DEALING WITH PROBLEMATIC VOLUNTEERS

PROBLEM VOLUNTEERS DRAIN YOUR TIME AND ENERGY AND CAUSE YOU TO IGNORE THE 98 PERCENT OF VOLUNTEERS WHO ARE DOING A GREAT JOB.

BY JOHN M. BUCKMAN

The following concerns the unspeakable; the unthinkable; and, for many volunteer fire departments, the undoable: dealing with volunteers who cause real trouble. Turkeys, spoiled brats, meanies-we all have those types of people in our departments.

In our general society, previously taboo discussion topics have come out of the closet and have become fodder for media exploration and often exploitation. Examples of incest, extreme self-serving behavior, abuse, corruption, brutality, ineptitude, and all manners of dysfunctional behavior are now commonplace in television and other media.

Although not as sensational as the above, the volunteer fire service has its own closet topic-the problematic volunteer. Some people would rather avoid talking about it because it seems too harsh to be part of our image of effective, caring concern for others. This is the “be nice” school of thinking. If you are a leader and you expect your subordinates to be disciplined, then the be-nice school of thinking won’t work. Leaders who are respected are fair, firm, and friendly. We will discuss those traits in depth later.

My response to such critics of reality and open discussion is simple. If we want to be as effective as possible and really care about others, then we will stop pretending that we never have to deal with some very difficult volunteers-not the volunteers who are just slightly annoying, needy, somewhat bothersome, or misdirected, but the really problematic volunteers who devour your time and drain the energy from everyone and everything around them.

These are volunteers who are controlling; have been around so long; and have brought so many friends, relatives, and other dysfunctional people into a department that the term “incestuous” is appropriate. They are verbally, emotionally, and even physically abusive with citizens, leaders, and other volunteers; are corrupt and unethical; betray confidences; misuse resources; and snoop where they have no business. They are brutal and bully others with their power and threaten to withdraw support if not pleased. They use blackmail to get their way or hold people hostage with threats and promises. They are inept yet untouchable because some authority dictates their role in a department, in positions for which they have no background. They refuse to learn necessary skills because their interest lies only in the prominence the position affords them. They are self-serving and spoiled individuals whose behavior has not been checked for one unacceptable reason or other.

These are arrogant, spoiled, nasty, unbalanced, bigoted, dangerous individuals with hidden agendas. Their toll is great and is typically greatest when they, although in the vast minority, take up the vast majority of a leader’s time and energy. One volunteer fire chief with whom I worked determined that the five volunteers causing real trouble out of a membership of 122 actually took up 65 percent of his time and energy!

Every department has them at one time or another. Let’s look at some myths with regard to these very troublesome volunteers. This list may help you clarify the depth of problems you face because of difficult volunteers. If you believe one of the following myths, you may have to readjust your thinking as you plan your strategy in dealing with identified problems.

LEADERSHIP MYTHS
The myths below confound problems and make them worse.

Ignoring a problem will make it go away. Wrong! It may go underground and be more difficult to confront, but it will not go away unless, of course, you plan to simply wait for the troublesome person to die-the height of avoidance.

No one else notices-I am the only one who is suffering. You must be kidding! Others see the problem and can shift their anger or frustration to you, wondering why you don’t take control and stop the negative behavior.

I can fix or change the problem person. Wrong! You can’t and you shouldn’t-that’s not why you’re there. Fixing a volunteer will drain your energy, time, and effectiveness and cause you to ignore the 98 percent of volunteers who are doing a great job. Keep in mind that I am not talking about people who are causing minor problems and simply need to be set straight. I’m talking about real troublemakers who are dysfunctional.

There’s good in everyone-I just need to give them time to show it. Wrong! There are some nasty people. How they got that way is not your problem or challenge. “Savior” is not in your job description. Time won’t fix everyone; in the meantime, you’ll lose good people and possibly hurt someone who doesn’t deserve to put up with abuse.

If I confront them, it will make things worse. Not if you do it carefully and calmly. Not confronting problematic behavior will cause more trouble, however.

If I confront them, they’ll leave and the department will die. If your department rides on the whim of one or a few individuals, you need to look for a new volunteer fire department. That is simply too much control, power, and dependence for a few persons.

If I’m really the caring and all-accepting person I should be, I can handle them. Stop! You are beginning to believe your own press clippings. You’re a volunteer fire chief, not a saint. Don’t see other people’s dysfunction as some sort of test of your worth. They are the problem, not you.

If I push them out, they will be mad at me. Maybe, maybe not. If they become angry, so be it. You did what was best for the department and the people it serves. Sticks and stones and all of that. Others may actually be relieved to be out of a situation that was uncomfortable for them.

All of the above are MYTHS-they are WRONG. Eight times wrong. (Well, maybe only 71/2 times wrong.)

SOME HARD TRUTHS
In addition to the myth statements listed above, let’s also look at some hard truths. This is where we separate the volunteer fire department leaders who can accept tough love and those who think such statements have no place in true volunteering. How you look at these next few paragraphs will probably be directly proportional to your effectiveness in ridding your department of problematic volunteers.

Volunteers are not your customers! Many volunteer fire department leaders have, usually unconsciously, confused the difference between a customer and a volunteer. They believe that because a great part of their job is to nurture and support volunteers that they are therefore responsible for them as individuals.

Not so! As a volunteer fire department leader, you are responsible for the actions of all your personnel. Volunteer, paid, paid/ on-call, stipend, assigned, or post service rewarded. You work to support, direct, and control those actions, aiming them toward specific goals and the general mission of your organization.

When workers, paid or nonpaid, spend their energies negatively and cause trouble that impedes progress, harms others, or otherwise keeps you from attaining goals effectively, you must exert control and stop the negative behavior. What you would not tolerate in a paid staff person you should not tolerate in a nonpaid volunteer.

You cannot step in and stop poor behavior, however, if you see a volunteer as some form of customer for whom you are responsible. Such thinking can expand to your believing that you are obligated to accept the volunteers no matter what their behavior and can also prevent you from seeing volunteers as part of your staff. Volunteers are not customers. They are part of the corps of workers serving customers and are there first and foremost to serve, not be served.

Not everyone with problems can or wants to be fixed. Put away your fix-it kit. Some people cannot be fixed, at least not by you. Even if you have the skills to help some dysfunctional volunteer, you do not have the time, energy, or job assignment for the task.

Also, keep in mind that some people enjoy being dysfunctional at a certain level. Obnoxious people who are crude and rude love the attention it brings. They jolt your sensibilities, and you can’t ignore them, no matter how much you try. The result of your putting up with these abrasive bullies or trying to appease them in the hope that they will mellow out only feeds their dysfunctional attitude, which is, “By God, you won’t dismiss me, Bub! You’ll pay attention to me if I have to kill myself to get you to notice me!”

The dependent person who constantly wants someone to listen to the latest tale of victimization loves it when he is consoled, defended, and offered sympathy. He won the game of “Poor Me/Save Me,” and those who intervene to solve his problems only fuel the dysfunction of refusing to take control of his own life.

You can’t accept everyone who wants to work with your volunteer fire department. You are not responsible for the fact that some people who come to volunteer in your agency are not really a good match. Inclusiveness is a philosophy, not a mandate. Some examples are obvious. The drug abuser is not a good match in a volunteer fire department, nor is a lazy person. A gossip should not have access to confidential files, and an insensitive, verbal bully should not work with injured people. A chronic complainer should not deal with the press, and a back stabber should not become an officer.

Accepting everyone who knocks at your door is asking for trouble. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, but not every Santa is a jolly old soul.

Some adults act like spoiled children. They believe they own the department. It is theirs, and no one-especially you-should mess with it. Never. Ever. Such people pout, threaten, and lie to gather others to fight any change and can become quite vicious if they are not obeyed. They can easily lose sight of the goal of serving customers and substitute it with their own needs of retaining their position, control, celebrity, or image.

