An interview with Linda Graff

Andy Fryar July 1, 2006 1
An interview with Linda Graff


By Linda Graff with OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

Next month, Canadian trainer and author Linda Graff will visit Australia for the second time. Her workshops around the country are focussing on the discipline and dismissal of volunteers – or ‘corrective action’, probably the element of volunteer management that we struggle with more than any other. We thought we would catch up with Linda and ask a few questions about the topic prior to the tour to whet your appetite.

OzVPM: “Corrective action” seems like a harsh topic connected to volunteers. Why are you offering this particular session on this Australian tour?

Linda: Yes, you’re right, Andy. “Corrective action” can seem like a hard line topic, particularly when related to volunteers. And indeed, some coordinators of volunteers do wonder if they even have the right to ask volunteers to enhance their performance. My perspective on this is fairly straightforward and goes like this:

If an organization – any organization in any sector – social services, sports, education, health, faith communities, culture … anywhere, really – if the organization is asking volunteers to perform fairly “low level” work, corrective action is probably not an issue. For example, if volunteers are performing routine, menial work that does not involve significant responsibility, risk, or trust (and I’ll define that a little more fully in a minute), then the standard of volunteers’ performance is not likely to be a serious issue. Not that the work is not important. But how well the work is done, and/ or the degree of reliability of the volunteer can be allowed to slip somewhat without serious consequences.

If however, volunteers are being asked to perform important work (and each organization will define for itself what is most important), then I would suggest organizations not only have the right , they actually have the responsibility to ensure that their volunteers’ work meets minimum standards. And that may, from time to time, require intervention of a corrective action nature.

OzVPM: You mentioned the concept of “position of trust”. Can you define that for us?

Linda: A position of trust can involve one or more of three characteristics. First, and probably top of mind are those positions that give volunteers access to vulnerable people. Unsupervised access is of most concern, of course, but any access to vulnerable people from which a volunteer might develop an inappropriate or otherwise harmful relationship with the person or persons in question is what we probably need to give most consideration. “Vulnerable,” by the way, can mean any number of things. Obviously children top the list, but people can become vulnerable for many other reasons. For example, advanced age can make a person as vulnerable as youth. The abuse might take a different form – with older people, financial abuse is probably most likely, while, unfortunately, sexual abuse or improprieties are more likely with children – but the vulnerability is there, regardless. Also, people who have a significant disability, people who do not speak the dominant language, people who cannot read, and people who have experienced abuse in the past are all more vulnerable.

The second type of position of trust involves access to private, confidential, business, or otherwise sensitive information. Unfortunately, this kind of valuable asset can be misused. Identity theft is one of the emerging issues we need to give increasing consideration to, while the use of confidential contact information for personal gain could arise with a volunteer who is in such a position of trust.

The third type of position of trust is that which gives volunteers access to money or other valuables. We are increasingly calling on volunteers to help with fundraising activities and that brings them into direct contact with sometimes quite sizable amounts of cash, some of which is nearly impossible to track. In other settings volunteers have routine access to valuables and assets such as computers, cell phones, and, in the case of museums and historical societies, sometimes priceless artifacts. In some settings the assets belong to the organization. In other cases, they may belong to clients, staff, or other volunteers.

OzVPM: Thanks for that explanation. And so the point is that in these kinds of high-demand or high-risk positions, organizations need the capacity to adjust volunteers’ behaviour?

Linda: Yes, exactly. And in the more extreme cases, organizations may very well be required to implement quite serious corrective action.

OzVPM: Can you describe what you mean by “corrective action”?

Linda: Sure. In its simplest form, corrective action is a kind of problem solving. An inconsistency or undesirable situation exists, and corrective action is taken. In the context of these workshops, we are talking about corrective action related to volunteers’ work performance. The organization perceives that what or how the volunteer is performing his or her duties is not meeting the standards that the organization requires, and therefore, some kind or degree of “correction” is called for. The organization intervenes with the volunteer to bring about a satisfactory resolution to the problem.

OzVPM: Corrective action sounds very negative.

Linda: Yes, that is a quite common interpretation of the phrase, and yet my approach to this workshop on corrective action is exactly the opposite. At the core of my session is the notion that corrective action involves a long continuum of potential interventions from the organization, some of which, frankly, are disciplinary in nature. Those represent the formal forms of corrective action. However, the largest part of the continuum involves much less formal intervention from the organization, and in fact, starts with a range of very positive strategies designed to reinforce excellence in volunteer performance.

My opinion is that the more we can notice and acknowledge volunteers doing the “right” things, the better off we all are. Reinforcing good work helps to ensure that the good work continues. That’s a pretty simple fact. And when things are going well, volunteers have a better experience and the organization has its objectives met. The lesson is that managers of volunteers should make concerted efforts to reward excellence. That represents a “win-win” situation for everyone.

