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How to Fire A Volunteer and Live to Tell About It
27 February 2006
by Steve McCurley

One of the recurrent nightmares of any volunteer manager is encountering a situation in which they may have to consider 'firing' a volunteer. For many this prospect creates severe stress, both over the appropriateness of the action and over fear of possible legal and political consequences.

Ann Cook, in a survey of Foster Grandparents Programs in 23 communities discovered that 82% of responding volunteer managers rated the decision to terminate a volunteer as being a 'difficult or very difficult issue' for them. Over 60% of the volunteer directors reported delaying dealing with the issue when they encountered it.

This article is intended to provide some guidelines on developing a system that will assist both in confronting and managing decisions to terminate a volunteer's relationship with an agency.

Getting Philosophically Ready
The initial requirement in developing a system for handling volunteer termination decisions is to decide that firing volunteers is, in general, a potentially appropriate action. Over the years this has been a difficult issue for many individual coordinators to address, probably because they are very people-oriented and appreciate the willingness to others to help in their programs. These coordinators have had particular difficulty in dealing with situations in which the decision to terminate was not due to any particular 'fault' on the part of the volunteer, but was instead due to ill health or a change in program needs. Programmes in which there has been a focus on volunteering as a benefit to the volunteer (such as most of ACTION's Older American Volunteer Programs) have also had great difficulty with this issue because they classify volunteers as 'clients' of the program, and it is philosophically difficult to justify terminating a client.

An agency which contemplates firing volunteers may adopt several philosophical justifications. One is simply that the bottom line is the ability to deliver quality service to the clients of the agency and any barrier to that delivery is not allowable. This standard would apply to both paid and unpaid staff, as Jane Mallory Park points out:

"Whether the personnel in question are paid or volunteer, it is important to have policies and practices which promote accountability and the highest levels of performance possible without ignoring the reality that all individuals
have idiosyncrasies and limitations as well as strengths. A double standard which does not give respect and dignity to both volunteers and paid staff is not only unnecessary but is also unhealthy for individuals and organizations."

A second philosophical approach has to do with giving meaning and value to volunteer service. By denying that there is a 'right' and a 'wrong' way to do a volunteer job, one conveys the impression that the volunteer work done is irrelevant and insignificant. An agency which does not care enough about the work done by volunteers to enforce quality communicates to other volunteers that the agency believes their own work to be meaningless.

The philosophical decision by an agency to fire volunteers is one that should be addressed prior to any incident. It should be discussed and ratified by staff and then codified as part of the overall policy statement on volunteer utilization and included as part of the agency's volunteer policies.

Looking for Alternatives to Firing
Before addressing development of a system for firing volunteers, it is important to note that the decision to terminate a volunteer should always be, in practice, a reluctant last resort.

Firing a volunteer is an admission that volunteer management as failed. It means that the interviewing system did not work, or the job design was faulty, or that training and supervision did not operate the way it should. It is as much an indictment of the agency as it is of the volunteer.

And it is crucial to remember that many situations that appear to warrant firing may actual be remediable by less stringent methods. Before contemplating firing a volunteer, see if any of the following approaches may be more appropriate and less painful:

  • Re-Supervise. You may have a volunteer who doesn't understand that the rules of the agency have to be followed This is a common problem for agencies who utilize youth volunteers, some of whom automatically 'test' the rules as part of their self-expression. Re-enforcement may end the problem.
  • Re-Assign. Transfer the volunteer to a new position. You may, on the basis on a short interview, have mix-read their skills or inclinations. They may simply not be getting along with the staff or other volunteers with whom they are working. Try them in a new setting: and see what happens.
  • Re-Train. Send them back for a second education. Some people take longer than others to learn new techniques. Some may require a different training approach, such as one-on-one mentoring rather than classroom lectures. If the problem is lack of knowledge rather than lack of motivation, then work to provide the knowledge.
  • Re-Vitalize. If a long-time volunteer has started to malfunction, they may just need a rest. This is particularly true with volunteers who have intense jobs, such as one-time work with troubled clients. The volunteer may not realize or admit that they're burned out. Give them a sabbatical and let them re-charge. Practice 'crop rotation' and transfer them temporarily to something that is less emotionally draining.
  • Refer. Maybe they just need a whole new outlook of life, one they can only get by volunteering in an entirely different agency. Refer them to the Volunteer Center or set up an exchange program with a sister agency. Swap your volunteers for a few months and let them learn a few new tricks.
  • Retire. Recognize that some volunteers may simply reach a diminished capacity in which they can no longer do the work they once did and may even be a danger to themselves and to others. Give them the honor they deserve and ensure that they don't end their volunteer careers in a way they will regret. Assist them in departing with dignity before the situation becomes a tragic crisis.

All of these alternatives are both easier to implement and managerially smarter than making a decision to terminate a volunteer. They recognize that there are many reasons why a person may be behaving inappropriately and that some of these reasons have answers other than separating that person from the program. We strongly urge that you consider each of these alternatives before deciding to fire any volunteer.


