a higher-up is pushing an unwanted volunteer on us

A reader writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

{ 218 comments… read them below }

  1. Office Sweater Lady*

    Isn’t there a legal requirement that volunteers not do work that ordinarily would be paid? Since the son has effectively replaced a paid employee, they should look into whether there is liability there as well. Maybe this isn’t the case if this is a non-profit org though.

    1. Academia is weird*

      This is a great point. I work in academia and this is the distinction we must make between volunteer work and work work. If I remember correctly, there are clear guidelines from the Department of Labor as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The volunteer work must be services that are typically associated with volunteer work. If this work was previously handled by a paid employee and is essential work that must be completed I doubt it meets the requirements to be considered “volunteer” work.

      1. Lanlan*

        This is actually really good to know. My big lottery plan was to forgo my salary at work but still do the work as a volunteer, so my poor nonprofit could recoup at least some of what it puts out. Nice to know I can’t legally do that!

    2. TomatoSoup*

      There are exceptions for non-profits. Additionally, there are work training programs for people with disabilities which might increase their latitude in having Edward there. Some of those programs require the trainee be paid but it is minimal (~$3/hr).

      1. I'm Just Here For the Cats!*

        yes but a work training program would not be considered volunteering. And from my experience, usually, the person is placed through the program, not having a parent or guardian find the job. (I’m the legal guardian of a mentally disabled family member and my parent worked in the handicapped field for the majority of my life, so I grew up knowing how these systems work.) Although every agency is different.

        I think this is more that the therapy group suggests that Edward does something in the community and the mother thinks that she can use the company for this. They probably were thinking volunteer at a library or something.

        I wonder if this is even what Edward wants? Does he seem to be enjoying himself doing these tasks? And is Martha with him or does he have a job coach or carer with him? If there is a carer is it someone from the agency maybe you could find out what other folx in Edwards positon typically do and if they think they are the right fit. Most job coaches and carers (the goodones) will go to bat for their clients if they are not doing well, don’t like something or if the space is not the right fit. Could you reach out to the agency? If they are recommending volunteer work then they should know what’s going on.

        If he doesn’t have someone with him, what resources do you and the other workers have if something happens with Edward. What if he has a behavioral problem? Are you supposed to call Martha and how long will it be before she shows up?

        1. goddessoftransitory*

          Going strictly by what’s in the letter, it sounds like Martha is trying to work this around her own job but it’s turned into a kind of one-stop last minute place to set Edward, and that isn’t fair to anyone, least of all him.

          It cannot be fun for him to never know his schedule, to have to do a task he is unsuited for, and basically be at the mercy of Martha fitting him into this job. As you say, is this even what he wants to be doing? If he’s being so randomly inserted into other peoples’ workdays, this probably isn’t fostering strong work relationships for him.

        2. CarlDean*

          You’ve hit on a very important point – This seems like a real disservice to Edward (and to everyone, really, except Martha who seems to have settled on the first option that crossed her mind without much thought about anyone but herself.)

    3. Not a nepotism baby I think*

      If it’s a union shop you generally can’t have them do work that a union member would be assigned unless the union agrees. When I worked for a library no one liked one certain job but one volunteer liked the repetitive nature of it. Found it “soothing”. Ok, everyone else hates it so have fun! I always worked in union shops, even when my job was non-union though. So life may be different there or in right to work states where anything seems to go.

    4. Warrior Princess Xena*

      This can vary quite a bit from state to state, but good call! Well worth checking the legal requirements for paying employees.

    5. JSPA*

      Not to mention plain old liability.

      I’ve done work in volunteer status at universities, and absent a formal sabbatical or volunteer agreement, this was already a sticking point 25 years ago.

      I know campuses default to the assumption of being “open,” but he’s behind the scenes, and even in locked spaces (!) unsupervised (!).

      Martha may be lord-high-muckety-muck, but her son isn’t her. The right to be there (and coverage if he trips over a trash can) isn’t transitive. (Ditto for his support staff…and in fact, perhaps ditto Martha, in that she’s not in a space she’d normally have the training and job-related reasons to be in.)

      I’d talk to legal, explaining to them that you’re feeling pressure, but have come to realize that liability probably should be taking center stage, here.

      Then explain to Martha the legal tore you some extra openings, and he can’t come in anymore.

      Separately…why you? I’m guessing she put pressure on several departments, and your boss is the person who caved.

      Separately…how is this useful for him? He’s being given the false impression that the level of work that he can do, is helpful. If she wants him to do make work, she can make the make-work, under her own oversight.

      Separately…so long as you treat his presence as useful, she will continue to treat his presence as a shining jewel, to be bestowed on you with little or no warning. At minimum, if legal clears him being there at all, you must still draw the line at “proper oversight,” and demand an agreement that holds Martha liable, as an individual, for any damage. (She’s doing this in her private capacity; this is a 100% reasonable stance.)

      1. ABCYaBYE*

        Gosh this is a great response. I love the idea of legal weighing in so that it doesn’t look like LW doesn’t want Edward there or is not willing to be more helpful. The liability thing is VERY important and it sounds like LW and boss would be accountable for something that breaks or goes missing. As you said, there needs to be an agreement in place that if Edward is there, he/Martha assume responsibility.

      2. goddessoftransitory*

        I think liability is 100% the way to go here. This isn’t sorting books or pillows or things that probably won’t get damaged too badly–this is fiddly, delicate work on valuable things that can’t easily be replaced, if they can be at all. It is absolutely unreasonable to expect the LW or her boss to absorb blame or damages for said items in these circumstances.

      3. Artemesia*

        That he would sneak in to the department when no one is working — in a department with valuable objects that might be broken or missing is such a huge liability — for the OP and the company. This has gotten far out of hand.

      4. Willow Pillow*

        If they have someone available… Within the handful of NFPs I’ve worked with, this would only have been an option at one of them – and “legal” was Martha’s father.

      5. Momma Bear*

        This stuck out to me – that he’s there presumably unsupervised when there’s no work and no one to watch what he does. You and your boss are then held liable for things you can’t control. I would be livid about this. No matter how high Martha is, you know you’d be the first one under the bus if anything happened. I’d want it in writing that if Martha let him in, you cannot be held liable.

        I’d approach it with the boss not about Edward so much as what’s happening to YOUR work and your team. You tried this experiment, but you are losing time having to re-do work, you can’t manage your own work due to his haphazard schedule and spotty communication (anyone else would be fired, right?) and you are deeply uncomfortable having anyone in your team space when no one is there to monitor. I would want to be on record that she’s doing this. He’s not enhancing the environment. He’s detracting from it. Also, since this relationship started, she’s been undermining your role and your own boss by trying to dictate what you do. There are other answers where the suggestion has been to take the issue to your boss and say, “This is the issue. This is what I can/can’t do. I need you to back me up/prioritize my work. If I do x (example, employ Edward) then I cannot do y and z.” and then get the boss to, preferably in writing, confirm that they understand that you’ll not be able to meet priorities if this persists.

        If he can’t be “fired” strongly push him elsewhere. If you can’t do that, Edward needs to bring a book and pull up a chair if there’s no work for him to do. Like an Intern with nothing to do.

  2. The Green Lawintern*

    The longer you keep Edward around, the more likely it is that he’s going to irreparably damage an item one of these days.

    1. L'étrangère*

      +1 in fact if you succeed in getting rid of him you might find out it’s already happened

    2. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

      This was my thought too. What will Martha’s response be when a highly valuable item becomes worthless because of Edward? I bet it won’t be to hold Edward, or herself, accountable. I’d be very concerned if I were the LW. Make it clear to your boss and Martha’s boss that this isn’t safe and can’t continue. Document that you had these conversations. CYA all day.

        1. goddessoftransitory*

          Yup yup yup.

          The more I think about it the more unreasonable and untenable the LW’s position is.

    3. Random Dice*

      This situation is a nightmare.

      I’d literally be waking up from nightmares about finding priceless artifacts broken.

      1. Puggles*

        Good point. LW contact your legal department if you have one and explain the situation. I’m sure they would back you up that he cannot work with priceless pieces.

      2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        Ooh, this is a good thought! If this is the case, OP can frame it as they’d love to keep Edward around, but they just can’t.

    4. Dust Bunny*

      Archives employee and sibling of a historical archaeologist here: You need to get your superiors behind you and end this.

      I’m also going to say that it’s a problem that your boss didn’t feel like she could refuse, either because Martha has too much clout or your boss is a wimp or some combination of the two. I’m pretty certain that my supervisor could and would refuse to take on an inappropriate volunteer suggested by, say, our executive director or a member of the board. Also, I’m pretty certain the our ED would either not suggest an inappropriate volunteer in the first place or would accept my supervisor’s judgment here, and that the ED would also back us up if someone on the board tried to force the issue. This is an institutional-culture red flag for me.

      1. H*

        Or other and more. This forum is rife with topics about workplace social capital and its ills, and it could be the boss is new or otherwise isn’t unsure how to address the situation. “Wimp” is…unnecessary.

      2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        Totally agree with your first point. OP and their boss needs to take this as far up their own chain of command as is necessary to stop this immediately. There must be someone around who has some kind of power over Martha. Who I hope would be horrified about all of this.

    5. ferrina*

      Are the donors/owners of the rare items aware of this? Would it make a difference if they were? (I’m assuming there are donors/owners as part of this equation- I’m not in this industry, so I may be completely wrong)

      This could be a leverage point for your boss- “I’d hate to explain to Key Donor that their item was damaged by an untrained, unqualified volunteer.”