OzVPM: You mentioned the concept of formal and informal intervention. Can you say more about that?

Linda: Sure. That is an important aspect of the continuum of corrective action. Starting from one end, we have the positive steps to reward quality work. So recognition, support, appreciation, coaching, enabling, promotions, and so on are examples of the kinds of things we can do to encourage volunteers to continue to do good work. However, when a volunteer’s performance does not meet standards or expectations, the reality is that in most instances, the necessary “correction” is relatively minor, and an informal intervention with the volunteer – a simple chat, for example – will often bring about the desired change.

When the informal style does not bring the needed change, or where the performance issue is more serious to begin with, the organization may choose to be more formal in its approach to the volunteer, but still take a very positive, supportive and enabling approach. For example, working with the volunteer to identify precisely what the standards and expectations are, what the desired changes would look like, sorting out how the organization can work with the volunteer to help them be successful in their attempts to get better at what they are doing – these represent a more formal approach, but still perhaps not disciplinary in nature. At this point a plan may be put in place with specific objectives, time lines, and so on, but the interaction is still very positive and success-oriented.

OzVPM: So does discipline of any sort actually have a place on the corrective action continuum?

Linda: Yes, it does. When a volunteer’s performance is seriously substandard, when a volunteer’s presentation style puts the organization in a very bad light, or when a volunteer does something that puts themselves or others in jeopardy, the organization may very well need to launch a corrective action of a disciplinary nature. In these cases, which, by the way, are quite rare – they happen, but relatively speaking, not very often – organizations might consider a policy and procedure such as the “progressive discipline process” of verbal and written warnings, suspension, and outright dismissal. My guess is that many organizations will already have this kind of system in place for paid staff.

I need to emphasise that the need for disciplinary intervention with volunteers does not happen very often. However, when an organization does have a volunteer who is “behaving badly” or dangerously, or inappropriately, I do believe it must step in as the situation requires. Volunteers are the agents of nonprofit organizations in roughly the same way paid staff are. If a volunteer does something inappropriate, or illegal, or dangerous, the consequences can sometimes be quite dire, and the organization’s failure to address these kinds of situations would be, in my view, inappropriate, and perhaps even irresponsible.

OzVPM: So the nature of the volunteer’s duties are important in determining how the organization should respond?

Linda: Yes, precisely. There is this notion, in human resources management, called “consequence of error”. It means just what it suggests – what, or how serious, is the consequence if the person – paid or unpaid – commits an error in the performance of their duties. That is a concept we explore in some detail in the workshop.

OzVPM: How do you plan to deliver this information in the workshops?

Linda: Good question. This workshop is very content-heavy. Participants will come away from it with lots of information about corrective action and the range of strategies available to help volunteers be the very best they can be for the organization and the people it works with. We also spend a lot of time talking as a large group about the specific questions and issues that participants face on an every day basis. So those in attendance will have a chance to get a good sense of where other organizations are at with this material. And there are good how-to tools in the substantial hand out package as well that people take home with them for ready application.


Why not share your own thoughts on how you deal with corrective action within your volunteer program?

~ What stops you doing it as well as you might like?

~ What experiences have you had? (good or bad)

~ What are the consequences of not dealing with issues as they arise?

Let’s hear from you

One Comment »

  1. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 10:38 am - Reply

    Response posted by Sabina Nowak, Volunteer Coordinator, Protect All Children Today (PACT), Queensland, Australia

    I think having careful recruitment and selection, good training, policies and procedures in place early can assist with preventing the need for and minimising the problems with “Corrective Action”. If everyone know what the “rules”/expectations are early, have good training, reinforcement with Newsletters and meetings, consistent feedback etc, it makes it harder for Volunteers not to understand what is expected of them.

    A position description, Code of Ethics or similar that is signed at the beginning along with a user-friendly policy manual should be considered essential for any Volunteers dealing with “responsible” areas, such as in our work, working with children in the legal system.

    Regular reviews and facilitating client feedback are also useful to identify training needs.

    With all the background information and policy in place, including a complaints policy, when a Volunteer is behaving in a potentially detrimental manner, the Volunteer Manager has the mechanisms in place to gather appropriate feedback, discuss the issues concerned, and take clear action – whether that be offering more supervision/training or discussing about whether this sort of Volunteer work is suited to them given their preferred style of working etc.

    By removing the more subjective aspects of the Volunteer Manager’s decision making process, it can help reduce the personalised nature of the criticism, and focus more on the behaviour – ie systems are in place to assist in the organisation to dismiss inappropriate Volunteers which are transparent from the beginning.

    Involving the Volunteers where possible in the making of the rules in the first place also strengthens the VPM’s position when disciplining a Volunteer.

    When done well, training/disciplining a Volunteer becomes a responsibility to the organisation and other Volunteers who are working hard to maintain the professional image of the organisation, and reduces the ambiguity that can cause a destructive conflict in the organisation.

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