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What Can I Do About My Boss Forcing Us To “Volunteer” For Company Events?

What do you do with a boss who uses thinly veiled threats to “encourage a spirit of volunteering,” but never outright requires attendance?

What Can I Do About My Boss Forcing Us To “Volunteer” For Company Events?
[Photo: Flickr user Fabio Venni]

Work is rarely nine to five anymore. But while our work often bleeds into our off hours, answering emails at home on a Sunday evening is a far cry from working at a company event on the weekend.

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Career expert Alison Green (aka Ask A Manager) advises a reader who is receiving some not-so-subtle requests to work on the weekend.

Recently, and with little notice, my boss and our PR person have issued mails calling for volunteers for events outside of working hours.

The emails are usually something like this:

“I strongly recommend you consider to volunteer for the chat booth this weekend. Have a good Friday!”

“Leadership is something that is taken into account during evaluations. I think volunteering for the annual shoelace knitting competition shows leadership. Not volunteering, however, does not show leadership.”

Those aren’t exact wordings, but they capture the tone of “volunteer or else.”

I suppose they can’t say, outright, that attendance is mandatory, or it would be an item that went onto job descriptions, and they don’t want to give anyone ammunition to bid for a raise or promotion.

However, there are a few things going on lately that make this even more frustrating:

  1. These mandatory volunteer requests have very little warning time and are coming during one of the busiest times of our year.
  2. My boss and the PR person are, of course, exempt from volunteering. They haven’t shown up to one such event, but demand . . . sorry . . . request with utmost severity that others give their time.
  3. These demands are frequently fielded by the same few people, and that strikes me as unfair.
  4. They have started “strongly” suggesting that we donate money to various charities/events.

Adding insult to injury, I’ve been around long enough to know that minimal effort is rewarded exactly the same as those who are being coerced into giving up their weekends.

What do you do with a boss who uses thinly veiled threats to “encourage a spirit of volunteering,” but never outright requires attendance?

And since I’m exempt, couldn’t he just out-and-out require I (or anyone) attend? Why wouldn’t he just say, “Sally, Mark, John, Joe, see you at the tree-hugging ceremony on Sunday. It’s your job”? Why all the carefully worded mails?


Yep, since you’re exempt, he could indeed just require you to attend. (He could require it if you were non-exempt too, but he’d have to pay you for the time.) And he could require it even though it’s not in your job description, which generally aren’t comprehensive lists of everything you might end up doing, and no law requires that employers stick to what’s on a written job description.

I suspect he’s not outright requiring it because he wants to maintain the fiction that these are truly volunteer assignments. Usually when managers do this, it’s because they like the idea of people volunteering for this stuff; it signals to them that people are enthusiastically supporting their team or the company. If they simply assign someone to do the work, the work gets done, but they don’t get the cozy feeling of, “Look at how my team pitches in to staff these events.” Obviously, that’s ridiculous, because by the time that you’re basically ordering people to volunteer, that fiction should have collapsed. But somehow in their heads it doesn’t.

I think you have a few options here:

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1. Ignore the emails. Take him at his word that he’s looking for “volunteers,” and decline to volunteer. Be aware that this option may come with penalties, such as not getting the same consideration for raises and promotions as people who volunteer, and/or simply not currying favor with your boss, which can potentially affect everything from what assignments you get, to how far he’s willing to go to bat for you during a financial squeeze.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that it’s won’t really affect you much at all. His language about taking it into account during evaluations could be a lot of bluster. And your comment that minimal effort is rewarded exactly the same seems to indicate that might be the case.

2. Say something to him directly about the situation. For example: “Bob, I’ve noticed that you and Sue have been asking for volunteers at weekend events lately. I know you know what a busy time of year this is for us, and I’ve got other commitments on the weekend that I can’t break, so I wanted to explain why I’m not generally attending these events.”

Normally I might suggest that you call him directly on the veiled language, but if you asked something like, “Are these truly volunteer, or are you instructing us to attend them?” you risk him telling you that you do have to participate . . . so it’s probably better not to open the door to that.

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3. Suck it up and “volunteer” once in a while. If you calculate that it is actually in your professional interests to volunteer for one of these, suck it up and do it once. If you go this route, pick something particularly high-profile where you’re likely to have maximum visibility.

But yeah, no one likes to be voluntold. If it’s truly voluntary, treat it as voluntary. And if it’s not, don’t pretend that it is. And sure, there actually can be a middle ground there—the, “You really don’t have to do this, but we do reward people who volunteer.” But when that’s the case, (a) you can’t pressure people the way your boss is, and (b) you have to really follow through on the promised rewards.

This article originally appeared on Ask A Manager and is reprinted with permission.

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