    6. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

      Honestly, Martha is also harming her son and his efforts to become more independent here. She’s helicopter mothering and insisting everyone pretend it is working, which prevents him from engaging in a role where he can take the reins, do the work, and gain skills that help him with occupational therapy. I bet the occupational therapist would actually not be thrilled with this set up, even if it wasn’t so problematic for OP, because having mommy dearest in control and taking the reins is preventing the son from getting the benefits from the volunteer experience that he needs in order to become more independent.

  3. Betty*

    I think it might also help to explicitly include the information from your letter that you’ve frequently had to reassign people in the past because of the unusual motor skills required by the role when you talk to Martha. You don’t have an issue with Edward per se, you have a requirement for the person in the role that many people don’t meet, and unfortunately that happens to also include Edward.

    (I mean– you obviously do have an issue with Edward regarding his schedule, but the non-fixable aspect seems both more likely to effectively stop the arrangement and give everyone a face-saving out.)

    Also, if your org is one that has mission statements around equity, it may be worth gently communicating to higher ups that creating special opportunities for the family members of high-ranking employees is… really not that.

    1. Enai*

      Yes, compared with the CEO of “It’s nepotism for an unknown sibling to work in the same company as me, even if nobody knew before they started” fame, this looks suspiciously like the other extreme.

  4. DrSalty*

    If Martha won’t listen to reason, is there some kind of harmless busywork you can give Edward instead? Like stuffing envelopes or filing or something that doesn’t involve rare artifacts?

    1. NewJobNewGal*

      I’ve had to deal with an intern that the CEO demanded we entertain in our department. The intern didn’t want to do anything and knew that they didn’t need to do anything, but we had to keep the CEO happy and put on a show. So we made up some research tasks and told the intern that they could fill up the rest of their time as they would like. They would look up something on Wikipedia for 10 minutes, then sit on facebook the rest of the day.
      Did I feel so morally bankrupt that I wanted to puke? Every.Day. Shoveling privilege around was gut wrenching, but I only had to do it for 3 months.

      1. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

        Honestly, Martha is also harming her son and his efforts to become more independent here. She’s helicopter mothering and insisting everyone pretend it is working, which prevents him from engaging in a role where he can take the reins, do the work, and gain skills that help him with occupational therapy. I bet the occupational therapist would actually not be thrilled with this set up, even if it wasn’t so problematic for OP, because having mommy dearest in control and taking the reins is preventing the son from getting the benefits from the volunteer experience that he needs in order to become more independent.

    2. Paris*

      This is what I’m thinking. Edward needs a different job. Taking photographs, answering the phone, writing a personal reflection essay on the artifacts, dusting the desks, keeping an inventory log. I don’t know what you’re doing over there but some of it has to be not restoring antique maps (that is what I’m imaging you do). Frame this to your boss and Martha as setting Edward up for success – it must be so demoralizing to him to be repeatedly subjected to this job he can’t succeed at.

      1. GreenDoor*

        “Setting Edward up for success” is the key thing. We have young people with disabilities (physical and/or learning related) where I work and the tasks they are assigned are either to a) learn their own workarounds for their particular challenges, b) build confidence in themselves and c) learn a job skill – – that they will be able to use for paid employment once they graduate. How on earth does taking someone with occupational challenges and giving them work with rare/expensive objects help any of that? It’s like going 0 to 60! OPs letter focuses on Martha’s behavior. But I wonder what of Edward? Has anyone higher up had a conversation with Edward himself to see if he even wants this job?
        Has anyone told him directly what problems his work style causes? That they really need him to work a steady schedule? OP says Edward is an adult….so why is everyone assuming they need to go through Mommy (which also likely does nothing to set him up for success as an adult!)

        1. Not A Raccoon Keeper*

          This is a really important lens! A lot of comments are focused on the power struggle, but this is a valuable lens to look at this through, if OP can.

        2. CarlDean*

          Yes, and everyone is assuming that Edward is not aware this is a bad fit for him. It’s not clear from detail here, but it may well be exceptionally miserable for Edward as well.
          At Martha’s convenience she’s like “remember how much you love spending hours with dusty artifacts, sweetie?”
          And Edward is like “dear god make me a bird…”

          Edwards deserves to be in a situation suitable for him. Building confidence (which this is not). Building skills (which this does not appear to be). Not, killing time.

          1. chips and scraps*

            Yeah, I feel pretty horrible for Edward. LW deserves help from someone who can do the work, and Edward deserves something he can legitimately benefit from, not this patronising makework BS.

        3. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          This is full of great points. We don’t know how Edward feels about any of this.

      2. Cookie*

        I was imagining repairing/restoring antique musical instruments! Like let’s not give Edward the priceless cello to repair, let’s have him take pictures of it or something…

      3. goddessoftransitory*

        If I was Edward I would be completely demoralized at this point. Being repeatedly tasked with something it is physically impossible for you to do is torturous.

      4. Curmudgeon in California (they/them)*

        When I was newly disabled, and having a hard time moving and working, I get shoved by an employment assistance agency for disabled people into a mind numbing outbound call center job for six hours a day at very low pay. Previously I had been doing professional level work as a chemist. This was soul crushing and humiliating. I finally quit because it paid so poorly that no one who got sick could afford to take (unpaid) time off, and if you got sick from them they expected you to come in sick too! No sick leave, no holidays, etc. They called it “supported employment”. I called it hell.

        A person who is newly disabled, especially if they have had a TBI or something that affects their cognitive and dexterity skills, is already going through a lot of upheaval adjusting to the new reality. To get shoved willy-nilly into a job that they have no training for, that they don’t get paid for, and that only tolerates them because Mommy insists would be just as soul crushing. If it was me I’d be crying in the bathroom every day.

        Edward needs something where his prior knowledge and experiences can be a bridge to new skills, not makework at Mommy’s company. If it were me I’d ask him what he really wants, and try to find a way for it to happen. His mother is not doing him any favors, and having him try to do a job that he doesn’t actually have any skills in is not helping him to adjust to his new life.

        I really, really feel sorry for Edward. I’ve been in that “newly disabled and going through physical and occupational therapy” place. It’s hell, and his mother isn’t helping.

    3. Dr. Rebecca*

      As easy as those two things sound, they’re not actually unimportant, nor are mistakes made while doing them ‘harmless.’ The problem isn’t that Edward is unsuited to the work (although he is) the problem is that Edward, an unsuitable worker, is being foisted on the LW without their wanting him there, and while he’s there he’s not following directions.

      1. DrSalty*

        Yeah obviously the goal is to get rid of him. But if you can’t do that, then making up some harmless busy work (whatever that means to OP) is probably a better option than allowing him to continue to work in a position he is unsuited for where he could cause real damage.

      2. JSPA*

        Have him take snapshots with his own phone or in PUBLIC areas of the collection, and compose (or dictate) captions that are his personal reactions, which his carers can craft into a simple blog. “Archeological maps through eyes of wonder.” “Minerals: pretty, strange, and pretty strange.” “Insect carapaces, cooler than you knew.”

        1. ferrina*

          If your department is interested in having a social media presence but it’s not a high priority, this is something you might be able to assign Edward. Have him look at similar organizations social media presence and look for social media posts with lots of engagement and give an internal report on what he found.
          I’ve had junior staff do exploratory research like this- sometimes I use what they give me, more often I use parts and completely redo other parts, sometimes we take a look and say “this isn’t something we have time/budget/priority for now, but it’s nice to know more so we can make an informed decision”

    4. High Score!*

      Maybe hand Edward a digital camera and have him photograph items and have him research then online. He could choose items to photograph from around the office and create reports on them. Total busy work but he wouldn’t need to touch anything and maybe someone, ie Martha, works enjoy the reports.

      1. Amtelope*

        I am not a fan of lying to Edward about the nature of his work as a solution here. It’s one thing to give someone with a disability the chance to do work that could be done more efficiently by someone without the disability. It’s another thing to pretend that he’s doing work that is useful to others when he isn’t. This situation isn’t working for OP, but it also isn’t working for Edward, who would be better served by a volunteer placement where he could do a meaningful job within his abilities.

        1. DJ*

          I agree that it feels icky to give him busy work rather than try to train him. But Martha has (inadvertently or otherwise) put OP into a difficult situation. Really she’s put both OP and Edward into difficult situations. OP cannot effectively manage Edward due to the relationship and Edward isn’t getting training that will allow him to succeed elsewhere (which I assume is the point of the volunteering). Not only that but precious artifacts are at risk! I don’t know what to do because so much depends on how Martha would handle the news.

          1. Aggretsuko*

            Frankly, busywork (take out the trash? stuff envelopes? look on Wikipedia and Facebook?) sounds better than the alternatives, especially if Martha can and does throw her weight around, won’t take no for an answer.

            1. goddessoftransitory*

              I would be THRILLED to have someone do things like sort recycling, stuff envelopes, and a thousand other annoying, time consuming things. Admin’s not nothing, at all, and if it fits Edward’s skill set everyone would be happier.

              But it’s not LW’s job to solve any of this. In fact, their job is being made undoable by the present setup.

            2. Junior Assistant Peon*

              The workplace has got to have bathrooms to be cleaned, floors to be swept, wastebaskets to be emptied, windows to be Windexed, etc. Janitorial work could be considered legitimate training for him – a path toward a real job that would help him become more independent.

