Employee engagement: Volunteering’s benefits and pitfalls
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Employee engagement: Volunteering’s benefits and pitfalls

I read something the other day about an employee volunteer program at Samsung Electronics America that got me thinking about corporate volunteerism. And, perhaps inevitably for a life-long journalist like myself, a big dose of skepticism about such programs kicked in immediately.

Why, for instance, if Samsung’s program is indeed voluntary, does the company close all its operations twice a year for what it calls a Day of Service? Aren’t employees being subtly coerced into volunteering when they’re told they have a day off, but it’s a day dedicated to service? Don’t you kind of have to volunteer in such circumstances, both because you’d feel guilty not to, and because everybody else is doing it?

Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t have deep knowledge of Samsung’s commitment to volunteering — which goes beyond the two annual days of service, by the way — and it may be that the company’s employees are all very happy to do a lot of it. A number of studies have been done that show people do want such opportunities, and that they build employees’ engagement with their employers.

One such study, by the America’s Charities organization, showed 68% of employers reporting that their employees expect them to support volunteerism. Another, by Cone Communications, found that 50% of Millennial employees had volunteered, 62% would consider taking a lower-paying job if it were with a socially responsible company, and 82% of the younger Millennials look at organizations’ social responsibility commitments — including volunteering — when deciding which job to accept.

You WILL volunteer
Despite these obvious benefits of volunteer programs, my point about the risks of “coerced volunteering” is a real one, I think.

It’s echoed by Donna Ballman, an employment lawyer who spoke with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “Let’s say a company organizes a disaster relief effort and asks for employees to volunteer to help out. If getting involved is truly voluntary, then that’s okay,” she said. “But, once it’s required, the employee is no longer a volunteer. Companies sometimes get so caught up in pushing employees to get involved that they cross this important line.

Obviously, crossing that line creates morale risks; it doesn’t help engagement, and probably hurts it, when employees feel pushed into good works. But this transgression could also carry legal risks. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, for-profit employers may not accept volunteer services to the employer from any employee. If a volunteering program is judged to have been set up mainly to benefit the organization, rather than the third party ostensibly receiving the volunteer help, it could violate the FLSA. Such might be the case, for example, if the primary goal of the volunteering is deemed to be actually more about building team spirit than providing a service to a cause.

(Non-profit employers can accept volunteer services from employees, but not if they overlap with employees’ paid duties, BTW.)

Hurting, not helping
Another pitfall of volunteer programs: Employers who are well-meaning but ill-informed may actually place burdens on the outside causes they would like to help through employee volunteers.

The Boston Globe quoted the leaders of several non-profits as lamenting the headaches of wasted time and misdirected effort such employers create. Here’s the conclusion the Globe’s reporter drew: “It’s the dirty truth of corporate volunteer projects: They may make good photo ops and sound virtuous in a company’s annual report, but nonprofits often dread them and suffer in silence.”

OK, enough about the pitfalls. I don’t want to neglect the benefits of employee volunteerism, and they appear to be real.

The SHRM article referred specifically to a highly acclaimed program at Umpqua Bank, a regional bank in the Pacific Northwest, that employees laud as one of their most important benefits. The bank’s Connect Volunteer Network gives employees 40 paid hours off per year (20 hours for part-timers) to volunteer with youth-focused organizations and community development projects.

Here are some suggestions from the leaders of Connect for others wanting to build an effective employee volunteer program:

    Name it. Giving the program a name allows people — inside the organization and out — to talk about it easily and freely. For example, the Umpqua leaders say their people typically use the term “Connecting” to refer to their volunteering activities.

    Focus. Sure, you want to give employees a choice of what they can volunteer for, but try to keep those choices in an area or areas of focus. Point willing volunteers toward a portfolio of causes that line up with the values your organization is seeking to promote.

    Remember line managers. Managers get crazy when they can’t count on employees being present as scheduled, and if they feel that volunteering is pulling their people away without adequate warning, they won’t support the program. Make sure line managers maintain control over volunteer scheduling so they can balance the needs of the business with employees’ wishes to volunteer.

    Track hours. “What gets measured gets done” is true also for volunteering. Umpqua, for examples, added “volunteer hours” directly to pay stubs to ensure a high standard of reporting.

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