how to turn down “volunteer” (but not really) projects at work

A reader writes:

Recently there was an email sent out in my office that said “Volunteers Needed.” It was to work shifts at an event with an organization that my company partners with. Nothing in the email made it sound like it was mandatory, so I just chose not to sign up. The organizer (a manager, but not someone I report to) kept reminding me and others to sign up. Eventually, she asked directly which shift I could do. As the location was very inconvenient for me, and it frankly wasn’t something I was interested in, I wrote back saying I would prefer not to, but not directly refusing.

Well, that didn’t go over well. One of the higher-ups accused me of not being a team player and said that wasn’t an appropriate way to respond. I said I thought it was voluntary, and he said it wasn’t. It seems no one wanted to call it mandatory, but in actuality it was, unless I had a “valid” excuse. It’s settled now, but I’m wondering what the best way is to handle in the future. I feel like it doesn’t come across well to blatantly ask “Is this mandatory?” But at the same time, I feel like that should be on them to make that part clear. It seems like ignoring it doesn’t work, and just saying no or even “I’d prefer not to,” which I did this time, clearly rubs people the wrong way. At the same time, if it is truly optional and I’d rather not do it, I don’t want to say yes. I don’t think this is the last time something like this will come up, so I’d love to know how to handle it better moving forward.

Yeah, this is on them for claiming they were asking for volunteers when in fact they expected everyone to sign up for a shift unless they had a “good enough” reason to opt out.

It’s not your fault that you assumed “volunteers” did in fact mean optional.

It’s not uncommon for workplaces to do this — bad management, but not uncommon. And as you point out, in those workplaces that means there’s no way to know what’s truly voluntary and what’s not … which means you can never take them at their word.

The best thing to do when you don’t want to sign up for something that’s been presented as “voluntary” is exactly what you started out with: ignore the solicitation. They said it’s voluntary, you’re not interested, so great, you’ll just leave it alone. If someone then “reminds” you to sign up, at that point you should say something like, “I’m not available then, but I hope it goes well!” That language can be a lot more effective than the “I prefer not to” that you used because it implies can’t rather than won’t. It allows for the polite fiction that you’d be happy to help out if you could, but sadly you can’t. (“I prefer not to” is also more likely to annoy someone who wanted you to understand their code and realize you were expected to participate.)

Of course, in real life it can be more complicated. You might be on a team where the solicitations for volunteers are genuinely optional individually, but you’re still expected to say yes to one or two of them over the course of a year. Or you might have a team where no one will force you to “volunteer” but it’s still going to reflect badly on you if you never do it (potentially in ways that matter, like how you’re evaluated and what opportunities you get). So you have to know how this stuff works on your particular team in your particular culture. If you’re unsure, you can often figure it out by talking to coworkers (just be sure to watch out for the coworker who assumes it’s all necessary when it’s really not) or, if you have decent rapport with your boss, by talking with her. It’s reasonable to ask to ask your boss, “When we see emails like the one today asking for volunteers, are those truly optional or is the expectation we’ll sign up unless we have a specific reason we can’t?” (Then again, in some circumstances there’s an argument for not having that conversation, and instead maintaining plausible deniability that you reasonably assumed “voluntary” did in fact mean optional.)

{ 200 comments… read them below }

    1. honeygrim*

      It’s like that cliché of the couple where one says to the other “I don’t want you to just do the chores. I want you to WANT to do the chores!”

      1. D'Arcy*

        Which does carry actual meaning, I would point out.

        “I want you to be a responsible adult partner and carry a portion of the household chore load without being a grumpy, sullen child about it or expecting to be ‘managed’.”

        1. OP Here*

          That isn’t the same as wanting to do it.

          I do those things because I have to, not because I want to.

          Expecting someone to WANT to take out garbage or do dishes isn’t realistic, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do itl

          1. DyneinWalking*

            Yeah, but in this specific case the implication is more “I want you to want to be an equal partner in this relationship, I want you to not want me to be stuck with all the annoying chores. I want you to want to look out for me and to care about my well-being!”.

            Of course no one actually wants to do the chores, specifically, but I think it’s very fair to expect your partner to care for you, and to show that by doing their fair share of the chores. I have no idea how some people are able to just let all the work fall onto the person they supposedly love.

          2. Emmy Noether*

            It’s not about wanting to do it in the sense of enjoying the task per se. It’s about wanting a clean kitchen, dishes for the next meal, and no vermin. And, in a partnership, wanting to lighten the other person’s load, wanting to be an equal partner. Plenty of reasons to want to do soemthing without enjoying the task itself.

          3. NotAnotherManager!*

            Exactly. I will never be excited about housework. It’s boring and tedious, and it’s very low on my list. I do it without comment or complaint because I’m a grownup, but I’d be very irritated if my spouse wanted me to have the same level of zeal for it that his mother does (she derives great satisfaction and life meaning from caretaking and housekeeping; I do not).

            And, if I’m doing it without prompting, comment, or complaint, I don’t want to hear complaints about it either.

  1. Bunny Girl*

    You know, I did the math the other day, and work takes up about 49% of my waking hours. I don’t really care if you don’t see me as a “team player” because I don’t consent to give you more of my time, whether it be by “volunteering” or your Christmas party or Trunk or Treat or whatever else. I am here to do my job and you give me money. That’s it. I don’t particularly care if you brow beat me or I have to leave over it. You will not get a single second more than that 49% and I even think that is ridiculous.

    1. Melina*

      Right?! I like my new boss but she is really an “all hands on deck” kind of person and I am finding it’s actually causing a lot of trouble cuz now we have a bunch of people involved in everything when it could have been streamlined so much easier. I want to stick to my time at work. You don’t pay me enough anyway (not for profit).

      1. goddessoftransitory*

        It reminds me of old Cathy cartoons where her boss, Mr. Pinkly, is freaking out over yet another EMERGENCY! and the entire staff is openly yawning because he treats every single thing that way.

        1. STAT!*

          As for old cartoons, I was reminded of one Roman soldier in an Asterix comic: “I always get picked to volunteer for these dangerous missions. It’s not fair!”.

    2. Stuckinacrazyjob*

      If you got ill trying to do all of this stuff they would pitch a fit. They need to figure out what is important and strip it down

    3. M.*

      Yeah, I think the bigger issue here is workplaces automatically expecting you’ll “volunteer” at their events. This comes up a lot at my work, as well, and while no one forces you to volunteer your time, I can tell you it rubs me and my colleagues the wrong way when an institution with more money than the GDPs of many countries asks its workforce to “volunteer” for events. No, absolutely not.

      1. Bunny Girl*

        I was a thorn in my old boss’ side because he thought all the extra stuff we did after work was a “fun” reward. But as one of the only admins, all those “fun” events were just work. I was expected to help set up and be on and all this other stuff so I said If you want me to go I either need to be paid overtime or I need to have comp time off. He was so insulted that I didn’t want to spend my free time with the department and I was like no. Pay me or don’t expect me.

        1. Curmudgeon in California*

          I bought a piece of art once that said “Fuck You, Pay Me” in beautiful script.

          It applies to admins as well as artists.

        2. Daisy*

          Good for you!
          I do a lot of volunteer work with my own niche interests. I would never expect a coworker to spend any of their precious personal time supporting these projects. If a company wants employees to sit at a booth, set up/clean up for a partner organization they should pay their regular wage. If it is outside their regular work hours the employee should be paid AND doing it is optional.

