Termination of volunteer position
April 17, 2008 5:17 PM   Subscribe

Help with potentially unethical situation in volunteer termination

I frequently attend a local conference as an audience member. This year, I signed up to volunteer. Before I was able to go through with orientation, I got canned.

When I attended the conference last year, I had suffered from food poisoning and had been violently physically ill in front of a few hundred people at an event with capacity attendance. I felt weak and was horrendously embarrassed, and made a quick exit.

This evening, I showed up for a new volunteer orientation. One of the directors of the event grabbed me before the start of the orientation and showed me the door, explaining that because (a) I was sick; (b) I hadn't stayed to clean up after myself, and (c) I hadn't "fessed up" to the fact that I'd been sick in front of 300-odd people, they didn't want me working for them. Making matters worse, she fired me in front of a woman who's in an important position in the community, for whom I have a great deal of respect. I'm caught between wanting to ask for my position back and explain my side of the story, and giving up, knowing that this woman would make my life miserable if I dug my heels in and battled for my shifts.

The conference has to do with subject matter in which I am greatly interested, and I would like to make a better impression with this woman's supervisors.

My questions are: was this legal and/or ethical, and what recourse, if any, do I have? Would it be better (make me look attractive to the woman's superiors) to fight or walk away?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I can't see how this would be illegal -- volunteers don't get workplace protection -- but IANAL.

Ethical? Mmm.... seems, so-so to me: as a volunteer organizer (a hat I wear at times) you've got to say "no" sometimes, but this director certainly didn't do so in at all a professional manner. I can't really see how firing/refusing a volunteer is something that should be done anywhere but in private.

Were I in your place I'd certainly give it another shot -- what do you have to lose? At the very least I'd make a written complaint to her supervisors over the callous way she handled your situation.
posted by jacobian at 5:22 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't approach it as a fight. Approach the appropriate person (the supervisor of the person who fired you?) and politely and professionally ask them to reconsider. I'd probably do it with a letter. Briefly explain the circumstances of your illness (and your embarrassment, and apologize -- but try to keep the section on the incident as short as possible) and then talk about your love for the organization's work and what you'd like to do for them. If they're reasonable people, that should do it. If that doesn't do it, then I'd expect they'd continue to be miserable to deal with even if you did eventually get in.
posted by winston at 5:27 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

IANAL, but I think a lawsuit would be a mistake. It would be one heck of a long shot.
posted by meta_eli at 5:38 PM on April 17, 2008

Winston gives good advice. If this woman was simply being bizarre and out of line as it sounds to me, then all it should take is one letter to fix this (i.e., you'll get reinvited to volunteer and she'll get reprimanded). If it turns out that the culture of this organization is as unreasonable as the woman who showed you the door, then I wouldn't bother.

Volunteer organizations can have ridiculous politics and dynamics.
posted by orange swan at 5:40 PM on April 17, 2008

I hope I'm wrong, but the timeline sounds like this: you agreed to volunteer, showed up, barfed, and then split without explanation. I can see not wanting to flag someone down and explain that you've got food poisoning when you're in that condition but it's the sort of thing that would merit a phone call after a few days, so that you could explain why you had to leave so abruptly and offer your regrets that you weren't able to stay and assist with the conference.

From the director's reaction, I get the feeling that they never got an explanation, in which case I can see their point. They need volunteers to be reliable and if there's a problem they need the volunteers to communicate that. At this point, if all they know about you is that you're the girl who puked and then disappeared, they've got legitimate concerns about giving you responsibility.

If you really want a shot at this, contact the director and explain that you'd like to address her concerns. Explain that this was a one-off thing, that you understand that you should have called to offer an explanation, that you are a normally very reliable person and that you would certainly never have considered taking off without explanation if you hadn't been so ill.

(If you did call and explain already, then they're just kind of weird and petty I have no solution for that, although sucking up might still be a good plan)
posted by stefanie at 6:00 PM on April 17, 2008

follow-up from the OP
In answer to Stefanie's concern, the timeline actually went like this: attended 2007's conference as an audience member. Went to packed event after suffering from food poisoning. Puked, left. Signed up to volunteer at the 2008 conference, went in to take part in a new volunteer orientation, was shown the door.