              1. New Jack Karyn*

                Ooh, I don’t think this is going to fly. Martha will be BIG MAD that Edward is cleaning bathrooms and not restoring antiques, Custodial will be irritated that someone is stepping into their bailiwick, and Edward himself will likely be displeased.

                1. Lisa*

                  But did Martha ever specifically ask for Edward to restore antiques? I think she just asked if their department had anything he could do–anything.

        2. Willow Pillow*

          Everyone is already pretending that he’s doing work that is useful to others when he isn’t. Under the circumstances, busy work does sound useful to others, if only to avoid damaging artifacts or the like.

  5. JustMe*

    Ignoring the difficult work environment this creates for OP, this seems like it could be a liability for the institution. If the items you’re accepting are rare/valuable (I’m assuming pieces of art? Scientific instruments?) then they’re necessary for the institution to carry out its mission, and if something happens to them, there could be big ramifications for your department. I honestly think it sounds like you need to push back and say, “This work requires a high degree of precision and part of my job is being responsible for these extremely valuable things so that faculty/staff/researchers/artists/whoever can use them. If one thing goes wrong, it not only inhibits everyone else’s ability to do their job, but it could cause financial problems for us.” I can guarantee that other people using these materials probably don’t want just anyone coming in and working on them.

    1. Lilac*

      Yes, this is how I’d approach it. Instead of mentioning any fault with Edward, I would focus on the liability aspect. That might get through to Martha’s business brain.

      1. Random Dice*

        Martha’s unreasonable. You don’t appeal to unreasonable people, but to reasonable people with the authority to make decisions.

        1. JustMe*

          She’s definitely being unreasonable. Probably need to loop in other department heads to see what kind of liability this is. I’m sure that not everyone knows Edward is working with these items and even if it’s not an insurance issue, I’m sure someone else is going to be upset that a volunteer is, say, calibrating the scales or unpacking the Ming vases.

          1. goddessoftransitory*

            I would flip the eff out if I found out any untrained person was handling stuff like this.

    2. VP of Monitoring Employees’ LinkedIn and Indeed Profiles*

      The way the letter is worded, it sounds like OP might be personally liable for any damage to the items regardless of how or by whom they might be damaged.

      1. Lydia*

        I doubt she would be personally financially liable, but their insurance sure would be mad if it came out someone unqualified was handling these things and something got broken. The OP could lean on that.

        1. 1LFTW*

          I agree. She might not be personally financially liable, but insurance might not pay out if they learned that something was damaged by someone who was unqualified/uncertified, and OP might wind up taking the blame for it. It would be a good idea to flag the issue to her boss in writing.

      2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        My read was more that OP would be held responsible by the organization, more than being financially liable. But it’s still bad!

    3. Slow Gin Lizz*

      This comment makes me wonder what the insurance requirements are for handling these rare items. I have no idea how insurance works but maybe the org only can insure employees and not volunteers handling these items. This is really just a stopgap, though, because what OP really needs to do is get their boss’ boss involved, or whoever OP reports to that is on the same org-chart level as Martha. I think that person really needs to know what is happening.

  6. Katie Porter's Whiteboard*

    It sounds like LW works at a museum, not only by the nature of their work but because I work with museum collections and this is the type of thing that often happens in that environment. Many, many people who do the work I do work with volunteers with varying levels of suitability. Another thing I would suggest is looking at Edward’s involvement in terms of the risk toward the valuable material you’re working with. If you have an insurance provider, I’m sure they would be less than thrilled if they knew there were untrained, unsupervisable, and unregulated volunteers handling the material. Discussing this issue with a manger and phrasing it as “I’m not saying something WILL happen, only that there are enough factors that an outsider could reasonably think that something COULD happen.” Highlighting the risk involved with the situation as well as the consistent drain on your ability to do your job might drive your point home.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Aha, I mentioned insurance above but since I do not know how it works, your comment has enlightened me. Thank you. (Pleased to know I was on the right track, anyway.)

    2. Bird Lady*

      I used to work in museums as well, and thought that the OP is also talking about either a museum or an academic special collections archive at a university or library. It sounds like Martha may be a board member, at which point things get tricky. Some museums I’ve worked for essentially forbade telling board members no. If Martha is a board member, then this goes beyond a department head. The ED should be speaking to the board chair about the insurance implications and potential ill will that could be created in the community if an item is damaged due to unskilled processing. Some boards prefer to govern themselves, at which point the chair should talk to Martha. Otherwise the ED should have that conversation.

      1. Bird Lady*

        Also, if it is a museum and located in New York State, improper accessioning has legal implications with the NYS Board of Regents.

      2. goddessoftransitory*

        If she is, the ED has to get the rest of the board–on board. It is ridiculous that one member can hold the others hostage (although that’s not to say it doesn’t happen, natch.)

      3. anna*

        What makes you think she may be a board member? It sounds like she’s just a higher level coworker (a board member likely wouldn’t be on site during the day to be able to track the OP down).

  7. EPLawyer*

    I think this needs to go up the chain. Your boss needs to talk to her boss to explain the facts of life to Martha that your job does not exist to make work for her son. Academia is weird so its possible that might not work. But its a conversation that needs to happen.

    Failing that, is there filing or something Edward can do? Dusting? Stuffing envelopes?

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Yeah, I’m thinking the person who OP needs to talk to is whoever OP reports to in the org chart that is on the same level as Martha. So if Martha is the CFO, for instance, OP needs to speak to the Chief Rare Items Handling Officer. OP could ask their direct boss to speak to CRIHO but either way someone needs to inform that person that this is happening because it sounds like that person doesn’t know. If that person does know and isn’t doing anything about this situation, then that’s a much bigger problem. Edward sounds like a disaster waiting to happen and I am not at all certain* that Martha will be willing to take the fall if something happens.

      * Read: very much certain that Martha WON’T be willing to take the fall.

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        Or, if necessary, someone who is above Martha in the organization. It makes perfect sense to start with someone at the same level to have a gentle chat with her about the risks and the optics and how this can’t continue. But if that doesn’t work – or the peer knows Martha well enough to know it won’t – then it’s time to bring in someone with the power to make this stop.

    2. TypityTypeType*

      Yes! I was about to write much the same thing. It makes no sense to be disrupting real work and risking valuable objects just to keep Edward busy.

      (In passing, I can’t imagine there’s much value in this for Edward, either. Showing up at random times to do work he’s not qualified for while ignoring his supervisors isn’t going to prepare him for a regular job, if indeed that is the goal.)

      1. Elsajeni*

        Yeah, I don’t think there’s any practical way for the OP to raise this as an issue, but it seems like… if the occupational therapist suggested volunteering, they probably had some kind of goal in mind for that, right? But the things that seem like possible goals here — get practice keeping a regular schedule; get practice interacting appropriately with a supervisor or colleagues; learn or practice a job-specific skill that you will be able to use in paid work in the future — are not being met by the current setup. Even if it was purely “get out of the house and around people for a few hours a week,” it barely sounds like they’re managing to do that. Like I said, I don’t think this is something the OP (or anyone else, really) could point out to Martha, but maybe it will help them/their boss feel better about canceling this arrangement to think about how it isn’t doing anything useful for Edward, either.

    3. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Couldn’t agree more. I think the only path to resolving this situation is to flag this for people higher up in OP’s chain of command. Be clear about the risks that come with someone without the requisite skill set – noting that plenty of people are not able to develop the skills – working on valuable items.

      And try to get documentation that you have raised serious concerns (e.g., e-mailing your boss, possibly with the strong suggestion that this should be raised with their boss). Obviously, I don’t know whether it’s possible in your organization to contact your grandboss directly, but if your boss won’t, I’d strongly consider it. Hopefully, the grandboss will be horrified and put a stop to it. If not, you’ve done a bit of covering your a** in case there is an insurance claim that comes up.

  8. J!*

    “they aren’t concerned about the quality of his work”

    LW, your bosses are not concerned about Edward’s work because you redo it and they haven’t had to deal with the consequences of their decisions.

    1. Caramel & Cheddar*

      Yes! They’re not concerned with the quality of work because it’s LW’s and it’s been good! They’ve never seen the quality of Edward’s work.

    2. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      Perhaps some reporting on his “progress” — times scheduled and cancelled, unplanned showing up, percentages of acceptable work, supervisory time spent planning work and how much of it was completed by Edward on time and accurately, supervisory time spent repairing mistakes. Every month until they see the errors of their ways. Maybe have mommy sign off.

    3. Dust Bunny*


      The point here isn’t the quality of the work, anyway–it’s probably to give Edward some alleged occupational therapy without Martha having to go to any extra trouble. Martha doesn’t care about the work as long as she can tell herself it’s helping Edward.

    4. Sopranohannah*

      Exactly, boss “ decided that Edward’s volunteer time would be best spent doing the work of that position.” Boss was wrong and needs to be told that and find him other work for him to do if appeasing Martha is important.

      Also, boss needs to get security to secure their work environment. OP is worried about Martha and Edward, but who else can get in there and steal things. This is the blind spot people write heist films on.

  9. Lulu*

    I’ve worked in environments like this (such as higher ed) where there’s a hierarchy that can imply that if someone above you asks for a favor, you’re supposed to comply. And there are some people with the personality to feel really obligated under this type of pressure. And “confrontation” is hard! (I put that in quotation marks because it’s really not confrontational to simply have a work related conversation, but it can feel like confrontation to the confrontation-averse among us.)