          1. Hannah Lee*

            Yeah, when it’s the *organization* volunteering its employees to help out an organization, by manning a booth or taking calls during a pledge drive or whatever so the company can claim it’s a good corporate citizen or that it “gives back” to the community, it should be the *organization* that’s actually doing the giving, not its employees giving up THEIR personal unpaid free time so that the company gets a gold star.

            It’s like when I used to work someplace that was big on United Way contributions. Why is my employer pressuring me to use MY earned wages to support a charity drive that THEY get brownie points for. What’s it to me if they can brag “look at us, 90% of our employees make donations every pay period!” Company owners, you want to give to the community? Great! YOU give to the community. Don’t brow beat your employees to do it for you.
            When I changed jobs and I was the person who was responsible for the United Way drive? And talked to employees and realized that some of them needed every penny of their pay to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table? I switched it first to an entirely “no pressure, if you want to contribute you can and no one is going to track it in your personnel file so don’t worry about it if you don’t want to” program. Oh, and advocating for pay increases when I could to make things saner for people.
            Then, after having several interactions with our local United Way rep, I ended the company’s association with UW all together. Between the rep being unable to clearly explain what the org would do with the funds, or what local charities they were funding, and the fact that the rep INSISTED on “popping by” whenever he felt like it to “check in” or push some new campaign, even after I REPEATEDLY told him that we only see visitors by appointment, I realized that UW, or at least our local chapter, was woefully out of touch with the reality of business and workers, lacked transparency and accountability and that our company shouldn’t have any part of supporting it in any way.

            1. Random Biter*

              A past employer lurrvvved UW because it was no money out of their pocket. If they could pry enough cash out of the employees it made the company look good and it was their favorite way of turning down other requests for contributions (“Sorry, we already donate to UW”). You were supposed to be able to designate your donation to go to any charity you wanted and not one that fell under the umbrella of UW, yeah no. I tiny fraction of your donation would be grudgingly sent to your charity of choice. Their reps were super aggressive and the company liaison would pass that aggressiveness along to the employees. My donations stay local and go to rescues that I can actually check up on.

            2. one L lana*

              I no longer remember the exact circumstances of how much they wanted or what kind of pressure was applied, but I remember that the United Way push at my first job, where I made extremely little money, was so stressful that it was one of the few times I asked my mom for advice on a workplace issue because I knew she would tell me it was OK to say no.

        3. Joanna*

          I had a boss that always wanted to get my team together for social stuff on weekends, but I always shot it down. After continued pushing in a staff meeting in front of everyone, I explained that I was spending more time each week with my coworkers than I was with my family, and I was not going to sacrifice any more of my time with my family on something that I didn’t even want to do. He backed off, and started planning stupid onsite team activities instead. To be fair, they worked. He was so annoying about them that the rest of us got to bond over just how annoying he was.

    4. HS Teacher*

      This is one of my favorite posts I’ve ever read on AAM. As a lead and a mentor at my site, I try to hard to explain to the staff that you don’t have to work for free. Don’t let them play on your martyr complex just to take advantage of you, because if funding weren’t there, they wouldn’t hesitate to cut your position.

      I’m so done giving so much of my life to employers. I will do my job when I am there to the best of my ability. When my contract time ends, I’m out. If you want anything extra, you’d better be paying me for it.

      1. goddessoftransitory*

        Heck, I tell people that when I’m training them on closing down their station at the end of shift–wipe everything down, close the phone program, THEN clock out. Don’t work for free, not even a couple minutes. They add up.

    5. nobadcats*

      One of my former jobs participated in the United Way drives every year. They deployed extortionate methods to get us lower-paid peeps to pledge a significant portion of our hard-earned paychecks, weekly, to the UW. It was almost like they were expecting us to tithe.

      I was “lucky” in that I had been volunteering at a suicide hotline three times a week that was sponsored by UW for years. Once I provided “proof” for my volunteer work, I said, “My grandfather told me, ‘Give time, not money.’ Here’s my contribution.”

      Never got bothered again, by THAT company.

      I really loathe company-sponsored voluntold activities. Just got another one today for a non-profit campaign I’d usually support, but it’s just window dressing for the company. Like, every year, I say to my company, “Hey, we’ve got a lot of animal lovers here, maybe our Community Service drive could be people donating old towels, sheets, and pet food to their local shelter?” NOPE!!

      I never contribute to grocery store or Walgreen’s “would you like to donate?” campaigns. It’s all to make them look like “good citizens.” My $$ and my time are better spent on things that I choose to help–major companies can just do better and not ask for my $$, because they’re making double nickels on a dime in profits, not paying their employees well at all… smh. Damned if you get even more $$ from me.

      1. Late to the party*

        As my husband’s former company always whined….but we are looking for 100% participation for the United Way campaign. My husband would just stare at them like they had three heads.

      2. Mangled Metaphor*

        Grocery store “would you like to donate” at the registers is a tax write-off for the grocery store

        In my case it’s better to donate money (through the charity itself), or food items etc., rather than volunteer my time.
        Hopefully it’s changed, but when I last looked at volunteer opportunities in my area there were none I could actually do (volunteer in our shop on Tuesdays – sorry, I have a full time job that won’t let me go part time; volunteer at the pet sanctuary – lovely idea in theory but I have allergies; volunteer in our flower gardens – allergies again (and antihistamines *do* send me to sleep, I haven’t found one yet that keeps me safe to drive and not reacting to cats, dogs and gardens); we’re looking for volunteers for an hour at X location – awesome, but I live two and a half hours away.) Of course this was all pre-viral yuck, so maybe there are more remote volunteer options. As soon as I get back into my own healthier mind I’ll look these up instead.

        1. nobadcats*

          Yeah, everyone has their limits! Since we’ve been fully remote for two years now, my $$ are going to my favorite charities/shelters. I donated a LOT of stuff a year and half ago when I moved to a new apartment. I’m still culling stuff for donation to women’s shelters (decent, but not worn out clothes, mostly), and the aforementioned animal shelters. My cat is a picky eater, so my local shelter gets food she has refused.

      3. Hannah Lee*

        Hah, I posted a similar post about United Way upthread. I really dislike that UW push at some companies.

        Also, I’m with you about decline to contribute to a retail for-profit company’s “charity” drives. If they want to donate a chunk of THEIR corporate profits, they are welcome to. I’ll donate directly to my own charities, thank you very much.

        I feel a similar way about places that install self check outs for “customers’ convenience” Why no, for-profit retailer, I DON’T want to volunteer MY labor so you can cut staff and fire my neighbors who currently work for you. I’ll wait 5 minutes in a line. I already have a job and work for a different company and not for free.
        PS, the self check out almost always takes just as long for me anyway, because the few times I used it, it never worked correctly so I’d wind up standing there waiting for an overworked, underpaid person to come over and kick it so it would recognize that, “why yes, the scallions or greeting card HAD been placed in the bagging area after all”.

        1. Spooky Spiders*

          Places that use self checkouts are still employing the same amount of people. It’s just with one cashier covering 6 SCO registers, the other 5 cashiers are available to cover the floor, to restock, to do any of the hundreds of other tasks that don’t get done when EVERYONE in the store (an actual experience I’ve had in retail) is up front on a register.

      4. Curmudgeon in California*


        The company can donate out of their profits, not extort me and then take a writeoff on the “donations” that they didn’t even make.

        I have a charity that I support.

        I won’t donate to the Red Cross, United Way, Salvation Army or any other large charity that spends more on executive pay and advertising than they do on, you know, the actual charitable work, or uses my donations to pitch their religion.

