Leah M. Stiegler

Leah M. Stiegler
Associate

Victor O. Cardwell

Victor O. Cardwell
Principal and Chairman

So you like free stuff? All volunteers are not created equal, so be warned!

Let’s say our law firm’s 2020 goal is to broaden our community engagement. To do this, the firm wants each of its employees (lawyers, paralegals, IT personnel, legal assistants, etc.) to participate or volunteer in community activities. The firm imagines its employees running in community 5Ks, building houses for Habitat for Humanity, helping at a local women’s shelter, and walking dogs for the SPCA.

What can the firm do to reach its objective and who has to get paid?

Encourage participation. The firm CAN actively promote opportunities, notify employees of volunteer opportunities, and ask them to participate with the clear premise that there will be no ramifications if an employee chooses not to participate. A ramification, for instance, could be a reduction in pay, disqualification from a bonus program, or a lost promotion opportunity.

In general, there can be no “undue” pressure to participate. The firm should be careful not to direct or control the employee’s activities by giving specific instructions about what volunteer work the employees should do or how they should do it.

Treat it as working time and pay for the time. (But this will cost you!) The firm can compensate employees for participating in volunteer activities as if the employee is performing normal work duties. This would require the firm to track and record all hours the employee spends volunteering, which can get tricky, especially if there is behind-the-scenes fundraising or if the activities are done intermittently.

Encourage volunteering during normal working hours. Compensating employees when they participate in volunteer activities during normal working hours does not jeopardize their status as volunteers when they participate in volunteer activities outside normal working hours. Therefore it does not force the employer to compensate these employees for their volunteer work done outside of working hours.

Both of these options will increase your budget and should only be considered if the goal is that important.

Provide incentive compensation. If the firm does not want to treat time spent volunteering as working time (which we do not recommend), the firm instead can consider the employee’s time spent volunteering as a factor in calculating the employee’s bonus. This method is allowed so long as:

  1. Volunteering is optional
  2. There is no ramification to the employee’s working conditions or prospects for not participating
  3. Employees are not guaranteed a bonus for volunteering

To avoid any unexpected surprises this bonus must be completely discretionary, a topic for another day!

These rules differ under certain circumstances, such as when the volunteer duties are similar to the employee’s actual job duties. This is a very dangerous situation that may not be deemed volunteering at all—be careful!

Generally speaking, most private not-for-profits cannot have a person volunteer for them. However, you can encourage your employees to get out and help in the community. Good corporate citizens make nice neighbors! Also, keep in mind there are certain organizations, most in the not-for-profit world, that can have volunteers on a more consistent basis. But you must be careful, as there are still limitations!

If in doubt, we are always just a phone call (or email) away! Now go out and do some good!

For other good resources on employer-sponsored volunteer activities and other volunteer time, consider reviewing the Department of Labor’s opinion letters: