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Treat Employees Like Volunteers

Treat Employees Like Volunteers

January 13, 2022
Howard Cohen

Most organizations expect more from their professional employees than the employees are contractually obligated to perform. For example, universities need faculty members to serve on committees; social service agencies need employees to attend community events; businesses use employees to staff job fairs. Much of this work is necessary for the well-being of the organization, and much of it is not contractually required.

This reality presents a puzzle: How does one lead an organization of professionals who are not compensated for some of their work that is of critical importance to organizational quality? In other words, how do you lead an organization of people who think of themselves (in relation to some of their activities) as volunteers?

To answer this question, it is insightful to think about what motivates people who are actually volunteers. There are three critical components of volunteerism:

  • First, volunteers have freely chosen to participate in an activity and may choose to not participate at any time without negative consequences.
  • Second, volunteers have chosen to participate in an organization because the values, activities and contributions of the organization are congruent with the values and desires of the volunteer.
  • Third, the volunteer realizes that she can accomplish more of what she values within the organizational association than she can on her own. One is more likely to make a difference in concert with others than through solitary effort.

In short, many professionals have a disposition to do the things that go beyond their contracted obligations, and they can do them more effectively through their association with the organization that employs them.

How can leaders use this understanding to meet their own responsibilities to improve their organization’s quality and effectiveness?

First, the leader must acknowledge to the employee that, with respect to some requests, the employee is free to say “no” without adverse consequences. The question of coercion must be taken out of play.

Second, the leader must find occasions to remind employees that the organization shares their values. In the press of business, work becomes a routine, and its higher purpose is often forgotten. We think of ourselves as going to the office, writing a report or sitting on a committee, and sometimes fail to remember that by doing those things we are contributing to socially valuable endeavors.

Many people who work in education, social services and businesses see their organizations as having a higher purpose and see themselves as contributing to that purpose. It is their sense of personal fulfillment that attracts them to work in these environments. Therefore, it is the leader’s responsibility to regularly keep the organization’s higher purpose in front of employees.

Third, to realize their values in a big way, people need to be part of an organization that is of a scale that can make a difference. Very few people have the resources and the support to make a big difference on their own. Volunteers need an organization as much as the organization needs volunteers.

Leaders who understand the value of volunteerism — and who are willing to treat employees whenever possible as if they are volunteers — are likely to accomplish more and accomplish it better. They can also be satisfied that if they respect their employees’ free choice to participate in those optional activities, they are helping the employees achieve personal goals as well.


Howard Cohen

Howard is chancellor emeritus at Purdue University Northwest. His career in higher education has spanned more than 50 years. His areas of practice include strategic and academic planning, department chair leadership, leadership team development and organization structural transformation. Howard has held academic appointments as a professor of philosophy and administrative appointments as department chair, program director, dean, provost and chancellor, serving at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Purdue University Northwest and SUNY Buffalo State. He formerly was a senior associate and executive director of AASCU Consulting, a group that works primarily with public regional universities. Howard’s teaching and research interests have focused in the areas of social philosophy and ethics, as he addresses questions related to the obligations of those in positions of authority who make decisions for others. He is the author of two books — “Equal Rights for Children” and “Power and Restraint: The Moral Dimensions of Police Work” — and numerous journal articles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota and masters and doctorate degrees in philosophy from Harvard University.