    6. Not employee of the month*

      I’m absolutely gobsmacked watching all of my friends pour countless hours into unpaid work, committees, meetings, etc
      If I’m not getting paid, I’m not attending.
      Even for paid, but optional events, I’m most likely going to skip it. My time is mine.

  2. WhataDay*

    When my organization asks for employee volunteers, we make it clear that it is the first pass; if we don’t get enough, we will then assign. Odd things come up now and then where multiple people could do it, so we see who wants to opt in. Staff can get excited about the most unusual tasks!

      1. Calliope*

        Neither this nor the original letter says it’s after hours though. It may well be shifts during the normal workday. The OP said the locations was inconvenient, not the time.

        1. PlainJane*

          I guess it didn’t, though I would have made the assumption that if it’s within hours, the boss would just say, “You’re assigned to X during those hours” or, if it really doesn’t matter who goes, to approach and say, “I need someone at X on this hour–is this possible for you?” And if not, to go to the next person. I wouldn’t expect it to be, “Hey, who wants to volunteer for X?”

          1. Michelle Smith*

            I’ve worked for organizations where it very much was optional events, sometimes during work time and sometimes not. Community Affairs would hold events and people from my office would man tables or give community presentations about our work so people understood it (it was a government agency). None of this was assigned, ever, even when the events were during work hours. I don’t think the assumption you made applies to every workplace.

        2. OyHiOh*

          My org hosts/is involved in community events pretty often. Most often during the workday but occassionally after hours as well. The team that hosts/plans/sets up these events of course is there to run the thing, but sometimes they need additional hands off site somewhere for something, and in those cases, the planning team will ask for “volunteers” to work their event for a few hours.

          A – it’s all within the scope of our organization’s reason to exist
          B – it’s not volunteer as in unpaid labor, it’s volunteer as in “do you have capacity to spend a couple hours out of office helping register people for this event?”
          C – there’s almost always a fancy meal or other perks included.

          I volunteer to get out of office occasionally, once every couple months or so; particularly if the topic or genre is of personal or professional interest.

          1. Fishsticks*

            Unless your employees are offered comp time or some other compensation for performing -as employees of your company- at these events, it IS volunteering unpaid labor?

    1. RIP Pillow Fort*

      That’s how we handle things. We try to give employees agency to choose what assignments they want to take on since 90% of our work is assigned by managers. The volunteer work is just work outside of our day to day activities.

      Volunteer work is still work that needs to be done and work you’d be paid for like any other assignment. But it’s things like “doing a presentation on X,” “researching Y,” “managing Z project,” “developing processes/documents,” etc. It’s things that are not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, not routine activities, but the work needs to be rotated around so everyone gets the opportunity to grow because these are important skills for success in our work.

      1. OP Here*

        I think you are essentially describing office work that needs to be done for your company to run, which, to me, is different than what I’m saying.

        You want to say “hey guys, someone needs to research this competitor” or “train someone new, even though its not technically your job” I’m fine with that.

        This is work that is, essentially, being done for an outside entity

        1. Elitist Semicolon*

          This is a key distinction – “volunteering” as in “I am offering to do Work Task X” is not the same as “volunteering” as in “I am willingly giving you my time and expertise for a non-work task during non-work hours.” If it’s paid work that has to be done and that will be assigned if no one offers to do it, then it shouldn’t be labelled “volunteering.”

        2. Carl*

          OP – can you clarify, is this paid or unpaid (or are you salary, which makes it tricky), and is it off hours?

          1. OP Here*

            Clarified below. I’m salaried, and the time can be flexed. There were some shifts that were during work hours, but far away from the office.

            And again, had they just made it clear it was mandatory from the beginning, I may have privately grumbled about it, but would’ve just done it and moved on. Its the misrepresentation that bothers me

            1. Fishsticks*

              Yeah, they definitely could and should have made that much clearer. Just like a bit early on about how the event is mandatory, and volunteering will allow you to choose your shift time and place on a first-come, first-serve basis, but if they run out of volunteers they’ll have to assign individual shifts.

        3. D'Arcy*

          Yes, and that’s *inherently unreasonable*. You may have to do it to hang onto your job, but don’t let go of knowing that your company are absolutely in the wrong here!

        4. Hannah Lee*

          And in some companies or departments, the work that gets done for an outside entity is PART of the job right up front. Like at my prior company, if you worked anywhere in MarCom or PR it was right up front in the job description that you’d be expected to work events like the local PBS fundraisers or Walks Against Hunger or other events as a representative of the company. A friend worked for an organization where that kind of work was key to their entire reason for being in some way, so again, those kinds of “volunteer” activities were part of the job, like CPA’s working late during tax season or financial close periods, or sales reps, sales support, production working longer hours at peak times.

          It’s the “random worker, entire departments being expected and voluntold to be an body and hands in a company t-shirt for off hours event completely outside their job responsibilities, for no pay” that takes it off the rails.

    2. bennie*

      respectfully, if you aren’t paying people to do these tasks, this comes off as exploitation to me.

    3. NotAnotherManager!*

      It seems to me that you can make plain that there is a task to be done and we’ll start with volunteers and then move on to conscripts because this project/task must get done. That’s not what happened here.

      In this case, OP’s company announced an opportunity to “volunteer” for an outside organization (for no additional pay when), in fact, they are not seeking volunteers, they are requiring that people donate their time. And, on top of that, expecting them to read between the lines rather than just stating that it’s mandatory up front.

  3. Tinkerbell*

    I’m guessing “volunteer” here means “mandatory but we don’t want to pay you for it,” which may carry its own set of labor violations :-\

    1. I'm just here for the cats!*

      See I was thinking it was still being paid but they were looking for volunteers to work. Like you are working but you choose to work and what shift, instead of the bosses mandating the day/time. I hope that makes sense.

      1. Justme, The OG*

        That’s what I thought too, like when my department works career fairs. We technically volunteer for the time slot during regular working hours and are voluntold if we need more people.

        1. The Rafters*

          Same here. They’re asking for volunteers b/c it’s off site or out of the employee’s usual tasks (but not unreasonably so). With us (state agency) we’re all “encouraged” to attend a few events. We usually translate “encouraged” to “voluntold.” When I first started with my current office, more seasoned staff explained “encouraged” the very first time it was said to me, so I understood right away, attended whenever I could and didn’t run into any trouble when I couldn’t. OPs manager really should have made that clearer.

          1. Hannah Lee*

            The automatic escalation from “volunteer, please” >> “voluntold” >> “you are being dragooned – plus getting a black mark on your record because you made me resort to dragooning you” is a problem.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        Yeah, on the extremely rare occasions my workplace has evening or weekend events we are paid for them. They might ask people to volunteer to work those events, but it’s not volunteered *time* (and we’re a nonprofit)–it’s just volunteered to do this thing that is not normally part of your job and not normally part of our schedule.

      3. Kimmy Schmidt*

        This is what I thought too. My workplace uses the word volunteer to get people to work events outside our normal schedule, but it’s definitely paid and we flex the time elsewhere. Is there a different word we should be using?

        1. OP Here*

          I think “sign up” is a much better word. Because if it is, in any way, required, even if you can flex the time, don’t say volunteer

    2. Frickityfrack*

      That was my first thought. If they say it’s mandatory, then they have to start looking at OT pay/comp time for anyone non-exempt, so they’re trying their hardest to avoid it. Shady as heck.

    3. Lacey*

      That was my thought as well. Every place I’ve worked has had parades, festivals, community projects, etc. that they want people to volunteer for – because they don’t want to pay you for it.

      But then if you don’t, you’re not a team player.

      I’ve made it very clear every where I work that I’ll help – for pay.
      Suddenly, I am not needed.

      1. Cthulhu's Librarian*

        Amen. As a person who regularly sits at the 40 hours a week before overtime would have to be paid, I have found that saying “I’ll need to either flex my schedule or get approved for overtime that week” has done wonders to result in my specific brand of assistance being considered unnecessary (even on certain occasions when they really probably should have realized they were going to need my talents).

    4. It Might Be Me*

      We had a county department that was requiring staff to “volunteer” at an annual county event. It was reported to our state department of labor and ended up costing the county a lot of money. Back pay, penalties, fines, etc. It wasn’t pretty.

    5. Person from the Resume*

      Yes, but I bet the non-profit organization asked for “volunteers” because they are not paying anyone to work the event in these roles. The work isn’t even for the LW’s presumably for-profit company. The LW’s company is making their employees work at the non-profit in roles the non-profit calls volunteers cause the non-profit ain’t paying anybody to do it. A non-profit can legally have people perform tasks for no pay.

      If the LW is salaried and exempt from OT, then she doesn’t get paid more by her company to do “extra” work. If she’s hourly, it’s different.

    6. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      For non-exempt, yes, but for exempt, no. They can require an exempt employee to “volunteer” for hours of work that they won’t get compensated for; even work that isn’t their normal job. That’s probably why they are sticking with calling it voluntary in writing, so if there is a dispute, they will claim that it was indeed “off the clock.” I don’t know if my org actually got in trouble for it, but they started to be very specific that any hourly employee MUST get supervisor approval, and clock in/out for org-sponsored volunteer activities outside of normal business hours. As an exempt employee, I was just “voluntold” what my role would be for that event, but at least I do get mileage reimbursement for anything off site :/

      1. Carl*

        If you are exempt, can you be forced to “volunteer” off hours unrelated to your job? Eg HYPOTHETICALLY if I’m a lawyer, and my boss has a special interest in teapot preservation (or for his own gain wants to make connections/build goodwill with the head of teapot preservation nonprofit), can my boss require me to “volunteer” off hours for teapot preservation?

        1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

          Probably not if just your boss has a personal hobby or interest, but if your employer (the whole org) is a sponsor of say the county fair or a charity 5k, and they have an org booth at the event, they can assign employees to work at that booth even if their job is totally unrelated to public relations or events.

          1. New Jack Karyn*

            I wonder what the workman’s comp situation would be. If OP or someone similarly situated sprained an ankle, who’s on the hook for the medical bills?

  4. Petty Betty*

    Oof. The non-optional volunteering “opportunity”. And by opportunity, the company means it as a way to exploit their workforce in some way (even if you’re getting paid, you’re still doing more work and getting less time away from work in general).

    Alison is right, thought. Being “unavailable” is much better than “prefer not to”. No, you do NOT elaborate on what unavailable means. Unavailable is not the start of negotiations. It’s unavailable, personal, and private thankyouverymuch.

    1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      Yep. Alternate phrasing so you can mix up your declining the extra work:
      * Too busy
      * Already booked
      * Otherwise engaged
      * Prior commitments

      1. Buffalo Gal*

        One of the best things I learned in etiquette class was the concept of “previous engagement”. It is perfectly polite to decline any invitation due to a previous engagement. And you can be previously engaged to watch your hair, catch up on Stranger Things or spend time with your pet – you don’t need to specify.

        1. Polar Bear Hug*

          My dad likes to say, “I have a prior engagement which I will make as soon as possible.” Not usually to the person asking, unless it’s me asking him to do house repairs for me. :)

      2. partystripes*

        My mother used to write “plans” on the paper wall calendar, so if asked to do something that day, she could truthfully decline saying, “I’m sorry, I have plans on the calendar.”

    2. ferrina*

      “Opportunity” is the worst! Like “This is a great Opportunity…..for you to do something you don’t want to and that’s not your job, but we’re going to make you do it anyways. Or the “Great professional Opportunity….to do more work at a higher level of responsibility but we will pay you the same for it.”

  5. Eldritch Office Worker*

    As usual the solution to this would be direct communication, but it would be on the part of your company not you. Your attempt at direct communication backfired, and I’m sorry that happened because it sucks.

    But you’ve learned some valuable information about your workplace, and the politics you need to navigate to be successful. Take that as a win.

    1. ferrina*

      Exactly. What LW did should have been sufficient, if the company had meant what they said. This is definitely on them.

      But politics being what they are… general rule is to be non-committal rather than non-interested. Non-committal is “outside your control”; non-interested is “not a team player” (I know, it’s BS, but when it comes to politics, that’s how you’ve got to play it). Delay tactics are great, as is vague future promises (“Oh, I can’t this time, but hopefully next time”)

    2. Random Bystander*

      True–I don’t know if it’s a) being post-menopausal, b) a cancer survivor, or c) both .. but I’m fresh out of ability to put up with communication in which I am supposed to detect what the “real meaning” is behind the words that appear to be, on their surface, written in clear language.

      So–send out an email asking for volunteers to take on a special project (a job duty that isn’t part of the ordinary day to day), fine–as long as it’s clear that the special project itself isn’t optional. Send out a request for “volunteers needed” for a task that is not a job duty (or not even something for the company that writes my paycheck) and pressure me to sign up, I’m going to flat out ask “Is participation voluntary or mandatory?”

  6. Birb*

    What are the pay implications of this? Is it legal to have mandatory unpaid “volunteering”?

    As a teacher, my state allows X number of additional duty minutes each week, and it is fairly low. Aside from that, not doing clubs (which have supplemental pay or stipends) or committees (volunteer) would be reflected in my evaluations, which would keep me from getting higher pay… but we wouldn’t be punished for it in any way.

    1. Person from the Resume*

      I’m guessing the LW was exempt (since she didn’t mention hourly pay) so there’s no pay implication. But if the LW was hourly and the company made her work then she should be paid.

      I did think this “volunteer” task may go over better if the volunteers were compensated with a late start or early departure that day/the day after/that week. Don’t make it extremely complicated to track by letting it extend beyond the same week, but give them something for giving up what is normally their non-work time.

      1. Kit*

        It’s possible that she’s salaried but non-exempt, too – most employees in a position to be mandated in this way are probably not exempt, if only because it’s management setting the policy.

        1. The Person from the Resume*

          I understand what you’re saying, but I think exempt employees get this too. Exempt can include a lot of non-management, lower management in technical fields.

    2. Just Your Everyday Crone*

      I’m confused that you say it would keep you from getting higher pay but you’re not punished for it, since those are contradictory in my mind?

      1. Cataclysm*

        Not a teacher, but my vague understanding of teacher contracts is that the pay is often standardized for years of experience + any extra activities (coaching, etc), so that could be how evaluations don’t affect your pay

        1. Cataclysm*

          Oops, misread a bit — but it seems to me that Birb might be talking about not getting the bonus pay for coaching/being a club advisor but not being penalized for not doing those extra activities — just a lack of the standard bonus pay

          1. Birb*

            The extra stuff would be taken into account in our “incentive pay”. Don’t to the extras, don’t get that portion of the incentive pay… but you wouldn’t get docked in other categories, and that wouldn’t ever lower your base pay.

    3. I don't mean to be rude, I'm just good at it*

      As a former teacher, I was voluntold one year to spend a Saturday at a famous local museum as a chaperone. All of the single teachers were assigned this opportunity.

      I arrived on time, signed in, and when the museum doors opened, the majority of us went to the museum’s restaurant, bought a drink and sat in the back.

      The powers in charge were not happy, but we were in attendance at the museum.

      Exactly at the time we were allowed to exit, we did. It looked like a herd of buffalo stampeding out the door.

  7. I'm just here for the cats!*

    As someone who worked where we had “voluntary” overtime this drives me nuts! How are we supposed to know that you have to sign up for something if you don;t tell us!

    1. irene adler*

      Oh, the joys of being “voluntold”.
      Gotta be almost psychic to know what management wants.

      1. College Career Counselor*

        Amen. I was asked by management (ie, my boss) to work with a faculty colleague to come up with a creative solution to managing a required program in light of someone’s departure. I went off, gathering stakeholders, setting up a meeting, learning about this suddenly-orphaned (but critical-to-the-finances-of-the-university) program to see where it would make the most sense to house and manage it.

        Yeah, it turned out the intended “creative solution” was it to make it my responsibility, but just not tell me about it. If they don’t tell you about it, it’s not voluntold–it’s volunguessed.

      1. Cthulhu's Librarian*

        We had a much better example of that some months ago – will have to see if I can find the link.

        It does make me wonder if the story is making a come back.

        1. OP Here*

          Ha, I had no clue about that previous letter.

          And the truth is, if it was presented as something mandatory, I would’ve done it no questions. But when presented as something voluntary, I don’t think what I said was wrong.

  8. Viki*

    There are some busy periods where we have EWW where it’s known that people will have to work x amount of hours extra, and the volunteer part is when you will work them. That way it gives people the ability to chose what works with their schedules before it gets put in stone.

    I can see where/how it gets confusing.

    1. DataSci*

      That’s the misuse here as well, yes. It’s not confusion, it’s using the wrong word.

      Having your pick of extra tasks/shifts does not make any of them voluntary, unless “none” is an option that comes without penalty. They’re chosen rather than assigned, but they aren’t voluntary.

      “Pick one of these shifts for the event” is very different from “You can volunteer for one of these shifts for the event”.

  9. Person from the Resume*

    an event with an organization that my company partners with

    So the LW is employed by a for-profit company who partners with a non-profit organization.

    The task is to volunteer with a non-profit. The non-profit is seeking volunteers from a company they partner with and the for profit company is making their employees serve as a volunteer for the non-profit so it’s not voluntary for the LW and her coworkers. Messy. The company is forcing their people to work after hours presumably to look good like a company who’s employees volunteer at the non-profit.

    1. Salsa Verde*

      My friend used to work at a bank, and I believe certain financial institutions have some kind of obligation to give back to non-profits, or maybe it was just for the tax write-offs. I remember thinking that the company should have had to pay their workers to do volunteer work for the non-profit org, because just getting the company employees to volunteer was kind of BS – the company just acted as the middle man, not really donating anything of value if the employees weren’t getting paid by the company.

  10. Mary*


    Of course they did. Dr. Ramani has a channel on YouTube where she talks about narcissism. She has a video that talks about gaslighting in the workplace, and she calls out the “you’re not a team player!!” piece

    1. Mary*

      Ugh why did it disappear?? I was referring to this –

      “One of the higher-ups accused me of not being a team player and said that wasn’t an appropriate way to respond. “

      1. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

        Things in angle brackets will often be parsed as HTML, and the whole “tag” stripped out if it doesn’t make sense.

        If you need that sort of brackets/parentheses you can use the entity code less-than, the letters lt between an ampersand and a semicolon, for the left bracket < (like this &&lt;) and then an ordinary right-facing bracket >

        (Now I see whether my hand-coded HTML is too archaic to work.)

    2. ferrina*

      Love Dr. Ramani!

      In the LW’s instance, it doesn’t sound like gaslighting (as opposed to really poor communication), but I’d definitely be on the look out for other odd behavior or times when they expect you to read between the lines/read their mind, or if they make you feel guilty for having normal boundaries (like “nope, I won’t do this optional thing in my off hours”). If that’s a regular pattern, I’d start working on an exit strategy.

  11. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

    Volunteering is understood to be unpaid and elective, and you’re not fooling anyone with your dishonesty (and dare I say, disrespect) in soliciting for “volunteers” for a mandatory assignment. It needs to be framed as “We need everyone to work a shift on X project, slots will be filled first come first served, and any slots still unfilled by [date] will be assigned by drawing names out of a hat.”

    1. Just Your Everyday Crone*

      I think then they’d have to pay the nonexempt employees overtime, though, so they’d rather pressure people into working for free.

    2. I should be working*

      And we just had a letter where the commentariat was almost unanimous in the opinion that an employee should be dismissed because they had been dishonest.

      I loathe corporate dishonesty because my brain just doesn’t recognize this type of lie, and then I get the stink eye because I didn’t correctly interpret “we’d like people to volunteer” as “do this thing or take a hit on your reputation with management”.

      My parents drummed it into us that dishonesty was unacceptable but forgot to be equally clear that many people around us will comfortably lie to our faces.

  12. CheesePlease*

    I hate this. Ideally the company should say “We have committed to helping the Llama Rescue Foundation with 15 volunteers for their annual Llama Family Fun Day. We need 12 more volunteers to sign up. CEO, COO and CFO will be volunteering! We hope to see you there. Partners and teen children are welcome to volunteer as well” Then it is clear how many volunteers are needed, so it’s clear not everyone can opt out, and it’s a chance to maybe spend time with CEO you know?

    1. Corgis rock*

      But they still shouldn’t be committing their staff to volunteer for another organization, especially if it’s outside of business hours. Instead it should be “We have the opportunity to help the the Llama Rescue Foundation with their annual Llama Family Fun Day, if interested please contact Jane in Community Relations by xx/xx/xx so we can let them know how many to expect. Don’t forget to include your t-shirt size as all volunteers will receive a special event shirt.” It’s amazing what people will do for a free t-shirt.

    2. DataSci*

      And what happens if they don’t get 12 more signups? They shouldn’t commit until they have at least that many people lined up. That is not at all ideal.

      The ideal would be to say, much earlier, “We have the opportunity to help the Llama Rescue Foundation with their annual Llama Family Fun Day. If you’re interested in volunteering on X date, please respond to this email – they need at least 15 to be able to fit us in, so please respond by Y date so we know whether to go ahead.”

      That’s how you do it if you really want it to be voluntary. My company does actual volunteer work like this – there’s a day once a year where everyone can choose to volunteer for one of a number of projects during the work day (if they don’t, it’s a normal work day for them and nobody cares), and sometimes one activity or another will be cancelled if it requires a certain number of people and they don’t make the threshold. What they don’t do is start threatening people if not enough folks sign up to make sandwiches at the food bank.

  13. madhatter360*

    This is making me think of something that was directly relevant at my work today. Our district holds “back to school” night (aka parent-teacher night) every fall. Our contract does not require attendance, something the union was very quick to remind us all of. So my building principal made us an offer. He declared that any teachers who stayed the 2 hours for back to school night could leave 2 hours early on the next staff development day (today).
    In a spectacular display of backfiring the staff who chose not to stay (it’s not required!) are angry about being held to their contractual hours today.

    1. Richard Hershberger*

      Huh. My wife is a public school teacher. Their contract includes very specific provisions for stuff like back to school night. It seems like a better way to go, with everyone understanding what their obligations are.