    What it comes down to is what Allison mentioned. This is likely occurring because your boss didn’t actually say no. Now is the time to say this isn’t working for a variety of reasons (schedule, workload, skill set, liability, direction-following, etc.). She can pick one or two of those that will go over best, and have the rest in her back pocket. But a firm “I’m sorry, we’re not able to accommodate this request anymore” is probably all that’s needed. And then if it’s insisted upon anyway, you (your boss) raise the issue with the next higher up using the bigger guns (liability, potential volunteer violations, etc.).

    1. anon for this*

      I work in an environment like this. One time my boss (a busy executive) found himself in desperate need of a coffee and sent me an email asking me to go pick one up for him. It was the only time this has ever happened and he’d forgotten that at the time I was on crutches after an accident…

      …and I did it, even though it took taping the top of the coffee cup closed and sticking it in a purse to hang from my neck while I shuffled back as gently as possible from the coffee shop 2 blocks away. I was at the bottom of the chain and the executive was badly in need of some caffeine on a tough day and there was no one else to send to do this and I knew it would win me some points.

      Dropped off the coffee to his administrative assistant (who gave me a look but didn’t say anything), got an appreciative email from my boss, never found out whether he later realized that this had happened during my injury period!

      1. DataSci*

        WOW. So glad I don’t work in that sort of environment! The only time I can imagine my boss asking me to get her a coffee would be if SHE was on crutches or otherwise reduced mobility, and even then it would be the crappy “who knows how old these generic beans are” machine in the office, and clearly a favor rather than a requirement.

    2. Smithy*

      Yes – and I will add that as someone as part of a nonprofit hierarchy that is notorious for preferring to always be deferential, say yes to everything, and always find a way to make it work…..repeatedly disappointing someone a little bit over time can end up being a lot more harmful than disappointing someone more all at once.

      Essentially, right now the OP/her boss/their department are dribbling a mediocre to disappointing volunteer experience to Edward and Martha over time. This system isn’t providing the drop-in and flexible dynamic that suits their schedule, and (assuming no one is lying to Edward) I assume Edward isn’t getting a lot of praise beyond basic professional politeness. Doing this for 9/12/18 months before the situation becomes so odious that Martha and Edward decide to stop likely won’t result in Martha being happy about the reasons. Let alone is a “very bad” incident then happens and a confrontation still needs to happen in addition to the months of mediocrity + the “very bad” incident.

      However, if a meeting happens after a few months and explained that this is no longer working – even if that upsets Martha – you avoid the drip drip of irritation over time. This idea that if something isn’t working, low level mediocrity and misery will make them stop and not hold you responsible is an error. If Martha is no worse than medium unreasonable, it allows the OP/OP’s boss/grandboss to start the rebuild process now – and not 9 down the road.

      1. MissCoco*

        This is excellent advice and a very good perspective on the situation.

        This isn’t working, so Martha is almost guaranteed to be irritated eventually (and it sounds like she may already be getting frustrated). Will your department suffer more for causing her months of dragged out frustration, or by confronting it directly and explaining that after a trial of x months, the volunteering still isn’t working?

  10. Sharon*

    It sounds like the volunteer work is meant to be a part of his occupational therapy. Perhaps the OT could suggest a volunteer program that might be better suited to Edward’s OT goals.

    1. Grace*


      Putting the rest of it aside (it’s bad, but differently bad), I can 100% see an OT recommending a volunteer gig that involves some amount of physical dexterity to a patient. (I was in OT for a while, and finding ways to develop the motor skills I was missing was a big deal.) But not something where even fully able-bodied people often have trouble with the fine motor control required, and not something where the items involved are valuable and irreplaceable.

      1. MigraineMonth*

        Good point. Neural surgery is probably great for developing fine motor skills. Still shouldn’t be an OT recommendation.

      1. Happy*

        It’s a useful suggestion for OP to pass along to her boss for when Martha objects to cutting her son.

        1. cabbagepants*

          Edward’s OT needs are irrelevant to the LW. Martha needs a razor-clear boundary that Edward cannot continue to be foisted upon the LW. Even if his OT said that LW’s team was the best ever for Edward, he’d still need to go.

  11. theletter*

    Maybe there’s some internetty-researchy-data-entry task Edward could do on an ad-hoc basis? Where he sits in a corner and pokes at a google chrome book and doesn’t have to touch anything valuable?

    1. High Score!*

      I think this is the nicest solution. And who knows, perhaps Edward’s research will turn up some interesting information.

      1. Julia*

        One thing worth considering is if the information he digs up would need to be fact checked or confirmed. Just googling isn’t likely to get reliable information. If this is a museum or other education adjacent place they need solid accurate information backed up with sources.

    2. Mockingjay*

      The problem is that OP is dealing with a volunteer/intern role for which there is no formal program, oversight, structure, or reporting. It is completely unrealistic to expect OP to invent work on random days at very short notice, in a work environment that requires training, dexterity, and knowledge of how to properly handle delicate artifacts, not to mention the amount of supervision required for such a volunteer, which hampers completion of OP’s own work.

      OP, talk to your boss. Just be firm: Edward can no longer be a volunteer with you; state the reasons cited here; mention the liability Edward’s presence (or any other untrained person) poses.

      1. ferrina*

        Agree that the best solution is that Edward can no longer be a volunteer. This is eating into OP’s time (aren’t volunteers supposed to save time?), there’s serious risk and liability issues, and Martha has created an environment where there’s no way LW can properly supervise the things under their jurisdiction.

        If and only if that is not an option, I agree with theletter that there may be more indirect projects Edward can do. Are there any nice-to-haves that you don’t care about timeline or work quality? For example, I occasionally need to create projects for junior staff that require no supervision (all supervisors are busy) and no deadline (in case the junior staff suddenly is needed for an urgent project). I like things like exploratory research on things that I’m vaguely interested in- for example, are you even vaguely interested in increasing your social media presence? Have Edward research what similar organizations are doing on social media and give an internal presentation. Vaguely interested in a community engagement activity? Have him research potential options. The nice thing about this is that you can also have follow up questions- “Can you find me more information on X?” Decide not to do anything with the info: “This is great! Unfortunately it shows that we don’t have the resources necessary to do a really good job at this right now, but this is definitely worth knowing for the future as we consider whether that’s something we want to invest in.”

      2. Aggretsuko*

        This is why some kind of pointless busywork is needed. Or needs to be invented/made up if necessary. Something that can be done at any point in time and doesn’t need to be done or done well and makes Edward look busy. “Here, look up the history of dodos.”

        I say this because it doesn’t sound like logic and reason work in this Martha situation.

    3. Dust Bunny*

      I suspect that Martha would raise a stink about this not being occupational or therapeutic enough.

  12. American Water Dog*

    This isn’t a Martha problem, this is an President/CEO/Executive Director or Board of Directors problem. Ultimately, the mission of the institution is adversely impacted, and the organization is dealing with unnecessary risks. Do they even know? I would urge the LW and LW’s boss to frame the problem structurally and communicate to those responsible for governance and satisfying stakeholders that the resources available are being applied to best effect. Given that Martha doesn’t have a sufficient strategic view to figure this out for herself, she has limited utility as a member of leadership herself.

    1. XYZ*

      To shield myself from the wrath of Martha, I would make up some totally BS busywork for Edward to do that does not involve handling anything valuable.

      1. Dust Bunny*

        No, the bosses/board/whoever need to stop coddling Martha. Edward does not need to volunteer here. Nobody owes it to him or his mother.

        1. Cat's Paw for Cats*

          Thank you. The failure here is OP’s boss, grandboss, great grandboss or whomever is responsible for running this institution. This needs to be dealt with. Cowardly managers are by definition, poor managers.

    2. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      > Do they even know?

      I can say with a pretty high level of confidence that I doubt they do…

      Not sure if she doesn’t have a strategic view or is it more like she has the blinkers on about this specific issue.

      Edward’s disability and the occupational therapy is somewhat irrelevant in all this (from the perspective of the problem OP has). It would be just the same if it was a school project or unemployed family member trying to get something to pad out their resume with or whatever. Martha is abusing her position and I think the way she’s gone about it could be a firing level offence actually. Especially gaining unauthorised (she has no legit purpose in being there) access to OPs part of the building and so on. And of course risking the valuable objects they work with (his disability is irrelevant to those motor skills as well – I suspect many non-disabled people don’t have those skills either, including myself – there’s a reason I work with “mental” tasks (tech) and not physical objects…)

      1. Ama*

        You are absolutely correct that the actual problem isn’t Edward’s disability or need for occupational therapy. We’re navigating a similar situation right now at the nonprofit I work for — a person on our expert advisory board really wants us to find a volunteer opportunity for her daughter. The daughter has a specific degree and expertise and seems to have a very particular idea of what she wants to do (she’s rejected multiple projects we’ve proposed) but we just don’t have any of that kind of work, we’d have to create a brand new project for her to work on and none of us have that kind of time. I think we all thought she’d take the hint the last time we sent “here’s the projects we could use some help on, if you’re interested” and she said no to all of them, but she sent another follow up last week.

        People need to realize that there needs to be a good match between a volunteer and the place they are volunteering, just because someone has good intentions in trying to volunteer their time doesn’t mean the place they want to volunteer has anything that would suit their skills, interest, or availability.

        1. goddessoftransitory*

          Yes–with the best will in the world, me volunteering my barn painting skills is not going to help out a submarine manufacturer.

