Volunteers Report Bullying as Major Rights Violation

Bullying is the dominant way in which volunteers’ rights are violated in Australia, according to new research unveiled at the National Conference on Volunteering in Adelaide.

A crowd gathers at the National Conference on Volunteering in Adelaide.

Bullying was the reason for almost 40 per cent of complaints in the preliminary findings of a study by all state volunteer peak organisations, Volunteering Australia and volunteer resource centres that invited volunteers to register their complaints.

The second most frequent sources of complaints were bad management and governance matters which made up about 15 per cent of individual complaints. Personality clashes and issues between paid and volunteer staff were moderately occurring, with each reported as the cause in almost 10 per cent of cases.

Least frequent were issues including uninteresting tasks, discrimination, insufficient work, grievance procedures, and exclusion by other staff/volunteers, with each comprising less than 5 per cent of cases.

However, the researchers remained cautious about calling for a Volunteering Ombudsman to deal with volunteer complaints.

Evelyn O’Loughlin, CEO of Volunteering SA/NT and representative of the Volunteer Rights and Advocacy Working group, welcomed the research.  

“When I first started my job five years ago one of the things that became actually apparent was that there is very limited protection for volunteers in Not for Profits when things go wrong in that moral contract,” she said.

“My own gut feeling is that maybe in the past volunteers walked if they had a problem. I don’t think the articulate well educated people that know their rights…they’re not going to walk and they say ‘I’m going to fix this, maybe not for me but for the next person to come along’.

“In time when we get a fuller picture we will come up with some policy directions which we will then use to advise the Federal Government.”

Whether volunteer rights could be protected by a Volunteer Ombudsman, advocacy or counseling remained to be seen, she said.

“So it may well be that an independent volunteer mediation authority, or Ombudsman role, is the best way forward,” O’Loughlin said.

“However that will be determined after the final research results are in when we gain a greater understanding of the nature and scope of the issues.

“The findings will form the basis of a sector policy position to be pursued with the Federal Government. Our principle object being, to identify suitable remedies so volunteering rights are safeguarded, particularly with changing demographics of an ageing population and declining retention rates in key volunteering areas.

“There is caution around harnessing the volunteer effort and making it something that its not.

“We really need to do a lot more work before we come to a conclusion.”

The preliminary findings address 113 of an expected 600 cases and follow a six-month data collection period.

Analysis of the 113 cases showed that about 11 per cent were serious enough to have legal ramifications, and a further 5 per cent were unable to be resolved.

The researchers said some 32 per cent were serious to the extent of requiring significant time and support to reach resolution.

Cases resolved with little support or minor issues requiring no support at all comprised of 26 per cent each.

The Children and Youth sector was the dominant source of the complaints, making up nearly half of all cases. Arts and heritage (21 per cent) followed by health and welfare (12 per cent) were also a more common origin.

Emergency services, sport and recreation and religious organisations had the lowest number of complaints, making up 2-3 per cent of cases each.

The most common means to attempt resolution of complaints was referral to the host organisation’s complaints procedure, which occurred in 49 per cent of cases.

Arbitration and mediation was the second most common method, at 19 per cent, however it was also the least successful in resolving the problems.

The organisation’s complaints procedure and provision of support were the most commonly successful in actually resolving issues.

“When things got sorted out, they got sorted out really well,” O’Loughlin said.

There were also 27 complaints against volunteers submitted by organisations, spurred most frequently by poor volunteer behaviour.

“The complaints that get to us are usually awful. It’s not a perfect world, and it’s not all about the organisations being terrible and the volunteers being perfect. People are people and things happen regardless of whatever shirt you wear,” O’Loughlin said.

Mara Basanovic, CEO of Volunteering WA, presented an update on volunteer workplace bullying research in her state at the launch.

“We’re not in a position yet to provide an extensive outline,” she said.

“The incidents of bullying were not high according to this research however the magnitude and ongoing consequences were often quite significant to people involved at all levels.”

Basanovic recounted one case where a young volunteer having a cup of tea with a female colleague asked her about her marital status.

“The woman claimed her privacy and human rights were being impinged and how dare this young person question her about that,” Basanovic said.

“All of those things are about very common human factors. It also has to do with good policies, good procedures and good inductions.”

There had also been two cases of high profile, highly respected organisations in Western Australia trying to push out volunteers in favour of paid staff to receive more recognition as professionals and attract greater funding, she said.

Lynne Dalton, CEO of The Centre for Volunteering in New South Wales, spoke of rights enforcement issues arising in her state.

“I take calls weekly or even every second day for volunteer issues. We don’t want any more red tape, especially not for volunteers. We developed a set of principles in NSW that have now been adopted by the government,” Dalton said.

“My most recent case study was a volunteer who after 18 years was summarily dismissed because he dared ask the question of when new volunteers were going to get trained. And who sacked him? The New South Wales Government.

“We not only have to do the talk we have to walk the talk. These principles are not a piece of paper, they’re not a book on the shelf. Too often it sits on the shelf and its not applied.

“It’s applied if you’re a paid worker because it’s sitting over their head. They are not lesser people. They are doctors, nurses, truck drivers, tea ladies, you name it. Why would you treat them differently?”

The second stage of the project will go beyond volunteer resource centres and will go out to volunteers and volunteer involving organisations.

The development of the study in Australia followed a Volunteer Rights Inquiry conducted in the UK, which found a pattern of breaches of trust between volunteers and volunteer involving organisations.

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