      1. New Jack Karyn*

        Oh, yeah, this is the way. Parent-teacher conferences, Back to School Night, covering various sporting events–all these duties are hammered out in the contract. Everyone has X duty hours to fulfill over the school year. 10 hours for conferences, 3 hours for Back to School–these are standard and mandatory in my district. To complete the rest: W hours if you run a club through the year, Y hours for each sporting event covered, Z hours for what have you. We teachers choose from the menu to fill out our duty hours. It’s not ‘volunteering’, but we’re choosing which options so it’s not really being ‘voluntold’ either.

  14. Just Your Everyday Crone*

    Corporate America seems to be really confused about the English language, when something mandatory is called volunteering, doing your job is called quiet quitting, and not wanting to do something that does not affect your co-workers’ ability to do their jobs at all is called not being a team player.

      1. Lizzie*

        I have an INGSOC badge in reference to this phrase, which I used to wear to all management meetings (my role was a lowly one, not management) because boy were they a bunch of two faced truth-avoiders.

      2. Little Bobby Tables*

        The first thing I though of was a different Orwell quote – “The work was strictly voluntary, but anyone who did not work would have his rations reduced by half.”

  15. Parcae*

    “You might be on a team where the solicitations for volunteers are genuinely optional individually, but you’re still expected to say yes to one or two of them over the course of a year.”

    This is what my team does, and I think it’s handled it well. The expectation that we’ll participate in special projects is explicit in our performance evaluations, so everyone’s clear that it’s not *truly* voluntary, at least not if you want a good evaluation and bonus. And if no one volunteers for a particular task and someone has to be voluntold, our manager will look at who has volunteered for things lately and distribute the work to those who’ve been sitting on their hands. The incentive is therefore to volunteer for the things you’d like to do (or at least can tolerate), so you can avoid the things you hate.

    And it should go without saying, but to be explicit: these are special tasks to be completed during our regular work hours. Everybody’s getting paid for their work.

    1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      My team does it an even easier way. We don’t sign on to any volunteer duties unless we already know we have enough people interested in and able to commit. Generally it is a team member who comes up with an event we could help with, we discuss whether we can take it on, to what degree we can take it on (own booth? shared booth? actively in the planning prep, presenters/speakers, etc.), and then people opt in for the roles. If we can’t get enough people, we don’t commit or scale back commitment.

      1. OP Here*

        This is exactly how I feel it should be done. Don’t commit to something until you know you have the staff to do it. But committing to something then making it everyone else’s problem is really not cool

  16. Unkempt Flatware*

    I wrote in to the Friday thread a few months back about a time when a voluntary event organizer at work kept asking me if I had a chance to sign up yet and I said I did–have the chance to sign up–but I couldn’t attend. I didn’t understand that her continually asking a question I thought was straightforward and already answered several times was actually her way of saying I needed to sign up. People really need to use direct candid language. I don’t know how people who’s first language is not English ever learn to navigate these silly interactions.

    1. Person from the Resume*

      English is my first language, but I’m literal. I would have told the manager that I was choosing not to volunteer. It may have gone over just as well but I would have pedantically pointed out to her that that is not what volunteer means.

      OTOH I suspect it was a lot more like this: “The animal shelter we partner with is having an adoption event and needs volunteers to support the event. We want our employees to sign up for a volunteer shift at the adoption event.”

  17. Goldenrod*

    Ugh, I hate this so much! As Alison pointed out, this is bad management. I don’t think it’s an accident that the worst places I’ve worked have all done this, while the good offices do not.

    Those weird, vague boundaries are so dysfunctional. I even worked in one (terrible) office where I asked if we exchanged gifts at Christmas, and was told – explicitly – that the office policy was to not exchange gifts. Great! I thought.

    Come Christmastime, suddenly all of the front office staff is doling out gifts (including to me)! “I thought our policy was to not exchange gifts,” I pointed out, puzzled.

    “Oh, well, we SAY that, but….” replied my awful co-worker who was a backstabber and who was also phony and untrustworthy and passive-aggressive in SO many other ways…

    Why can’t people just say what they mean???

    1. KateM*

      Isn’t it clear? The office policy was to not exchange gifts, but they exchanged them anyway, against the policy.

    2. Fishsticks*

      Ugh, I had an almost identical experience. And had a manager ask me why I wasn’t “getting into the spirit of the holidays” by handing out gifts. I pointed out I was told there was a no gift-giving policy, and I intended to allow company policy (WHICH THE MANAGER HAD WRITTEN, IT WAS A SMALL BUSINESS) on this.

      She kind of huffed and said nobody follows ALL the employee policies. I asked why are they in there then? The response was that she had mostly copied our employee guidebook from a different company and “some stuff just made it in there.”

      Our employee guidebook got revised the next year and guess which policy got removed?

  18. bones*

    Years ago, I worked in an HR-adjacent role focused on employee engagement. The company Christmas party cost $25/person and was held on a Saturday evening, known for being a very boozy event. I was paid $16/hr, only working 32 hours a week, and had a 12 week old baby that I was nursing. I chose not to attend the Christmas party. Got reprimanded on Monday for not going because it made administration look bad that their employee engagement person skipped the “voluntary” after hours event. It was very much “How are people supposed to like working here if the person we hired to make them like working here doesn’t go to the thing we told them they’re supposed to like?” We…had some fundamental philosophic differences about how to engage employees.

    1. Education Mike*

      Wow for $25 I could drink w my friends who I like, on my own time, and actually enjoy myself.

  19. FrenchCusser*

    When I first started working where I am now, I was told I ‘had’ to help be in charge of the White Elephant Exchange. I said I didn’t ‘have’ to – that I don’t do things where I have to stand up in front of people. My coworker was pretty insistent, but so was I.

    17 years later, I still don’t help with the White Elephant Exchange. I do help set up, tear down and decorate, but I held out not to do something I’m uncomfortable with.

  20. Just say what's mandatory!*

    “You know what, Stan, if you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair, like your pretty boy over there, Brian, why don’t you just make the minimum 37 pieces of flair?”

    1. Unkempt Flatware*

      Followed by the most 90s flip-offs of all time. All middle finger. No thumbs. Loved it.

    2. The Rural Juror*

      This was my favorite movie scene in the early 2000s when I worked at Walmart and we had vests that we could decorate with flair. My coworker was in on the joke and always act like she was counting my pieces of flair. Great way to make a mundane job more fun!

  21. CharlieBrown*

    Sounds like management doesn’t want to just come out and say this is mandatory. That’s just poor management. They need to grow a backbone.

    I have seen too many examples of being voluntold for things. Ugh. This is just beyond my tolerance level.

    1. RJ*

      I agree completely, and believe that management has it’s reason (*coughlaborlawscough*) for not coming out and saying directly that this ‘volunteer’ work is mandatory. Unpaid volunteer work is something I have always and will always hate unless it is of my choice for a cause/org I both choose and respect.

  22. Risha*

    I feel your pain OP! It really pisses me off when managers say something is completely voluntary but it actually isn’t. Like, how am I supposed to really know what they meant if they don’t use the correct words? Just be upfront and say it’s required so there’s no confusion.

    My job did something like this recently, but it wasn’t for volunteering. They are putting together this little book of our 100 person dept. It’s going to have our names/pics, race, gender, sexual orientation, if we are disabled…just really personal things that I have no interest in answering unless it’s part of my job duties. It was labeled as completed voluntary and you didn’t have to participate if you don’t want. Well, I don’t want to so I didn’t answer the questions. So I get emails from my manager every single day asking when am I going to upload my pic and answer these questions, and reminding me of the deadline. I prefer to keep my personal life and working life separate.

