks
a few hours a week becomes tempered by daily/weekly regularity.
Where once the volunteer could ignore administrative memos, computer
security procedures, weekly statistical reports, and other mundane
responsibilities of employees, they now become a part of the job.
- Relationships change between the ex-volunteer and other volunteers and with employee colleagues. If the volunteer enjoyed friendships with other volunteers, there may be disappointment in store. Just as employees promoted to leadership positions speak of being treated differently by their former colleagues, the same perspective shift occurs when an ex-volunteer now spends full-time in the organization. Suddenly the work becomes of primary importance and it is harder to mesh schedules with volunteer friends. Meanwhile, because the new employee is not really new, the normal get-acquainted period with other employees is skippedalthough, in truth, most employees dont actually get to know volunteers very well. It may come as a surprise to discover that other employees and the ex-volunteer still feel some distance, even after several months in the new situation.
- No matter how hard we try to apply the same standards of performance
for both employees and volunteers, non-paid staff are often given
more leeway. Expectations are simply lower, or we accept less work
or lower quality as a cost of working with volunteers. This should
never be the case, but it is hard to ignore its existence. If such
different standards are at work in an organization, then an ex-volunteer
now in a paying job may find that the same work previously accepted
without comment is now criticized or that other rules have changed
to make the work harder. The new hires performance is scrutinized
more closely and colleague employees may suddenly seem less satisfied
than they were when the person was a volunteer. Often both sides
are surprisedand dismayedby this.
It is worth noting that the opposite situation is also fraught with potential problems: when an employee leaves the job (often for retirement but also for other reasons) and then returns as a volunteer. The situation has changed, but expectationsparticularly about relationshipshave not. The ex-employee is suddenly without the assumed privileges of a full-time staff member, from small things such as no longer having a locker or keys to the front door, to the very real change in what work will be assigned.
What Can We Do?
If any of our visitors have had experience with this transformation of a volunteer into an employee or vice versa, please share your observations and advice with the rest of us! For example:
- How do we strike a balance between wanting volunteers to be seen
as a talent pool while avoiding any promises of employment?
- Should there be a required break between volunteering and taking
a paid job in the same setting?
- How can an organization make a clear demarcation between volunteering and employment so that true orientation can occur and new boundaries defined?
Lets see what our collective wisdom can surface on this subject. Thanks in advance!
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