  13. Baron*

    I agree with Alison’s advice and with everything the commenters are saying, and I understand why the LW is frustrated – if Edward can’t do the work, he can’t do the work. But I’m not sure on what grounds the LW is sure that impairment of fine motor skills isn’t part of Edward’s disability, given that she opens the letter by saying she knows nothing about the nature of Edward’s disability, and given that poor fine motor skills are often a symptom of disability.

    I don’t think this changes the practical advice – if his disability is keeping him from being an effective volunteer, it is – but I wonder how the LW’s *feelings* about Edward would change, if at all, if she reflected on how likely it is that his impaired fine motor skills may have more to do with his disability than she realizes. None of this is to say that she’s required to accommodate his disability in these circumstances or required to have her work product endangered. We can be compassionate toward Edward and still think he does not belong in that exact environment, which he clearly doesn’t.

    1. Mark This Confidential And Leave It Laying Around*

      I don’t see anything in OP’s letter that disparages Edward or indicates that she has anything personal against him or expresses a lack of compassion.

      1. Mill Miker*

        Yeah, there’s no indication Edward even has poor motor skills, it sounds like the work requires above-average motor skills to do effectively.

      2. Heidi*

        This is true. I find it odd, though, that we have been given such a vivid, detailed depiction of Martha’s character, but we know so little about Edward’s opinions and motivations regarding this issue. This whole situation is supposed to be about helping him, but it doesn’t feel like he’s involved at all.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          I don’t–I think Martha has been doing all the communicating. And depending on how disabled he actually his, he may not be great at articulating it, or understand how difficult the work is (since someone else is always cleaning it up for him).

          1. goddessoftransitory*

            When the LW wrote that she isn’t told when Edward messes up, it makes me think he’s hiding it because he’s afraid of getting in trouble, or making his mom angry.

        2. Smithy*

          Probably because the reality of this volunteer dynamic is a fairly classic nepotism placement moreso than anything else. If Martha wasn’t senior in the organization, the OP has made the case that the OP/OP’s boss would feel stronger pushing back against this placement.

          If anything – the details about Edward’s life that help my comprehension of the letter indicate that while Edward is an adult, his life is pragmatically intertwined with his mother’s in ways that are both known and unkonwn to the OP. Therefore given the power dynamics at work with Martha and the pragmatic interconnection – the OP is not in a place to only work through and with Edward around his volunteer time.

          Let’s say that Edward’s OT is related to seizures which result in him being unable to drive and they live in a community without reliable public transportation. Edward’s schedule may then be unpredictable due to his medical appointments mixed with when Martha can bring him with her to work. How his seizures would or would not impact motor skills wouldn’t necessarily be known to the OP. But if the job is repairing model train pieces – I’m going to be bad at that job, and I have no diagnosed issues requiring OT. But my motorskills are also not going to be good enough for a lot of that work.

    2. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I don’t see a lack of compassion for Edward. Most of the issues with Edward come from a) his mother and b) the department not being set up for volunteers. Neither of those things are his fault, nor is his lack of fine motor skills. But it’s an odd setup all around and I don’t think compassion for Edward changes the arithmetic.

    3. Bee*

      I mean, the OP sounds perfectly sympathetic to all the other people who’ve had to be reassigned because they don’t have (and can’t acquire) the fine motor skills necessary, so I don’t know what this would change? She knows it’s an unusual skillset and doesn’t hold that against anyone – she’s frustrated by everything else in the situation.

    4. I should really pick a name*

      Let’s say that hypothetically his poor motor skills are a result of his disability.
      How would this change the situation?

      Also, what issues do you see with the LW’s feelings about Edward?

      1. Baron*

        I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that I have issues with the LW’s feelings about Edward – I don’t think the LW is doing anything wrong here at all.

    5. Clown Eradicator*

      She said that those without disabilities, though, also have issues sometimes; so regardless of whether his disability makes it even MORE difficult, is kind of moot i feel.

  14. Timothy*

    Sit down with the overbearing Martha and be frank about the disruption her son is causing. Ask if he could be assigned to another department. Be kind and gentle and remind her that you are not paid to supervise volunteers.

  15. irene adler*

    I would think the institution’s insurance provider would have a thing or two to say about this arrangement.

    1. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

      I hadn’t thought of that aspect but you’re right; there must be insurance on those artifacts as well as the normal insurances (for people being injured at work etc) and I bet there’s a stipulation that those objects may only be handled by people with the appropriate training / level of competence.

      You can be sure that if anything goes wrong, “Edward” doesn’t officially exist at this organisation.

      1. irene adler*

        Oh yeah. Insurance coverage is the first thing my employers fret about. Don’t do anything that might jeopardize that.

  16. CharlieBrown*

    I should note that our institution does not ordinarily accept volunteers and we have no volunteer program nor volunteer manager.

    There’s your out right there. “Sorry, but we’ve tried to make this work, but we simply lack the personnel and resources to effectively manage volunteers.”

    If Martha pushes back, then add “And the nature of work requires people to be highly trained, and we are unable to provide the necessary training to volunteers.”

  17. Mark This Confidential And Leave It Laying Around*

    This is not solvable by the OP. Her boss–or her boss’s boss–has to tell Martha that Edward is not working out. In a way, it’s good you tried: you have concrete “this isn’t working” things you can point to like schedule and dexterity. Don’t get sucked into finding an alternative solution for Edward. His mother is (mis)using her position to get him work. Let her run that game on somebody else without input from you.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      That part doesn’t surprise me at all – I’m more upset that LW’s boss isn’t doing more to back her up when there could be real consequences to the work they’re doing, and LW could be held liable.

    2. Lydia*

      I’m more upset that Martha isn’t trying to find something for Edward that would be meaningful for him to do and is treating this as whatever works, works. Edward isn’t actually going to get anything out of a situation that is so chaotic (his schedule and the inconsistency of work) and that he’s not suited for.

    3. goddessoftransitory*

      It doesn’t sound like she respects Edward’s that much, either. This clearly isn’t working but she keeps trying to make it work.

  18. blueberry fields*

    I feel like this is a “boss problem” i.e. your boss doesn’t know how to manage or say “no.” I’ve had interns in the past and I think a long-term research project might be in everyone’s best interests. Maybe he can research grants or similar organizations. That way Edward can work on his project independently and you can come up with some ideas in advance. However, this is something that your boss should never have said yes to.

  19. Irish Teacher*

    This may be no help whatsoever, but I’m wondering has anybody actually spoken to Edward about any of this, either to say “hey, Edward, we need you to let us know in advance when you are planning to volunteer”/explain to him the impossibility of creating work out of thin air or to discuss with him how he feels the volunteering is going, if he is enjoying it, if he thinks it is a field he would like to go into, if he finds the work difficult, etc.

    It’s possible Edward might have doubts himself or might even have been pushed into taking the position by Martha and might be happy to tell her it wasn’t working out.

    And even if he does want to continue in the position, it’s possible he thinks it’s normal to come in on two hours notice (there are some volunteer positions where you can basically drop in and offer to help whenever), as Martha is acting like it is and she works there and should know the norms. It’s possible that if he was told that he needs to set particular hours and that they can’t be on certain days, he would be happy to go along with that. (Of course, it’s very likely he has already been told that and Martha is overruling it, but if all the conversation is going through her, I think it would be worth talking to Edward himself.)

    1. Salsa Verde*

      This is what I was wondering. Everything is going through Martha, which is how she has set it up, but if Edward’s disability allows, maybe he should be in charge of his schedule and duties. I guess it doesn’t allow, or this wouldn’t work, since LW says she has given Edward and his helpers instructions that are not followed, but it was a thought.

    2. Mid*

      Yes! People have the bad tendency to treat adults with disabilities as if they are children, but they are, in fact, adults. I think OP should try talking to Edward first. See if he has any ideas, if he likes the work, if he wants to learn other skills, if there are tools or accommodations available that would allow him to be more successful at the work, etc. Martha is not a good resource here, but Edward might be! He’s likely very aware of his skills and limitations.

      It likely isn’t possible for him to continue doing the work he’s currently doing, but talking with the employee/volunteer directly should be the first step. Then go up the chain to get a solution.

      1. Indiana Jones and the Dept of Priceless Artifacts*

        It seems according to OP’s letter that OP is the one who came up with this specific work for Edward to do. Martha is not requiring that Edward handle these precious items. I’d suggest that different options are found – maybe even a short list that Edward could choose from. That can be an immediate change and improvement from the current situation that doesn’t rely on any bosses to muster the courage to speak up.

        Also, find another location for Edward to use while OP’s department is closed/colleagues are not around. Volunteers don’t have to be granted all access all the time. If that isn’t possible, have a sign-in sheet for Edward to sign in and out when no one is around and look for ways to keep things more secured.

        Be sure to make it clear that this type of work needs to be handled by a paid, trained staff person, or the department is at risk of that role becoming a volunteer position. If Martha makes any decisions about budgets, she can claim that no funds are needed for the role, because a volunteer can do it.

        Ask if any funds or resources are available to support the volunteer work. This is adding more work (and different work since the institution doesn’t normally accept volunteers) for OP without an increase in pay. Is there an HR department that could be innocently asked about resources for volunteers? Maybe they don’t know this situation is happening.