    It’s often times not good to push back, because you’ll be labeled as not a team player, just like in OP’s case. It’s just not fair that workers just have to do whatever managers want or it’ll come back to bite you during raise/bonus time. And the biggest issue is that so many workers just accept it so that when someone does push back, they look like a trouble maker.

    1. AllTheBirds*

      “It’s going to have our names/pics, race, gender, sexual orientation, if we are disabled…just really personal things…”

      WTAF? That’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.

      1. Lenora Rose*

        That’s *several* lawsuits waiting to happen. if you want a work web site with a “personal touch” you suggest options like hobbies, favourite books, movies, or quotes, or for people to talk about their pets. The closest you might get to asking about race would be if someone wants to (optionally) discuss parts of their culture through hobbies or favourites (I mean, I can make a pretty good guess what heritage a person “considered the best maker of lumpia in her extended family” is from, but that’s because she wanted me to know). You don’t *demand* they release their medical information, or sexual orientation to the public.

        As well as all the ways it’s actionable, it’s also not what the public would WANT to know.

    2. Fikly*

      “And the biggest issue is that so many workers just accept it so that when someone does push back, they look like a trouble maker.”

      No, that’s victim blaming. The biggest issue is the environment and company that creates both the acceptance and the fear of speaking up – many people who are bothered by this will both comply and not say anything, because they don’t feel like they have another safe option.

    3. Caroline+Bowman*


      No. Just no.

      I can picture it ”Hi, I’m Jed, I’m 6ft 1, white, half-Jewish on dad’s side, pretty much straight, but did experiment in college. No official diagnosis, but ADD seems likely!”.

      Truly the most eye-swivellingly stupid idea I have heard, and I’ve heard some!

    4. Mac (I Wish All The Floors Were Lava)*

      “putting together this little book” sounds so sweet, so wholesome! I was not expecting the abrupt u-turn that sentence took immediately after. On the one hand, I have often wished I knew where my workplace stood on me being “out” at work about my various identities, but holy moly is this not the way to demonstrate inclusivity and make people feel welcome!

  23. OP Here*

    So just to give some clarification.

    There were no labor laws in question. I, along with most of my peers are salaried and exempt. It was on a scheduled workday, but offsite and pretty far from the office. Our schedules are pretty flexible, so I probably would’ve had no problem flexing that time that day, or even another day.

    One of my big issues, which I commented to someone else, is that I feel like whoever agreed to this, shouldn’t have done it in the first place before finding out if people were able to cover the shifts.

    But again, it was presented as volunteering, and it was something I just had no interest in doing. If you tell me its mandatory, I’ll do it, and grumble to my wife another time. But if you say its volunteering, I’ll assume you mean that.

    1. Unkempt Flatware*

      I totally agree with your second paragraph especially. Doing this fell solidly in the, “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” category.

    2. The Rural Juror*

      It’s also frustrating that it was far for you to go. You’d be incurring transportation costs to get there!

  24. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    Glassdoor their ass, riffing from Alison’s main point: “there’s no way to know what’s truly voluntary and what’s not … which means you can never take them at their word.”

  25. MicroManagered*

    You can tack a “Sorry” onto the front or back of these for politeness if you want:

    “I prefer not to”

    “I’m not available on those dates”

    “I have a prior obligation”

    “I’m not available on the evenings/weekends” (whatever timeslot they’re asking for)

    “I’m not volunteering this time around”

    “I can’t volunteer this time around”

    “Oh I didn’t sign up. I was under the impression this was voluntary – was that an incorrect assumption?”

  26. Extranonymous*

    Volunteer where I work means they don’t want to pay you for it. They do this with events all the time. Our team is required to be there and finally we balked at the lack of compensation, but they need “volunteers” from the other teams because they need an extra dozen people and they don’t get compensated.

  27. Mid*

    I spend a lot of my free time volunteering at causes that are important to me. I carefully vet the organizations, because there are an unfortunate number of non-profits that are ineffective at best and harmful at worst. I also have limited free time and money, so I want to make sure that what I’m doing is effective and meaningful to me.

    If a workplace asked me to volunteer for free, outside of work hours, that would be a hard no. If a workplace asked me to volunteer for an organization they like during work hours while I was paid, I’d also still probably say no, because corporate giving is usually about the tax breaks and free publicity the company gets, rather than actually doing something meaningful for a community.

    That said, I know some workplaces that give you a PTO day for volunteer work, and I fully support encouraging employees to volunteer at a cause that they are passionate about, without having to do it in the name of the company.

    It’s also unclear if this volunteering is a work task or expected to be free time, but I still don’t like it.

    1. Gnome*

      Yes. My company recently asked us to all tell them what volunteering we do on our own. You bet they did a nice write up on it for the newsletter and I’m sure it’s getting into the PR cycle. I don’t mind them hosting blood drives (makes it accessible and all) or if they gave us a few hours to volunteer, but I actually used my vacation time to get the training I needed for my volunteer work. so, not sharing that with them. (I will keep the cute kitten photos to myself as well).

    2. Caroline+Bowman*

      I don’t love the idea of volunteering for tax breaks and photo ops, nor terribly much for causes I’m not a fan of, BUT the key thing for me is: am I being paid for this work and is it in working hours? If yes, then I’ll usually go along with it (there are exceptions – I will not, not ever, do any form of volunteer work for any proselytising religious organisation. I’ll happily help out at food banks drives that churches may be doing, because the fact that it’s a church is incidental and the food bank (or whatever it is) is not contingent upon it). If no, then unless I will lose my job over it, I will not do it.

  28. StitchIsMySpiritAnimal*

    So you were volun-told. Yeaaaahhhh I don’t even let family get away with that, much less work.

  29. Cyn*

    My workplace got greatly smacked by the hand of the labor board for “volun-telling” people and not paying them.

  30. Gary Patterson's Cat*

    “I prefer not to” is also more likely to annoy someone who wanted you to understand their code and realize you were expected to participate.”

    I’d say that is their problem if they cannot communicate in the email that employees are expected to participate (as part of their job) by signing up for at least one time slot at the event. If they are a manager, they ought to be expected to use things like the right words.

    1. stillwater*

      yes but AAM is recommending what will get you the best outcome, not what you’re justified in doing

  31. scurvycapn*

    Besides the garbage messaging, the fact that the LW doesn’t report to the person making the demand is what stands out to me.

    “Sorry, I can’t,” is a complete answer. If they give you flak, “If you really need someone from our team, you should reach out to [team manager] to see if we have an available resource.”

  32. JSPA*

    If people are being volun-told, it’s a job duty, and they need to be paid for the time (or for the overtime they need to work to handle their regular tasks, or given comp time, or something) or have travel covered if it’s within the work day, but someplace complicated to get to.

    I thought we’d fully covered the issue of there being no such thing as, “work volunteering without pay?”

  33. Anne Wentworth*

    Really surprised Alison didn’t address this as a potential labor law violation, if in fact they’re being required to work without pay as it sounds in the letter.

    1. Nance*

      It doesn’t say that they’re being made to work without pay or that they’re non exempt…. and the OP says in the comments that they are exempt so it’s not a violation.

      1. CharlieBrown*

        Okay, yes, but how many non-exempt, hourly employees will see this and think that this is just something they have to go along with?

        Please notice that Anne Wentworth said “potential”.

