A Mixed View of Volunteer Work

When employees volunteer in the community, how do co-workers view these efforts? As genuine acts of kindness? Or subtle self-promotion? And can taking part in altruistic endeavors outside the office actually help one get ahead at work?

A pair of researchers from the University of Georgia Terry College of Business sought to answer such questions in a pair of recent studies, and found answers that suggest employees who do volunteer work might be seen in a less-than-charitable light by some of their colleagues.

Volunteering is “something that can be done with your kids’ school or through your church,” notes lead study author Jessica Rodell, an associate professor of management at the Terry College, in a statement.

“But it turns out that this behavior can have a real impact on how people view you at work.”

In an effort to get a sense of that impact, Rodell and co-author John Lynch, an assistant professor of managerial science at the University of Illinois-Chicago, first conducted a field study that involved 120 employee-colleague pairs. Employees directly reported information about their volunteering activities.

Roughly four weeks later, the authors asked the colleagues to provide an evaluation of the employee’s reputation (the credits and stigmas they associated with the person), the attributions the colleagues made for employee volunteering, and their general interactions with and treatment of the employee.

The second study relied on an experimental design to further demonstrate the types of credits and stigmas assigned to people who volunteer. Students in a large introductory management course were asked to evaluate profiles of potential teammates, which included a description of that person’s volunteering and their motives for volunteering. In total, 305 students participated in this experiment.

In the course of their research, Rodell and Lynch found that employees often have mixed feelings about their colleagues’ volunteer efforts, with their perceptions largely shaped by what they believe to be a co-worker’s motives.

When an employee is seen as being “personally compelled to volunteer,” for example, both supervisors and co-workers tend to hold the volunteering employee in high regard, according to the authors.

Colleagues and managers tend to form a more negative opinion, however, when an employee is viewed as “a showboat who volunteers to enhance his or her image or score brownie points.”

In the grand scheme of things, a person’s volunteer work in the community may just be one piece of data “that we use to determine someone’s character,” says Rodell, “which affects how we treat them.”

In some cases, participating in volunteer activities may even help alter one’s career trajectory.

Take, for instance, two employees whose performance ratings are identical. One of those workers, however, has done volunteer work “for what appeared to be good reasons,” says Rodell. “That person would be more likely to get a raise or promotion because that volunteering positively affects their reputation at work.”

Naturally, the second worker in this scenario may harbor some resentment over such a decision, stewing in the belief that a colleague is getting a bump at least partly because of work that he or she did that wasn’t at all job-related.

Managers and organizational leadership shouldn’t discount this type of reaction, and workers should be made aware of the possible workplace repercussions of volunteering.

“Employees should know that, if they’re going to volunteer, it’s going to have consequences, depending on how they manage it,” says Rodell. “And, if done for the right reasons, it’s ultimately going to benefit them.”

While the authors acknowledge employees’ views on volunteer work as “a mixed bag” with both positive and negative connotations, co-workers are generally “OK with the fact that someone might personally benefit from their volunteer work,” she concludes, “with the caveat that they are also doing it for good reasons.”