        List of possible tasks:
        -Research the current recycling system at the institution and come up with a report and presentation on how to improve it.
        -Print up new labels for the department, kitchen, break room, mail room, etc to replace labels that are curled up pieces of paper or are missing.
        -Organize the supply closet.
        -Create an informational or interactive bulletin board to display either a seasonal theme, topic related to work of the department, get to know the staff, staff appreciation, showcase of research projects, weekly quote or trivia, etc.
        -Research ergonomics and conduct ergonomic assessments of each workstation. Provide a report of what changes could be made to improve with an estimated budget.
        -Create a contact sheet using MS Office with important phone numbers and email addresses. (or other helpful documents that the department needs)
        -Make a slide presentation introducing each department and what they do.
        -Draw some of the artifacts to create a set of postcards.
        -Design a lesson plan for kids to teach them about the institution, what the department does, or an artifact.
        -Ask what Edward likes to do/is good at, and then find something whether drawing, using the computer, teaching, crafting, organizing, etc. that he could do to improve the department/institution or boost morale. Have him accomplish something that OP doesn’t have time, staff, or funding to do.

        1. fhqwhgads*

          I read it as Martha decided OP had to take on Edward and what OP’s work is…is this stuff Edward doesn’t have the dexterity for, or at lease that’s MOST of OP’s job. That’s why Edward ended up doing it, because Martha decreed Edward’s volunteering be to “help OP” and the only thing OP could ever need help with is this unsuitable stuff.

      2. Curmudgeon in California (they/them)*

        People have the bad tendency to treat adults with disabilities as if they are children…


        Especially when newly disabled and still figuring stuff out, or visibly disabled and awkward in movement, people treat disabled folks like they are five, at best.

        Edward’s mother is doing this herself, and pushing everyone in that office to essentially see him the same way, as a kid who needs makework because Mommy said so. If I were Edward I would not want to be there at all, but apparently Mommy doesn’t give him a real choice.

        I really would love to know what Edward though of this.

    3. Mark This Confidential And Leave It Laying Around*

      Ideally, a conversation with Edward could/might solve this. But I get why no one is doing it: Martha. Part of why Edward is getting treated like a child is because his mother is… treating him like a child, and she’s in a position of professional power over everyone in this situation.

      1. Ama*

        Yes, in theory I think talking to Edward about what you need from him is the best option; in practice I worry that the moment Martha finds out OP “corrected” her son (by making the entirely reasonable ask that he set a regular schedule of work hours) she’ll throw a fit that will make everything worse.

  20. XYZ*

    I would make up busywork that does not involve handling anything valuable. Online research, cutting and pasting , writing a brochure, whatever.

  21. Narvo Flieboppen*

    OP, I feel you. I had a volunteer forced on me by my pre-COVID grandboss. The volunteer was the CEO’s spouse. The volunteer was mediocre at the actual work because they were theoretically training by having received a college degree in it several decades earlier and then… working in wholly different industry until retiring. Also of note – CEO, volunteer, and grandboss had been close personal friends for decades.

    The volunteer agreed to a specific schedule and then just, showed if/when they felt like it. I pushed back on this, since the work needed to be done on a regular basis, and both my boss & I were scolded by grandboss because ‘this is the CEO’s spouse, so you need to be political about it, you can’t just assign a schedule to their work’. We were also chastised by grandboss if the work assigned to the volunteer wasn’t done per the schedule.

    This eventually wound up with volunteer simply no longer showing up and all the tasks were dumped onto me. They left behind all of the personal belongings they had moved into the office, which included a wine fridge with approx. $10K of high end wine in it. The personal belongings were still there 2 years later when I was laid off due to COVID.

    I had expressed to HR a great deal of difficulty about how I was supposed to manage someone who was the CEO’s spouse, a close personal friend of grandboss, and when all push back through chain of command was met with grandboss’s contradictory complaints. HR told me to take it to the CEO. Who, upon learning the topic of the meeting, declined to meet a referred boss & I for write ups. Grandboss was ‘kind’ to us and chose not to write us up and instead told us to figure it out. Per grandboss, the failure to manage volunteer was due to our inability to do our jobs.

    All I can say, is document all of the issues in writing, be sure to communicate to Martha et al why they are problems, and be sure to BCC your personal on those communications because this is almost surely going to have a lot of fallout when it ends and you want to have those layers of CYA.

      1. Narvo Flieboppen*

        I did not, because I do not drink alcohol and the wine fridge was secured with a lock to which only volunteer & CEO had a key. I am aware of the value only because volunteer was pointing out bottles and bragging about the rarity/cost to me, someone who neither knows nor cares about such things.

  22. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

    Martha is redirecting the org’s resources (and OPs time) for personal purposes – I’m not very familiar with nonprofits so I don’t know who owns/controls these type of organisation, but they would be quite interested to hear about that. What would Martha have done in regards to Edward’s occupational programme if she didn’t have a job where she can abuse her position to get him volunteer work? – she needs to be doing that now!

  23. MuseumChick*

    Ooof. I’ve seen situations like this, though not this extreme, in the museum world. You have a few options. Having your boss speak to Martha a lay out the reality that this just isn’t sustainable would be ideal, but I have severe misgivings that it would actually work. So, you could 1) Create a long-term “project” that he is able to work on and that be *the only thing he works on* where he cannot cause havoc that you have to clean up behind. It doesn’t even have to be anything you really want or need done, it just needs to keep him busy. 2) Keep telling Martha that there is nothing for him to do on such short notice. Repeat over and over again. Keeping your tone light and apologetic. “Oh, I’m so sorry Martha. There is nothing right now for him to work on.” and “Oh, I wish I had know he was coming in today! The only thing I had that he could have worked on, I finished yesterday since I didn’t know he would be coming in.” and “Oh dear. I won’t be able to set up what he could work on with such short notice. I have X and Y on my calendar today.” 3) Really push on the “these are valuable and if anything happens to them we are trouble” point and the “I am spending a great deal of time redoing his work.” point with you boss. “We had a very close call with the (object) when he was in. This is making me very concerned and we need to find a way to ensure all the valuables are safe.” and “I spent five hours yesterday redoing his work on (project) which means I’m now behind on X. This isn’t sustainable.”

    1. Julia*

      A long term project that only he works on could also work well with his occupational therapy. The challenges he has doing specific types of physical tasks could be addressed during OT.

      A task that don’t require fine motor skills but also have a physical aspect could be checking inventory. The inventory list makes it easier to figure out what Edward has been working on and where he needs to start the next time he is in. It would need to be emphasized that he doesn’t touch the objects but confirms visually they are there. Having something on the top of the clipboard which reiterates the rules would help.

      A beginning of volunteer shift/end of shift checklist could also help. At the beginning of the shift he does ABC. 20 minutes before the end he does XYZ. That also provides a list of accomplishments that can be double checked if necessary and a way to document problems and demonstrate how much time is being sucked up attending to Edward.

      On Tuesday Edward was asked to do 10 tasks. This took three hours. At the end of the day 4 tasks needed to be redone. This took one hour of my time.

      Like other people I agree it would be great a way to talk to Edward about what is the general goal of the volunteer requirement and if he has personal goals related to that.

      1. MuseumChick*

        I would actually advise against him working on inventory in any way if the OP does indeed work at a museum or museum-like institution. It is often impossible to conduct an inventory without touching the objects. Often because you have to find small details that distinguish, say, this specific spoon from the 157 other spoons in the collection. Inventorying is one of the most important aspects of artifact collection management (for reasons that if I get started on I’ll end up writing 10 paragraphs!) so I always strongly advise against any volunteer doing it unless they are extraordinarily trustworthy in both character, work ethic, and skill.

        That being said, I like the idea of something with a list that he can pick back up immediately and know exactly where he ended the last time he was in. If this institution has certain important figures that they need bios of that could work. He could be responsible for 1. Making a huge excel spreadsheet of the names of these people. Then start filling in important fields: birth date, death date, Marriage date (if applicable), where they attended school, years they attended each institution, Mothers name, fathers name, siblings, locations they lived and the dates they lived their, known inventions/accomplishments, etc.

        1. workswitholdstuff*

          I feel like I could have written that bit about collections management…. And people really do underestimate the importance of accuracy in inventory – and details of the objects… (my heart has sunk when you get object records that say ’10 tea cups’ and *No* defining details…. And don’t get me started on the whole ‘give all of them exactly the same accession number and one record but store them in 3 different places…)

          I really like the suggestion of creating a spreadsheet/database of the connections, information about key figures associated with the institution, collections etc. Because sometimes, figuring out those connections suddenly helps illuminate parts of the collections, or creates links between objects you didn’t know about. And goodness knows there’s never enough time to do *that* part of of the job…

  24. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

    LW, you say “Part of the mission of my department is to assist the people at Martha’s level in the hierarchy, so my boss didn’t feel that we could refuse Edward’s help as a volunteer.” But that’s about assisting people with their part of the work your organization does. It’s not about assisting them with their personal projects. Martha may have conflated the two, but she is wrong to have done so. And your boss should have gone to *her* boss for help pushing back diplomatically.

    1. Dark Macadamia*

      Yeah this explanation makes it sound like a personal assistant being expected to babysit or … idk a secretary feeling obligated to water the boss’s plants? I doubt this is what your org means by supporting the people in Martha’s role!