  34. shedubba*

    I spent 4 months in graduate school before flunking out. That was thanks in part to a graduate coordinator who communicated like this. At one point, he announced a meeting for first year grad students to join the relevant professional organization, which happened to fall on the night before a major class project. All the language he used indicated it was voluntary, but he kept sending out reminders. Finally, one of our teachers took pity on us and flat out told us he expected all of us to be there or it would reflect badly on us. It did reflect badly on me that I failed to understand his code repeatedly in other things, and when I later had some mental health issues and needed some slack, there was none to be had for me. Good riddance.

  35. New Mom*

    Ugh, whenever I see posts about “mandatory volunteering” it makes me so mad. At my first full-time job I worked five days a week in a split shift (I do not recommend) and every other Saturday and it was rough. A couple of months into the job one of the managers asked me if I wanted to take a wine tasting class, and as a early twenty something who was always interested in a way to get free drinks I happily signed up. Well, it turned out that she had straight up lied to me and I had signed up to TEACH the wine tasting class. I told her, and the big boss that there was a misunderstanding and that I knew nothing about wine and they basically said, too bad you signed up so you have to do it. This involved me taking the subway across the city with the big boss to pick out wines while I seethed. It was a visa sponsored job so I couldn’t just quit over something like that, but you better bet I NEVER signed up for another thing that was offered for the next two years.
    It’s funny because that was over ten years ago but it still makes me mad when I think about it. Tricking workers in “volunteering” is just so icky.

    1. Mac (I Wish All The Floors Were Lava)*

      This is so infuriating, New Mom, I totally get why you’d still be mad about it a decade later. I wish Alison would do an article/call for anecdotes from folks in the US working on visas, because I think for people who’ve never had to do it, it’s so easy to just blithely assume that it’s, like, a totally above-board, humane system.

    2. Luna*

      “I’m here to teach you about wine. Quite frankly, I know nothing about it beyond ‘this tastes good’ and ‘I like the color’. …who wants a free glass?”

    3. Little Bobby Tables*

      That sounds like a great way to end up with a class covering whether Boone’s Farm or Two Buck Chuck is the better deal.

  36. TPS Reporter*

    My employer gives us two days off per year for volunteer work, and they vet what we submit generously. I love this approach.

    1. CharlieBrown*

      Seriously. If you want to add the “We encourage our employees to participate in charitable events” line to your website, this is how you do it.

  37. Raida*

    When the person came around soliciting volunteers I would have said “I’m not available, thanks for asking”
    And if they pressed, been a touch pedantic about it with “Oh, so this is a work shift? Well that’s different! Gosh you should really talk to whoever wrote that email, it was asking for ‘volunteers’ not stating this is a mandatory work task! So, what’s the setup – are we paid overtime, flex time, is it catered, is travel to and from it compensated, are we meeting at the office and shuttled there…? Who do I get all that sort of info from?”

    Basically – if it is volunteering to work at an event, I don’t have to volunteer. If it is a directed task for my job, I will be paid. Appropriately.

    My job will not tell me what organisations I *must* use my free time to support, but it can convince me with food, travel, etc covered. The business wants to support the other event by providing free staff? Sure well they can pay for that ‘donation’, not pass the cost along to their staff by volunteering them. All the praise and thanks goes to the business and the higher-ups, not to the individual staff that did the work, so the higher-ups can budget for it.

    1. Troublemaker*

      This is the correct response. Bite off the offending manager’s head. If they use a company-wide mailing list to coordinate this, be sure to quote the offending manager directly when replying-all to the thread. Ensure that they understand that they are not entitled to free labor.

  38. Jane*

    Unless they are paying you, absolutely not. If you are salary, I would expect that this take place during work hours or that I get equivalent time off during my normal shift.

  39. Luke*

    The military is infamous for “volunteer opportunities” that are actually orders.

    There’s a word for it: “I got ‘voluntold’ to be here.”

  40. Caroline+Bowman*

    A lot of companies here in the UK give a paid ”volunteering” day (or more, in some cases) as part of the package – where you have a paid day to do volunteer work. I’m not sure how it is managed or verified, but it’s a good way to allow and / or encourage staff to do volunteering at a place of their own choosing, paid, so that the company is in fact also donating to whatever the cause happens to be. I’m sure there are lots of ”let’s get the billing team together and all go volunteer at the local soup kitchen at Christmas” types of things, but that’s fine, since the people are actually paid to do the work. I’d do it quite happily and even go along with photo opportunities that generally give me the real icks, because the company has actually underwritten the work.

    Basically, no pay, no work.

  41. Luna*

    If it’s not voluntary, don’t call it that!
    Call it what it is. I’d be annoyed at having a mandatory event to go to, but I’d be even more annoyed that my place of work thinks it *has* to lie to get me to appear.

    And “I don’t want to” or “The location is inconvenient and difficult for me to get to” are absolutely valid reasons.

  42. HailRobonia*

    Ugh. My organization sponsors a big summer event – a music concert – that is totally unrelated to our work. Every year we are asked (i.e. pressured) to “volunteer.” This is an after work hours event and we are not paid for that time. I used to “volunteer” because I was new and inexperienced and wanted to seem like a team player and kiss up to our Big Boss.

    Luckily COVID stopped this event, but when we resume with it there is no effing way I will have anything to do with it.

  43. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    The use of ‘volunteer’ is just a way for the management to avoid, you know, managing.

    The right way to do it is “We need to staff 16 slots at the event this weekend. 4 each for: Saturday 8 to 1, Saturday 1 to 6, Sunday 10 to 2, Sunday 2 to 7 (includes breakdown of the booth). If you have a strong preference or a schedule conflict for one of these, get back to me by 10:00 am tomorrow, and then I’ll announce the schedule tomorrow afternoon.”

  44. Essess*

    I am concerned about the wording of this, and I don’t see Alison addressing the big question. If they are saying “volunteer”, does this mean they are expecting you to work it unpaid as a volunteer? If it is mandatory, they must pay you for your time. They can not make it mandatory to work unpaid “volunteer” time.

    1. Essess*

      Okay, I finally found a comment far down the comments page from OP saying it was paid during the work hours. I suggest Alison add that to the original letter since that is the most relevant to determine if this was even legal. If the location is far from the office, there are still questions about whether the extra transit costs would be reimbursed by the company and if there are any travel policies in place. My current company has a written policy that they expect you to be able to transit to any place within 40 miles of the office if needed and it will be considered as normal commute distance. Beyond that distance is considered “traveling” and eligible for reimbursement.

  45. HereToFore*

    It’s a shame about the wording, but I have to wonder if you picked the right battle. It sounds like you created an unnecessary dust-up, and got on some higher-ups’ radars in a negative way. And in the end, you got paid for your time.
    I’ll bet this brought some embarrassment to the manager or admin who chose the word ‘volunteer’, so they probably won’t make that mistake again.

    1. OP Here*

      I guess my thought is, I didn’t think it was a battle in the first place. A battle would’ve been me pushing back on something they said was mandatory. This seems like they didn’t communicate what they wanted. If they are going to get mad me at THEIR bad communication, that says more about them. If you are a manager and can’t communicate clearly, you should be embarassed.

  46. Madison*

    Here in The Australian Capital Territory, we government workers call this term ‘voluntold’ instead of volunteering

  47. Vio*

    In a healthy workplace, volunteer means optional and mandatory means paid (or time in lieu)! It’s fair enough to ask if anyone is available and willing to help out with things, but it should always be clear what the expectations are and if they’re worried that calling it mandatory would send a bad message then maybe they should think about *why* that is, instead of using misleading euphemisms

Comments are closed.