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Pitfalls of Employee Volunteerism and How to Avoid Them

Volunteerism—an aspect of corporate social responsibility (CSR)—has been increasingly on the radar of organizations and for good reason. Studies show that volunteerism can positively impact employee engagement, particularly among the important Geneneration Y demographic. A 2011 Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT survey indicated that if Millennials frequently participated in company-sponsored volunteer programs, then they were more likely to feel a strong connection and sense of belong at work.

But, while volunteering sounds good in principle, in practice there can be some pitfalls that HR leaders need to be aware of. Chief among them is ensuring that the activities are truly voluntary, especially if the employer is not paying employees to participate.

Risks of Volunteerism

John Cardella is executive vice president of human resources at Ceridian, a human capital management provider. “Few employees want to work for organizations that do not respect their people, community or environment,” said Cardella. “Many grads and job seekers from all different disciplines now make an organization’s corporate social responsibility and its support for volunteerism part of their decision-making when choosing an employer.”

Employees feel a sense of pride and excitement when they participate in volunteer activities, he said. “This truly helps employees to stay refreshed and wanting to do more for both the organization and the community.”

Still, he acknowledged, there are potential pitfalls that may emerge when it comes to engaging employees in volunteer opportunities if the process isn’t handled effectively. These can include:

  • A lack of readily available skill sets. “Some organizations are more suitable to support volunteerism than others,” he said. In organizations where skill sets are not readily available it can be more difficult to allow people to take time off for volunteer events because of the potential impact on productivity, service and quality, he said.
  • Difficult decisions to make related to allowing employees to take time off. Allowing only select employees to participate can foster perceptions of favoritism, said Cardella. “All employees must be eligible for volunteerism,” he said.
  • Uncertainty regarding expectations. Both employees and managers need to fully understand the program. “Having a policy or process helps to clarify expectations,” he noted.

The greatest risk for employers centers around the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), warns Donna Ballman, an employment attorney and the author of Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired (Career Press, 2012). An employer can’t require an employee to “volunteer,” she said. “Let’s say a company organizes a disaster relief effort and asks for employees to volunteer to help out. If getting involved is truly voluntary, then that’s okay. But, once it’s required, the employee is no longer a volunteer,” she said. “Companies sometimes get so caught up in pushing employees to get involved that they cross this important line.”

A related risk for for-profit companies, added Ballman, is that there is no such thing as “volunteering” for a for-profit. “If the company ‘suffers or permits’ an employee to work, [the employee has] to be paid at least minimum wage.” This issue has emerged recently related to the use of unpaid interns.

“Organizations need a program around volunteerism so employees and management understand what to expect,” said Cardella. “Without it there may be risk for the employee for having taken too much time off.” Having a policy or process helps to clarify expectations.

Minimizing Risk

Veena Iyer is a labor and employment attorney with Nilan Johnson Lewis in Minneapolis. Iyer stresses the importance of addressing critical issues—like whether the activity will be paid or unpaid—upfront, and carefully communicating and documenting these decisions. “Employers need to be thoughtful about making the distinction between something that is clearly voluntary and something that is really ‘highly encouraged,’ in which case you need to think that it’s probably not voluntary.”

One way for employers, and HR professionals, to think about this is considering the ultimate goals of employees’ participation. If the primary goal is around team-building, which many volunteer activities are, there’s a benefit to the organization which suggests employees should be paid. If, on the other hand, the organization wants to support employee interest in a particular activity by organizing their participation—but not requiring participation—it may be truly voluntary.

“If the employer thinks, ‘This is a worthwhile cause and we’d love to have as many people form our organization get involved, but it’s not essential to our organization that they do it,’ that’s where you say we don’t necessarily need to be paying individuals,” said Iyer.

These are grey areas, she says, and it’s more a matter of minimizing than eliminating risk.

Ultimately, though, most employers agree that the benefits of well-managed volunteerism programs can outweigh the risks and many are being recognized for their efforts.

Best Practices

Nicole Stein is vice president, community responsibility and Barbara Baker is executive vice president, cultural enhancement at Umpqua Bank, with branches in Oregon, Washington and San Francisco. Umpqua has implemented a Connect Volunteer Network, which has become a nationally-recognized program that provides associates with paid time off each year (40 hours for full-time and 20 hours for part-time staff) to serve at youth-focused organizations, schools and community development programs.

They offer some insights for HR professionals to keep in mind when building an employee volunteer program:

  • Give the program a name. This offers an opportunity to talk about the program both internally and externally. At Umpqua, the program has become part of the cultural vocabulary. For instance, associates will say they are “Connecting” when they are out volunteering and often pose the question: “How do you Connect?”
  • Win over the managers because they set the tone for their team. If they are active, there is a good chance their team will follow their lead. Importantly, HR professionals need to recognize managers are in a tough spot—they feel pressure from upper management to get their team members participating, as well as pressure from their associates. It’s important that the program be structured in such a way that managers maintain control over the scheduling of volunteers and are able to balance business expectations as well as volunteer requests.
  • Know your objectives and structure the program accordingly. By structuring the program so that all associates (salaried and non-salaried) had to use the hours during their regular work day, Umpqua was able to open up a new timeframe for associates to volunteer.
  • Create a focus area and be disciplined. Umpqua’s program is focused on assisting youth development organizations, schools and low-income individuals. This lines up to the bank’s overall philanthropy programs and keeps its collective efforts marching toward the same goal.
  • Formalize volunteer-hour tracking. Umpqua added “volunteer hours” directly to pay receipts for associates to ensure a high standard of reporting.
  • Keep communication active through as many available means as possible, such as the company intranet, team meetings, executive briefings or other mechanisms. Communication sets the tone for the program and helps share stories of engagement.

At Umpqua, associates continually rank the program as one of their most valued employee benefits. The organization believes that this has been a key factor in their inclusion on FORTUNE Magazine’s list of the country’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” for the past seven years.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance writer in Chippewa Falls, Wis.


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