FWIW, the founder and director of this conference live in town and we run into one another frequently on the street. They have never asked me about this, and this is the first time anyone involved with the conference has yelled at me about this.
posted by jessamyn at 6:16 PM on April 17, 2008

The person who called you out seems a bit out of line since you obviously didn't barf on purpose. You'd think they'd be concerned about you, not angry. I agree that you should write a letter to the person above her and explain the situation and ask for them to reconsider.
posted by fructose at 6:20 PM on April 17, 2008

Is there any way that they might have thought you were drunk? In that case I would see them not wanting you as a volunteer....perhaps you could write about the incident and explain the reasons behind your illness? Ugh, what a sucky situation.
posted by sweetkid at 6:27 PM on April 17, 2008

I hope I'm wrong, but the timeline sounds like this: you agreed to volunteer, showed up, barfed, and then split without explanation.

The way I read it is this:

At last year's conference the OP attended the conference (presumably as a paying customer), barfed and split without explanation.

This year, the OP volunteered (for the first time) to help with the conference, was invited to the volunteer initiation, and was fired when she showed up.
posted by winston at 7:05 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

If nothing else, you owe it to yourself to meet someone and explain what happened. We all have untimely bodily functions on occasion and it's totally excusable. I imagine that once you've been able to explain what happened, it will be met with some sympathy and you'll be back on track.
posted by snsranch at 7:15 PM on April 17, 2008

Volunteer management is really tricky thing. You have to understand that for the managers of this group, you are at fault. You should do this: write an apology to the conference organizers. Don't be selfish, just say "I was sick and horribly embarrassed and I am sorry I did not stay to clean up. I am tremendously interested in the work that you do and would like to be involved any way I can, even just to do X (an activity that you could do) if it meant that I would be able to attend your conference in 2009. Next time, I'll bring my own lunch. Again, my apologies I offended you and I hope that we can move on from this experience."

Follow-up with a phone call. That should clear the air.
posted by parmanparman at 7:43 PM on April 17, 2008

You can't sue someone for asking you not to volunteer. If it were legal, there would be no non-profits because they all would be mired in litigation.
posted by parmanparman at 7:45 PM on April 17, 2008

I don't think you really want to volunteer for this organization. The director seems unreasonable. You don't owe them an explanation. You were an audience member. You were obviously ill. In fact, for all they know, that one incident might have been the launching pad for months of a very difficult illness. Or part of your cancer treatment. Or the result of a new medication, pregnancy that eventually ended in miscarriage or food poisoning from food provided by the conference caterers. Or it might have landed you in hospital or at least left you ill for weeks or days after. I'd never ask you about it, especially since your medical situation is your private information. Personally, I'd think you had a lot of courage for volunteering for the event this year. (I do hope you have your own plan for how you'd handle this happening to another audience member.)

You don't have an obligation to stay to clean up after yourself -- you should be trying to get better. I've worked in event marketing and I would think that the event organizers could call someone to take care of the situation. They also should have offered to get you medical attention or help you secure transportation to a doctor. I wouldn't have wanted you to leave without first making sure you were okay, as embarrassed as you might have been. In fact, if I was running the event, I'd announce a 15-minute break, get someone to clean it up, sterilize the area, and see if there was a way to shift rooms for a while. (And, yes, I have cleaned up vomit before. If you're cautious, it isn't a risk.

So, unless you want to go meet with this person, who seems set on blaming you, or go over her head, which would be a political nightmare, I think you should volunteer elsewhere. These people obviously don't know a lot about event management or volunteer management. Unless volunteering for this event right now is going to make or break your career, I don't think you should do it.
posted by acoutu at 7:52 PM on April 17, 2008

Ahh, I get it. My apologies for misreading your explanation.