Their activity revolves around what they see as best for them rather than the department. They employ martyrdom and “After all I’ve done” statements as they try attracting others to their side. They throw sophisticated and often dangerous temper tantrums that deal with scorekeeping. They use threats of nonsupport and long litanies of justification to kill new ideas they feel threaten them. They have a turf they see as their divine right and can turn on anyone that moves toward it. They are good at masking attacks with platitudes. They sweet talk with statements that begin, “I hate to say anything, but ….” They use disinformation and misinformation to fuel games of “Let’s have you and them fight.” Divide-and-conquer strategies abound. Spoiled adults are problematic in their mildest forms and deadly in their most intense. Since spanking is unacceptable, you will have to find other ways to deal with them.

It can be hard to mix established volunteers with new-age volunteers. The existing, more traditional volunteers sometimes may see the newer, younger, and more diverse volunteers as visitors from outer space. It can be a real challenge to negotiate new rules of behavior for Baby Boomers, for example, that are acceptable to the older, more experienced volunteers who have many years of involvement and are used to certain behavior from other volunteers.

Some older people are exceptions to the norm because they just love to have the younger folks come around because they bring new, fresh ideas and look at things so differently from those of us old fogies who have been around since Martha Washington’s time.

More typically, long-term volunteers comfortable with their patterns of helping and established routines balk at job sharing, episodic volunteers, flex space, and flex time. The wise volunteer leader will see that their criticism and discomfort stem from uncertainty over change rather than a fatal attack of nastiness.

CONFRONT AND GAIN CONTROL
When for any reason volunteers cause unacceptable problems, confront them with the situation, and take control. The three-step process is outlined below.

Talk with them privately and present documentation of the effects of their actions. Remind them of their commitment to the customers served and how more appropriate actions are required to better serve these people. Ask why they chose this action and if there are any extenuating circumstances of which you are not aware. Listen carefully to their responses, correcting any improper assumptions or misunderstandings; do not project acceptance of their behavior, but explain why it was inappropriate. Don’t debate issues that are not debatable. Avoid side issues; focus on the problem.

Create a way to measure new behavior, establish a timetable within which the behavior is to be corrected, and set a time for the two of you to meet again to measure progress and results. Focus on the issues, never the personality; avoid negative “you” messages. End the meeting by projecting your confidence that this person can change his behavior.

Review the actions that have occurred since the first interview. At the second meeting, document any continued problems and efforts. Set a very short time frame in which the person must correct any continuing inappropriate behavior, and outline consequences if the problems are not remedied. Follow up this meeting with a letter outlining progress along with the person’s assurance that the behavior will change before your next scheduled meeting. Put this letter in that person’s personnel file.

Follow through with the consequences outlined previously. If the behavior is not corrected by the third meeting, produce the document created in step 2, reviewing the agreement and consequences of noncompliance. Follow through on the consequences, typically either removal to a different work site or removal from the department. Document your discussion, and place it in your file. All of this probably sounds far too stringent to many of you, but to others it sounds exactly right.

Frankly, I hope you never have to tap into such a hard-edged process, and I would expect that few of you would. Most people who have acted inappropriately will correct the problem immediately after it’s pointed out to them. Sometimes they are simply looking for a way to have their concerns heard, and a quiet discussion with you may satisfy this need for attention. However, if this is not the case, it is up to the volunteer administrator to step in and prevent the customers or department from being damaged. It’s not easy, but it is necessary.

* * *

Problematic volunteers exist. We cannot pretend they do not. Horror stories abound, and I am sure you can offer some of the best.

The effective volunteer fire department leader must come to grips with the reality of such volunteers and the problems they leave in their wake. They must be prepared to deal with them fairly, openly, and swiftly and have sound, documented reasons for removing them from a department. As difficult as it is to fire a volunteer, it is more difficult in the long run to hide from the confrontation that will either remedy the negative behavior or prevent it from contaminating everything you and the overwhelming number of wonderful volunteer and paid staff are trying to accomplish. There will always be turkeys, but they don’t have to gobble in your arena.


JOHN M. BUCKMAN is chief of the German Township (IN) Volunteer Fire Department in Evansville, Indiana, where he has served for 22 years, and president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He was instrumental in forming the IAFC’s Volunteer Chief Officers Section and is its past chairman. He is an adjunct faculty member in the National Fire Academy residence program, is an advisory board member of Fire Engineering, and lectures extensively on fire service-related topics.

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