  25. ABS_OT*

    Hi! Occupational Therapist here!
    More than likely, the OT suggested this to help with Edward gain confidence and skills in an attempt to find meaningful volunteer work, or pre-work skills. Can you gently ask Martha if the OT who suggested this can come and observe him during his volunteer hours? It would be super beneficial for the OT to be able to evaluate the type of tasks that your organization does, and could make suggestions about how to modify tasks for Edward, or maybe can come up with tasks that could benefit the organization that nobody is thinking about right now. OTs are trained in activity analysis, and might be able to tease out specific challeges for Edward, as well as, use his strengths appropriately. They might also be able to use his personal OT sessions to work on fine motor, organizational, or social skills that could really help him succeed. I also think an OT would be able to understand the challeges with a disorganized schedule. Typically, individuals with various cognitive disabilities do much better with a set schedule, in order to organize themselves and be more productive. This might also help him and your team work together more successfully.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      . . . this assumes that the OT understands the work well enough to tell. I work with rare books–most people don’t actually know how to handle fragile books properly, no matter how much they read/go to the library/etc. I don’t want someone outside of my discipline telling me how to alter our practices to suit a situation that shouldn’t be a situation in the first place.

      Also, it’s still not the institution’s job to provide Edward with free OT. The OT can suggest other programs at venues that are appropriately staffed and insured.

      1. Rex Libris*

        This. I’m wondering from the description if we’re talking a university archives, and the part time position is a processing assistant or something similar. If so, not really the ideal environment for untrained, unskilled volunteer help.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          I’m in a medical school archive and, yeah, this sounds very similar. Most of our “volunteers” are library school interns, but we do occasionally have volunteers who are spouses of medical students, etc. But some of the materials are quite fragile and even doing a collection inventory can require some higher-level organizational and decision-making capabilities that I’m not sure Edward would have. We just don’t have anything simple that isn’t already covered by actual hired staff. And we don’t have enough staff to supervise someone who needs this much assistance–it’s understood that our volunteers get their own projects, some starting instruction, and support as needed, but that they’re otherwise MLIS students who should be able to handle this on their own.

      2. Samwise*

        OP can discuss with the OT the nature of the work, the skills required for it, risks involved (to Edward, to the objects in the department, etc), and so on. OTs are not dodos who will barge in and tell the client to grab a Gutenberg Bible. The OT is trained to listen and understand, and to help the client within the limitations/requirements of the client AND the environment.

        I am not an OT, nor related to one. I’ve seen a few OTs assisting clients at a volunteer opportunity I participate in. The OTs are smart, thoughtful, and professional.

        Getting the OT involved may very well solve OP’s problem in fact. There may not be anything useful for Edward at OP’s workplace, and the OT is certainly well-placed to tell Martha that fact.

      3. MuseumChick*

        Strongly agree with Dust Bunny. Handling artifacts and everything that goes along with it, including but not limited to creating/checking inventories, research, cleaning, digitizing etc. are extremely specialized skills that it takes a long time to understand and get right. Our primary duty is to keep the artifacts safe and preserved for future generations.

        1. Lydia*

          I think y’all are missing the point. The OT isn’t there to understand all the nuances of what you do; they come in to assess the overall/big picture needs of the job and either determine it’s a good fit or that it isn’t. In this case, it’s likely they would determine it’s not and would suggest to Edward and Martha that it doesn’t fit his needs.

          Reminder: Deciding there’s absolutely nothing a person with a disability can do in your work environment is a form of ableism. In addition, you shouldn’t decide an expert in understanding jobs couldn’t possibly understand all you do simply because they aren’t an expert in your specific job. If OTs had to be experts in each and every single job a client might encounter, people wouldn’t get very far.

          1. fhqwhgads*

            There’s nothing he can do in this work environment because this work environment does not take on volunteers, does not have a volunteering program, and does not wish to start one or formulate one for this one guy’s specific needs.
            If the only way to get Martha to back up is to bring the OT in to be the bad guy, so be it, but the problem here isn’t actually about Edward’s abilities, and bringing the OT into it implies that it is.

    2. Mark This Confidential And Leave It Laying Around*

      But they don’t have volunteers here and don’t want volunteers and aren’t set up to accommodate them–or their OTs! LW does not want to work more successfully with Edward, she wants not to have to manage a volunteer at all.

    3. Pierrot*

      Not an OT here (but did OT briefly as a child! and have some background in nonprofits where we had volunteers & in direct service work).
      I think your suggestions would make a lot of sense if this was an organization that had a volunteer coordinator whose job was (at least in part) to manage volunteers. They would be the best person to communicate with an OT, schedule a site visit, and/or try to implement the OT’s suggestions. The issue in LW’s situation is that they are not a volunteer coordinator and their unit is not really equipped for volunteers in the first place. On top of the other issues going on with Martha and Edward showing up with little notice, this type of department seems like a poor fit for what you’re describing– none of that is Edward or his OT’s fault, of course. LW’s own work is getting impeded by this arrangement because she’s basically delegating her own tasks to the volunteer, and when they aren’t completed or are not completed correctly, she gets behind in her work.

      At nonprofits where I’ve worked/volunteered that had good volunteer programs, there were a variety of tasks that volunteers could do at different paces, and if some of these tasks weren’t completed by the volunteer, it was not going to cause a major headache for the supervisor in the short term. That would probably be the best arrangement for Edward. Additionally, some organizations and departments are better suited for a volunteer dropping in with short notice, but others (including LW’s) are not and it sounds like that’s the biggest source of stress at this point and likely not something Edward’s OT has any say over.

  26. LCH*

    I’m an archivist and every archive (museum, historical society, university) I’ve worked at, #3 would be a nonstarter. It would never be allowed. You must have supervisory staff present when volunteers (and usually interns) are working with irreplaceable (or valuable, whatever) materials. Hoping your profession has some guidelines on this somewhere at least.

  27. CountessofBeans*

    Is it possible this work has an end date for Edward? as in… he only needs to get XX amount of hours as part of his therapy plan? at the least, the OP and her boss could plan an end game for his participation.

  28. Mid*

    I do wish that “Talk to Edward” was the first suggestion. He’s an adult. He might have ideas and suggestions about accommodations that could be made, tools that could be used, different work, etc. He might hate the work. He might not be aware that 30% of the work needs to be redone and would be more than willing to correct his work.

    I know he’s not an employee so it’s not like a formal ADA Accommodation discussion like you’d have with someone hired, but he is still a human being that’s being largely ignore in this discussion. There is a terrible tendency for people to infantilize and ignore adults with disabilities, and making decisions for him, suggesting talking to his mom or his therapist before suggesting talking directly to him is part of that.

    1. lilyp*

      You might be right, but the letter does say “I’ve told Edward and whoever is with him that if something goes wrong they need to bring the item back to me so that I can fix it, but it doesn’t happen” which makes me skeptical about his ability and/or interest in engaging

      1. Mid*

        She’s also told her employees/staff (that’s who is with Edward) to tell her if things are broken but they aren’t. So should LW talk to their mothers as well? Or assume they aren’t capable of engaging in a discussion about their work? Probably not. And things like “tell me if it’s broken” might seem clear to someone with training and a background in this work, but very unclear to someone without this background, regardless of disability. Often, more clarity can help things. Picture examples of correct vs incorrect work, explaining why something is incorrect rather than just fixing it after the fact, and fixing it with someone instead of telling them after the fact are some techniques that could help Edward improve his work. Does LW have the time for that? Possibly not. Should LW have to do it? Also no, because she shouldn’t be forced to deal with a volunteer who isn’t trained in the work. But, it’s also unfair to give someone little to no feedback and then assume they’re incapable of changing. And note, I don’t have any evidence that’s what’s happening here. LW might be giving lots of clear feedback to Edward and he isn’t improving. That’s very possible. But just like any other person doing this work, Edward should be spoken to directly about his performance.

        1. New Jack Karyn*

          I’m not sure that it’s organizational staff who are with Edward. To me, it reads as though different people come in with him on different occasions–such as carers, either paid or family members/friends. I don’t think it’s OP’s staff or colleagues who are not flagging things that got broken, it’s only those on Team Edward.

    2. Pierrot*

      I 100% agree with your comment about not infantilizing adults with disabilities, but I think that the advice makes sense in light of the fact that Martha, Edward’s mom, is the person who’s arranging the volunteer work and insisting that it happen on her terms. There’s also a complicated power dynamic to navigate here because Martha is above LW and LW’s boss in the hierarchy. My takeaway reading this letter was that this role does not sound like a good fit for volunteers, period. Regardless of disability accommodations, LW doesn’t have the capacity to supervise volunteers and the actual tasks that this department handles are not conducive to volunteering.

      That’s not a fair position for anyone to be in, including Edward. That’s why it makes sense at this point for the LW to go back to her boss and say that the arrangement is untenable. I think if this was a department that routinely had volunteers, the advice might be different and more focused on accommodations.

      1. Mid*

        I think the Martha issues were already well-addressed! It should also be part of this. Talking to a boss, not letting Martha steamroll this department, etc. that’s all still solid advice! It’s just missing the “talk to the human who is working for you like they’re a human” part. I realize my comment was slightly unclear. Talk to the boss, and boss’s boss, make clear rules about when Edward is allowed to volunteer so there aren’t issues with supervision of the work, all of that is great. But talking to Edward and giving him actual feedback and working with him to see if they can jointly find a solution should be a part of it too.

  29. mango chiffon*

    Does your organization have a legal department that your boss can speak with? This seems like a HUGE liability for the organization and could result in legal problems, I would assume. Am very much not a lawyer, but this feels like a conversation I would want to talk about with the legal team if I was in this situation.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      This sounds like the kind of place that would have a lawyer on retainer rather than a legal department, and it might not be contact information that all of the staff have access to. But I think OP could definitely to their boss about legal concerns and push it up the chain.