Developing a System for Making Firing Decisions
If you do, however, encounter a situation in which none of the alternatives work, it is helpful to have in place a system for dealing with problems. Some agencies have been sued by terminated volunteers and many agencies have encountered political and community relations problems. The system that follows is designed to help the volunteer manager both in making and in justifying the decision to terminate a volunteer. Essentially, it has three parts:

Firing Volunteers in a Membership Group
There are some differences involved when you are dealing with volunteers who belong to a membership group. Many membership groups do not realize that they already have some policies that must be followed when it comes to ending a relationship with a volunteer. One major one has to do with the rules for who is a member and how on e retains membership. In most groups the only requirement for membership is payment of dues, which makes it impossible to discharge anyone as long as they are, in fact, paying dues on time. Another example has to do with members who serve in various offices. Usually the group’s bylaws spell out the requirements for the job, but often fail to indicate what may be done in the event of non-performance of duties. This lack of clarity may leave the group in limbo until the next election. If you are encountering difficulties you may want to consider adding some of the policies on the next page to your by-laws:

1. Forewarning/Notice The first stage of the system is developing clear policies and information about the prospect of firing volunteers. To actualize these, an agency needs to develop the following:

  • A set of official policies regarding volunteer personnel issues. It is especially important to have policies on probation, suspension, and termination.
  • A system for informing volunteers, in advance, about the policies. This would include a planned orientation system which discusses the policies and provides examples of requirements and unacceptable behavior.
  • A way of relating the policies to each volunteer job. This means having a job description for the volunteer which explains the requirements of the job for which the volunteer has been accepted, and has some measurable objectives for determining whether the work was accomplished.

2. Investigation/Determination The second part of the system involves developing a process for determining whether the volunteer has actually broken the rules. This implies having a fair investigator take the time to examine the situation and reach a determination that something has been done wrongly. This means, by the way, that one should never terminate a volunteer 'on the spot,' regardless of the infraction. 'Instant firing' doesn't allow one to determine whether there are extenuating circumstances. This is why a suspension policy is so important.

Essentially, in this part of the system the volunteer coordinator needs to establish a process for reviewing the behavior of volunteers and recording problems. On an on-going basis this should be done as part of the regular evaluation process for volunteers. Those volunteers whose performance is unsatisfactory are told of their deficiency, counseled on improving their work, and then re-evaluated. Failure to conform to the quality standard over time becomes grounds for termination. In cases where the wrongful performance is not incremental, but is substantial in nature (inappropriate relations with a client or breach of confidentiality) then what is needed is some 'proof' that the volunteer did in fact commit the wrong-doing. This might be testimony of other volunteers, staff, or the client.

During this part of the process the volunteer manager also investigates whether any of the alternatives to firing would be a more appropriate solution.

3. Application This final part of the system requires that the volunteer manager do a fair job of enforcing the system. It requires equal and fair application of the rules (no playing favorites), appropriate penalties (graduated to the severity of the offense) and, if possible, a review process, so that the decision does not look like a personal one.

You will note that the above three processes mirror the common personnel practices for paid staff. They are, in fact the same, and they should be, since evaluating either paid or unpaid staff should follow the same rules.

The advantages of this system are two-fold. First, they assist the volunteer manager in making the right decision, and in feeling comfortable about making that decision. The system is fair to both the volunteer and the agency if properly followed and tends to produce 'correct' answers. It also allows the volunteer manager to divert to a less drastic solution as appropriate.

Second, the system helps develop a case for firing that can be utilized to explain the decision to others, whether internally or externally. In practice, in fact, an odd side effect of this systematic approach is that many problem volunteers decide to voluntarily resign rather than face the inevitable and seemingly inexorable conclusion of the process. Most people prefer not to sit in front of an oncoming train.

Conducting the Firing Meeting Regardless of the system utilized to reach the decision to terminate, someone has to actually convey that decision to
the volunteer. This will never be a pleasant experience, but here are some tips which may help:

  • Conduct the meeting in a private setting. This will preserve the dignity of the volunteer and perhaps of yourself
  • Be quick, direct, and absolute. Don't beat around the bush. It is quite embarrassing to have the volunteer show up for work the next day because they didn't get the hint. Practice the exact words you will use in telling the volunteer, and make sure they are unequivocal. Do not back down from them even if you want to preserve your image as a 'nice person.'
  • Announce, don't argue. The purpose of the meeting is simply, and only, to communicate to the volunteer that they are being separated from the agency. This meeting is not to re-discuss and re-argue the decision, because, if you followed the system, all the arguments have already been heard. You should also avoid arguing to make sure you don't put your foot in your mouth while venting your feelings. Expect the volunteer to vent, but keep yourself quiet.
  • Don't attempt to counsel. If counseling were an option, you would not be having this meeting. Face reality; at this point you are not the friend of this former volunteer and any attempt to appear so is mix-guided and insulting.
  • Follow-up. Follow-up the meeting with a letter to the volunteer re-iterating the decision and informing them of any departure details. Make sure you also follow-up with others. Inform staff and clients of the change in status, although you do not need to inform them of the reasons behind the change. In particular, make sure that clients with a long relationship with the volunteer are informed of the new volunteer to whom they are assigned.