I’ve been asked twice in the past few days about bullying in the voluntary sector. This appears to be largely unexplored territory, deserving of greater attention. I searched “bullying of volunteers” and found only a smattering of relevant hits, and nothing in terms of a full-blown examination of the topic.
…I think we can make some credible assertions and raise important questions about the bullying of volunteers:
1. Why not? — There’s no reason why bullying-type behaviors should be uncommon among and between volunteers as compared to people in other settings with frequent human interaction. Most organizations have tensions, conflicts, and rivalries. Why should it be any different with those heavily staffed by volunteers?
2. Emotional stakes — In fact, in some cases the emotional stakes may be even greater among pure volunteers than among paid staff.
For example, in hyper-charged, cause-type situations, emotions can run especially high and play host to all sorts of negative behaviors, running the gamut from conflict to incivility to bullying. If the volunteers are working on behalf of a cause in which they have an important personal stake, the emotional ante is ratcheted up and buttons may be easily pushed, especially with “underdog” issues where people already feel marginalized.
Conversely, if the volunteer activity is associated with high levels of community prestige or power, there may be a lot of competition and posturing that create their own drama and give rise to the possibility of bullying behaviors. Ambition and recognition are not limited to paid employment, after all!
And even if social change or prestige isn’t at stake, community connections may well be. For many, volunteer activities such as coaching youth sports or organizing a church choir may be lifelines to their communities, and being cut out or pushed out of them may be painfully isolating.
3. Institutional status — The bullying of volunteers raises all sorts of institutional status questions. Are we talking about rank-and-file volunteers who are doing the on-the-ground grunt work? Or maybe this is about bullying within non-profit boards? Are there differences between all-volunteer groups and those that have a mix of staff and volunteers? And what if bullying behaviors cross certain groups within these organizations, involving staff, volunteers, and board members?
4. Behaviors — The bullying of volunteers also raises questions of specific behaviors: Do they lean toward direct or indirect? Do the emotional elements of some volunteer-driven causes plant the seeds for mobbing-type mistreatment? Given the increasing role of the Internet in linking volunteers, is online bullying more common than in, say, brick & mortar work settings?
We may not know a lot about bullying in the voluntary sector, but we should be taking the experiences of volunteers more seriously.
After all, the voluntary sector is significant, especially in the U.S. The unique, central role of civic organizations in the fabric of American life was recognized two centuries ago by Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic work, Democracy in America (1835 & 1840):
Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.
In other words, voluntary associations are a societal cornerstone, and a lot of folks devote time to them. Their experiences as volunteers not only impact them personally, but also have a ripple effect on our communities in general. It follows that we should understand the significance of when and how working relationships among volunteers become dysfunctional and even abusive.
In January, I wrote up a list of research ideas about workplace bullying and related topics for scholars and graduate students, drawn from past blog posts. I definitely would add bullying of volunteers to the list.
As I explained in that earlier blog post, I’m not a social science researcher. But I’d bet that many of the quantitative and qualitative research approaches used to study workplace bullying would apply easily to examining the bullying of volunteers.
Labor attorney and law professor Mitchell Rubinstein’s 2006 law review article, “Our Nation’s Forgotten Workers: The Unprotected Volunteers,” explains the precarious legal status of volunteers in terms of workplace protections.