Dealing with problems

The general aim, that volunteering is a positive experience for everyone involved, is frequently met.  There are occasions however, when problems may arise.  This information covers what to do when a volunteer raises a concern or complaint and how to handle any concerns or complaints that you may have about a volunteer.

Preventing problems

You can minimise problems occurring in the first place, by ensuring that you have planned well for volunteer involvement.  Attention should be paid to the following -

  • Know why you are involving volunteers
  • Have meaningful roles with enough work to sustain interest
  • Take care in matching volunteers to roles - find out what they hope to achieve through volunteering so that you can be sure that the role is appropriate
  • Have clear expectations on both sides
  • Provide any necessary training
  • Ensure that you have appropriate support in place
  • Provide opportunities for volunteers to raise their views and contribute to decision making

Being prepared

You should have clear procedures in place for dealing with problems that may arise.  It is not advisable to use the same discipline and grievance procedures that you have for staff, as these have been developed to satisfy employment legislation which does not cover volunteers.  The procedures you use, will however, be based on similar principles of fairness.  You may include these within your Volunteer Policy or it may refer to a separate policy.  Either way, they should be written in plain English that is easy to understand.

Dealing with complaints

All complaints should be resolved openly, fairly and quickly to:

  • Protect your volunteers
  • Minimise any risk of disruption to your staff, service users and other volunteers
  • Demonstrate that your organisation respects its volunteers
  • Protect the reputation of your organisation

Complaints from volunteers

Volunteers should have the right to complain if they feel that they have been unfairly treated.  Whilst they have no legal rights, as they are not employees, there is a strong moral case for implementing good practice. 

The procedure should follow 3 stages:

Oral complaint

This is the initial discussion and may be informal in nature.  Many complaints can be resolved at this stage.  Your procedure will say who an initial complaint should be raised with - the Volunteer Co-ordinator or the person who supervises the volunteer, for example.  If the complaint is about this person, then it should be referred to another manager.

Written complaint

If the problem is not satisfactorily resolved, then it should be raised in writing.  Your procedures should set-out a timeframe for this.  A month should be plenty of time for someone to decide whether to continue with their complaint.  The organisation should also respond within a given timeframe.

You should take account of the fact that some volunteers may have difficulty submitting something in writing, so be prepared to be flexible and offer support where appropriate

Right to appeal

There should be a further stage for volunteers who are not satisfied with the outcome of their written complaint.  This will generally be to the Management Committee or Trustees, most usually addressed to the Chair.  Again there should be specified timeframes.  The Chair's decision on the matter will be final.

Addressing problems with volunteers

The sort of issues that you may need to address with volunteers include:

  • Persistent bad time keeping
  • Going beyond the boundaries of the agreed role
  • Not respecting service users confidentiality/dignity/independence or individuality
  • Breach of health and safety regulations or agreements
  • Misuse of the organisations equipment or facilities
  • Theft
  • Discrimination on grounds of disability/ethnicity/religion/gender/sexuality/age
  • Abuse or other offensive behaviour
  • Arriving for work under the influence of alcohol, drugs or other substance abuse

Many other issues, such as not fitting in as well as expected with the team or being unreliable, should be picked up and dealt with during regular supervision.  It may be possible to resolve these without resorting to formal procedures.

Oral discussion

  • Start by chatting with the volunteer about a whole range of issues that may be influencing their ability to carry out tasks, their behaviour or their attitude.  Often they may not realise that they are doing anything wrong and can't be expected to change if a particular issue isn't brought to their attention
  • Supply volunteers with a well thought out induction pack, volunteer policy and role description. Remind them of the policies, ground rules etc of the organisation
  • Check if they have training needs
  • Do they need extra support or supervision?
  • Are they unfulfilled in their current role?  Have their needs changed, or would they like to use different skills to help the organisation?  If so, you could modify their role description? Ask them if they would like to work in another department or develop a completely new role for them
  • Is the volunteer suffering from burnout or unable to cope with the demands of the role anymore?  They may need a break from volunteering or may prefer to volunteer in another organisation for a while
  • Keep notes of any meetings where problems are discussed

Written warning

If the issue is not resolved at the oral stage or review:

  • Give the volunteer a written warning outlining your reason for the complaint
  • Allow them to state their case, which could be to the Volunteer Co-ordinator or a senior member of staff and to should be accompanied by a person of their choice
  • Depending on the nature of the complaint, further objectives could be set and help offered to the volunteer
  • If you decide to dismiss the volunteer they should have the right to appeal
  • The decision to dismiss should be a last resort

Right to appeal

If a volunteer has been dismissed

  • They should have the right to appeal in writing to a member of the Management Committee, usually the Chair
  • Sometimes a sub-committee can be formed specifically to hear appeals
  • The volunteer should be allowed to have a nominated person present at any appeal meeting
  • The Chair or sub-committee must respond within a time specified in the organisation's problem solving procedure and their decision is final

Dismissing a volunteer

By this stage the volunteer will have had opportunity to put their case forward.  Further debate is unhelpful.  An unequivocal message has to be imparted to the volunteer.  For this reason it may be better if it comes from someone with a degree of seniority within the organisation.

Bear in mind the following good practice tips:

  • Make sure the dismissal meeting takes place in a private setting
  • Be quick and direct
  • Decide what you are going to say in advance and do not back down.  At this stage the decision to dismiss a volunteer has already been made
  • Do not attempt to counsel the volunteer as this will send confusing messages to them
  • Expect the volunteer to express their emotions but keep your emotions in check
  • Follow up the meeting with a letter, re-iterate the decision to dismiss the volunteer as well as outlining the reasons why.  Include any information relating to their departure
  • Inform staff, service users and other volunteers of the outcome but do not give reasons for the dismissal
  • If the volunteer had responsibilities for certain clients, make sure that the clients are informed of the new volunteer who will be assigned to them

Under what circumstances should volunteers be suspended immediately?

There are some occasions on which volunteers can be suspended immediately, while an investigation is carried out.  These include, but are not limited to, acts that constitute gross misconduct such as:

  • Theft
  • Assault
  • Acts of violence
  • Malicious damage
  • Deliberate falsification of documents
  • Harassment
  • Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol

This information is drawn from Pass it on - a good practice resource produced by Volunteering England for Volunteer Centres