It's definitely not cool to fire you as a volunteer for getting food poisoning as an attendee. In this case I'd try to plead your case as winston suggests, but definitely to a different director. I do think it would make you look much better to be persistent in trying to get reinstated as a volunteer, and it's worth it if only to clear up a misconception that this director seems to have about you.
posted by stefanie at 7:56 PM on April 17, 2008

I can't see how this would be illegal -- volunteers don't get workplace protection. . .

posted by mlis at 8:00 PM on April 17, 2008

Here in BC, it's possible that volunteers have workplace protection if the volunteer is "(b) a person an employer allows, directly or indirectly, to perform work normally performed by an employee".
posted by acoutu at 8:25 PM on April 17, 2008

As the Executive Director of a volunteer-based nonprofit, I've had two instances where I've 'black-balled' people due to unsavory prior volunteer activity that left us open to potential future liability. It's not a pleasant process for anyone involved, and in my opinion needs to be handled with extreme care. Our practice is to gently pull the person to the side for a conversation with senior staff to explain the offending activity, the related policy breach, the duties of the nonprofit, and either potential ways to rectify the behavior or reasons for future exclusion and enforcement practices.

There are real and damaging consequences in allowing repeated prohibited behavior. To name a few: insurance, lawsuits, reputation and impact on others (volunteers, donors and guests). This is a small but important part of running a volunteer organization. It may not have been handled appropriately in your situation, but I can see where staff may have been concerned.

If your original illness and actions are benign as you suggest, I would probably : 1) engage in a dialog with the Executive Director or a senior staff member to explain your unavoidable sickness and regret that circumstances outside of your control caused a degree of concern with their organization; 2) express your desire to continue to volunteer for a cause you find worthy; 3) explain that this was an isolated incident and will not detract from your future benefit to their cause.

Nonprofits want and need volunteers. They typically go through great expense to recruit and retain. If they are truly worthy of your time, they should be agreeable to have a meaningful conversation about the original incident, why it is an anomaly in your relationship with them, and how you can be of benefit them in the future.

I should address your specific questions: was this legal and/or ethical, and what recourse, if any, do I have? Would it be better (make me look attractive to the woman's superiors) to fight or walk away?

Generally I would say it's legal and ethical if they believe you have violated any existing policies or practices (a good organization should have this documented). As you are a volunteer, your only recourse may be to work diligently to get reinstated (unless you feel you have been slandered, and for that I have no advice). As to your last question, well, I'm not qualified to answer.
posted by F Mackenzie at 8:27 PM on April 17, 2008

Personally, I can't imagine wanting to volunteer for an organization that treated a sick person like garbage. But that's just me. By the way, if 300 people saw you be unwell I doubt there was any "fessing up" required.

What would be appropriate is a quick note to the director's superior. Focus on her offense. She can refuse to allow you to volunteer. However, there is no reason to humiliate you in front of anyone.

Stand up for yourself. Be professional and courteous about it, but demand to be treated with respect.
posted by 26.2 at 9:05 PM on April 17, 2008

I would hope that when the woman who fires you is sick, she has compassionate people around her who will clean up after her and let her rest. I have to agree with the people above. If it turns out the organization's culture is this uptight, you are better off out of there.

As for the other woman who witnessed the firing--try to see things from her point of view. If I had seen the exchange, it would have lowered my opinion of the woman doing the firing, and not affected my opinion of you at all.

Good luck.
posted by happyturtle at 5:50 AM on April 18, 2008

I just wanted to point out that to the volunteers and volunteer director of the 2007 convention where the OP was sick, it is presumptuous to think it was obvious to them that she was sick. I volunteer at an art/theatre space and granted, we serve beer, but if an audience member threw up and ran away and we had to clean it up, we would be pissed.

I doubt the director is being unreasonable and she is speaking on behalf of the other volunteers as well. I think it's unfair to label her.

I agree with the advice that you e-mail or write a letter to the director explaining and apologizing for the incident, that you would appreciate being reconsidered for a volunteer position, but you understand if you are not chosen and are looking forward to attending this year's event.
posted by spec80 at 7:04 AM on April 18, 2008

Vomiting makes it obvious that someone is sick. In the long list of causes of vomiting, there are only 6 or 7 that are not attributed to being sick. Of those remaining, you're still dealing at a level where the person is unwell and may in fact be sick.
posted by acoutu at 7:25 PM on April 18, 2008

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