a higher-up is pushing an unwanted volunteer on us — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

This descriptor is helpful and accurate, so I’m going to borrow it: “I work in a cultural/academic/nonprofit institution, and am part of a professional community small enough that I don’t wish to identify it, lest one of my colleagues identify me.”

There’s a hierarchy within my institution, and someone (Martha) higher up than me and my boss, but outside of our department, has a disabled son (Edward). Edward is an adult in occupational therapy, and that’s about the extent of the details that I know. A while ago, Martha sent my boss an email asking if there was anything that Edward could do as volunteer work for his occupational therapy. Part of the mission of my department is to assist the people at Martha’s level in the hierarchy, so my boss didn’t feel that we could refuse Edward’s help as a volunteer.

I should note that our institution does not ordinarily accept volunteers and we have no volunteer program nor volunteer manager. My job is to receive a large number of valuable and occasionally rare items and make them available for everyone else in the institution to use — quickly. Normally I have a part-time employee who helps me with part of this process and does something that our department considers easy work. Because of pandemic-era budget cuts, we haven’t had someone consistently working in that position for a while. My boss decided that Edward’s volunteer time would be best spent doing the work of that position. We’ve had some problems though:

1. Edward doesn’t work on any set schedule, and Martha has ignored or steamrolled over all attempts I’ve made at creating one. I have busy and slow periods in my own work depending on what comes in for me. If he worked on a schedule, I’d plan out what he would do. As it is though, I must plan on him not being in, and I have to do the tasks I would normally assign to him so that they get done on time. We keep ending up in situations where either I have lots of work that Edward could do and I am told that he is not available to volunteer, or I have nothing for him to do because I have not heard from Martha that he will be working.

2. Martha treats me like a work-creation-machine for Edward. She will inform — not ask — me that he will be working with about two hours notice. She has gone so far as to track me down in other parts of the building when she couldn’t find me at my desk and interrupted my lunch break several times to tell me this. I can’t invent work for him out of thin air, and although my boss realizes that, she also worries that disappointing Martha will have negative consequences for our department.

3. Martha demands sometimes that Edward be able to work on days that no one in our department is at work. They are able to get into the department through a connecting door that is kept open by another department that needs access to ours. But as I said, the items I work with are valuable, and if something went missing while Martha and Edward were in our department, my boss and I would be accountable for it and suspected of stealing it because of the nature of our profession.

4. Edward is terrible at the work he’s assigned. The work requires good fine motor skills, and he doesn’t have them. I’ve had to reassign employees in the past because they had difficulty with it, and this isn’t a result of his disability or something we could have anticipated. I have had to train Martha and several other people who come in with Edward so that they can know how to help Edward while he works, but they aren’t concerned about the quality of his work. I end up having to redo about 30% of what he does. I’ve told Edward and whoever is with him that if something goes wrong they need to bring the item back to me so that I can fix it, but it doesn’t happen.

My boss and I keep trying to figure out how we can make this arrangement work for all of us, or if there’s really nothing we can do at this point. Right now, we’re at a point where Martha will walk in and demand work, but I’ll tell her that there’s really nothing to be done, because there isn’t. Do we just keep going and hope it eventually breaks down until they find some more consistent volunteer work somewhere else? Actually demand a schedule? Tell Martha this just isn’t working out? Is there some better way to work this out?

If you weren’t having to redo a third of Edward’s work, I’d say that your boss needs to insist on a schedule for Edward’s work. It’s entirely reasonable to say that your work isn’t set up to accommodate volunteers on short notice and that the only way to make this work is to agree on a schedule in advance. If that doesn’t suit Edward, then this isn’t the right volunteer opportunity for him.

But since you’re having to redo a third of his work — along with all the other issues, like having to scramble at the last minute to devise projects, his resistance to direction (like “bring this back to me if something goes wrong with it”), and not being able to count on him to show up when you’ve planned work for him — that’s not enough of a solution.

Really, the only thing that makes sense here is for your boss to talk to Martha and let her know you can no longer use Edward as a volunteer. (Or she could explain this to Edward himself if that would be appropriate, but it sounds like Martha would expect to hear this directly.) I get that she’s concerned about disappointing Martha, but this is so disruptive to your work that at this point it’s the only thing that makes sense. It’s one thing to try to accommodate a personal request from a higher-up when it only causes a little inconvenience — maybe not ideal, but sometimes the reality of hierarchy and politics is that it’s smart to do someone a personal favor anyway — but when the request is this disruptive to someone’s work, your boss really has a professional obligation to push back.

Speaking of which, if she hasn’t already, your boss should talk to her own manager about what’s going on. That way her manager won’t be blindsided if there’s blowback … and plus, she might have insight into how to deal with Martha or might even be willing to handle it herself.

Based on how pushy and unreasonable Martha has been so far, I know it might seem like she definitely won’t accept this! And that’s possible … but keep in mind that no one has tried telling Martha no yet. Everything she’s seen so far has indicated that you’re willing to keep trying (even if she should have read between the lines and seen the struggle her demands have been causing), and it really might go differently once she hears a firm and decided “we’ve tried what we can but we aren’t able to make this work.” Or not, of course — some people are just unreasonable and ridiculous no matter what. But your boss should try a clear no first! (And after that, if Martha keeps pushing past a point your boss feels she has the standing to handle on her own, that’s where her own boss should come in.)

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