  30. zell*

    I’m really curious about what your org’s insurer would have to say about this situation, if they knew. Are there requirements that you / the org have to be handling items a certain way? Because Martha and Edward is bad enough, but it’s even worse if this is also voiding your insurance.

    1. Morgan Proctor*

      I came here to say something along these lines. Having worked in a museum before in a role that put me into physical contact with artworks on a daily basis, this is a really valid angle to consider. Also, if the objects are culturally sensitive, like if they Native American origins, that could open up another can of worms that this institution does not want to deal with.

      I think LW approaching their boss from this perspective might be a safer way to go than simply coming down on Martha’s son.

  31. Anon for This*

    This work is supposed to be part of his OT. I think you need to press Martha for info from the therapist on what the volunteer work is supposed to accomplish. I have a disabled son, and have met many parents like Martha, who make arrangements like this that are easy for them, check the box, but don’t really help their kid at all. That’s what this sounds like to me. I understand you are worried about upsetting Martha, but understanding the goals of this work, and how it is supposed to help her son is a tack you can take to try to be helpful. (e.g., if he is supposed to be learning about keeping a schedule, her efforts are actively undermining that!) And if what is going on doesn’t help with those goals, that may help with the situation.

    1. Irish Teacher*

      I’d maybe ask Edward first before asking Martha or the therapist. Edward is an adult and ideally should be talking to his workmates about stuff like this himself.

  32. loremipsum*

    Ugh. I’m so sorry you have to deal with this. In an old job at a nonprofit, the nature of my department and the economics of the industry meant that I was often hiring interns to keep things going. Who were great, but a LOT of work to train a paraprofessional to do a complex job, with high standards. Sometimes I would be contacted by the EA to say “Big Donor is here in town for two weeks with his family, and he has a 16 YO son/daughter – could you find something for them to “help” with?” or someone would be interning on an observational basis to learn about the industry, and because everyone was so busy, I would get approached by the EA or Boss’ spouse(who also worked there) have them say: “can’t you have them wash filing cabinets or something?” I did cite the FLSA (which the org got into some hot water with over interns) that internships are supposed to be for their educational benefit, not just an extra pair of hands to get work done.

  33. Educator*

    This sounds bad for OP, but it sounds even worse for Edward, who is struggling to do tasks for a supervisor who is not well positioned or qualified to support him. I’ve been lucky enough to manage work placement volunteers from life skill or OT programs at my office, and it works because:

    1) We work with various professionals (therapists, social workers, etc.) to make sure that work tasks are appropriate and match the volunteer’s goals.

    2) Because of the nature of our work, we are an office full of people who have worked with people with disabilities in various professional capacities, so we are well qualified to support volunteers. This is also an explicit part of our mission and jobs.

    3) We have clear channels of communication with our volunteers and the people who support them. Volunteers have a plan and schedule before they start, and there are regular check ins to make sure things are working for everybody.

    It sounds like none of this is the case for OP. Martha is really doing Edward a disservice by not helping him find a placement that can support his goals. OP is not the right person to suggest a better fit, but I would definitely frame it to Martha as being a question of what might be most helpful to Edward, rather than the inconvenience.

    1. Pierrot*

      Yes, this is what I put in the response to a comment further up from an OT. There are organizations that are well suited for volunteers, including volunteers who are working with an OT, but LW’s department doesn’t sound like a good fit for volunteers in general. I’ve volunteered at a lot of places, and there were organizations where volunteers (including myself) could essentially show up whenever we wanted. Then there were other organizations that involved having actual shifts where I had to apply to become a volunteer, but even that organization had opportunities for groups who wanted to do something more occasional. It’s just a matter of fit and it does a disservice to everyone (except Martha) for her to insist on creating a volunteer role where there isn’t one, and to create it exclusively on her own terms.

  34. HearTwoFour*

    OP, can you find out if other departments might be better suited for Edward? Maybe other departments are more oriented towards compiling information folders or something like that. Martha may not have a problem with Edward working in a different department where he’ll be more successful, she just thinks her job is done.

  35. Similar Sitch*

    I want to start by saying that this example sounds suspiciously like one I had to deal with in my former department, and your work sounds very suspiciously like the work I used to do. And with that, the issue isn’t that there is a volunteer, but rather that the volunteer isn’t doing the kind of work the department needs to be done, in the manner that it needs to be done.
    So, with this stated, what worked for us was to find a single task that was very large in scope and consistent in action, meaning that there were multiple hours of work to be done on a very specific task, handling only one specific component, using a highly automated process…think indexing a local (aka not physically valuable) newspaper bylines every week on an Excel spreadsheet that various individuals had access to. This meant that our individual (who in our case was a forced less than part-time employee) only had to be trained once on what exactly they were expected to do and was restricted to other tasks (we had materials ruined by them before we figure out what their exact capabilities were), wasn’t handling sensitive items, and their work could be done whenever they showed up since they were just picked up from where they last left off (since they were handed several hundred items they needed to work with).

  36. lilyp*

    “They are able to get into the department through a connecting door that is kept open by another department that needs access to ours. But as I said, the items I work with are valuable…”

    That sounds like a bad arrangement in general! What’s stopping anyone else from wandering in and stealing/breaking something? Independent of the Edward situation, you should try to lock that down better. Maybe one designated trustworthy person from the department that needs access can have a spare key and strict instructions to keep the door closed otherwise. Or badge-based access if possible so you have a record of who came in when.

  37. Melissa*

    I really want to know what the setting is! (Not because it’s relevant, im just curious.) A museum?

  38. Just me*

    Everyone is talking about Edward’s incapacity to do the work, and the lack of professional boundaries.

    What if Edward was found different work? Why is Edward doing THIS work? Could Edward be assigned something where he doesn’t touch expensive things and it isn’t time sensitive? Filing duties, cleaning duties? Whenever he shows up can he walk around and polish glass cases with a cloth? Can he stuff envelopes for the charitable collection team? Things that if they don’t get done right now isn’t an issue, and he can do on his wonky schedule. Pot plant maintenance?

    I know he was assigned to your department, but it sounds like he is a massive mill stone in your daily efforts, so having a ‘nothing’ job is what you need. I know you needed help with that specific task but he’s not doing it the way you need, at the time you need, so … move him on. If his mother complains shrug and say “I’m sorry, that’s all that’s left, we need X and Y done in a set format and that wasn’t happening, and it was frequently at risk of being delivered late because we weren’t sure when Edward would be available so we re assigned it to someone here on a set schedule. We’re happy to have Edward, he does a great job keeping our environment in tip top condition, but would couldn’t risk the exhibitions being delayed anymore.”

    1. MuseumChick*

      If this is a museum or museum-like work environment (which is what it sounds like to me) finding those task is much more time-consuming and difficult than you would think from the outside. Filing duties? Well, when you are talking about museum files like Deeds of Gifts, Loan Forms, Donor Information, etc, that requires a lot of skill and problem-solving that isn’t readily apparent if you don’t work in the field. But if those files get messed up it is a *huge* problem. There is no simple example I can give because any example would require paragraphs of detail. Cleaning duties, again, not as simple as it might seem. I had a volunteer once spray Febreze in an archive holding area because “it smells in here”…. Data entry? Museums and archives usually have Collections Management Databases and when things get entered incorrectly, it is another *huge* problem that can take 10x as long to fix as it was to create. Take any task that seems like it should be simple and straightforward and put it in a museum or archives setting, and it gets complicated.

      I said in another comment I’ve seen situations like this in my career and the only thing I’ve seen work (because people like Martha are so unreasonable) is to create a long-term project that you don’t really need done just to keep the person busy.

  39. Zarniwoop*

    “interrupted my lunch break several times”
    Workplace cultures vary but to me this makes her sound like a generally totally unreasonable person.
    (Where I work “I’m on break/lunch” takes priority over anything that’s not on fire.)

    1. Aggretsuko*

      This kind of thing is why I used to have to look for anywhere else but the office to have lunch (pre-pandemic), because if you were findable at lunch, technically you didn’t have to answer questions but in reality, you had to.

    2. Antilles*

      That really depends on the workplace culture.
      There’s plenty of offices where people work through lunch of their own volition or eat at their desks and wouldn’t mind a quick interruption or etc. Even if it’s not building-on-fire, just “oh sure I can take 60 seconds to chat” or whatever wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. BUT this sort of flexibility on interrupting lunch is usually made up for with other flexibility – e.g., leaving early because you worked through lunch or being able to take short breaks whenever you please or etc.
      The fact that Martha tracked OP down in a different part of the building though is wild even in those sorts of offices though.

  40. Dhaskoi*

    I have worked in the specific field of finding work for people who are differently abled and this whole situation makes me want to throw something at a wall. One of the fundamental principles we worked by was matching people to jobs they could actually do and were well suited for, not just for their employer’s sake but for *their* sake. We wanted the work to be sustainable and we wanted them to feel good about what they were doing, because for better or for worse the work we do is often a big part of our self image, which meant finding them jobs they were actually equipped to do well.

    I’m not impressed with either Martha or your boss. Apart from all the trouble it causes you, shoving Edward into work he’s not equipped to do is unhealthy for him – knowing you’re doing make work that someone else has to redo can be very damaging to a person’s sense of self worth (and people in Edward’s position can almost always tell, trust me on that). Of course we don’t know what’s going through Martha’s head and perhaps she’s convinced herself that this is a good arrangement for everyone, but it does seem that she’s concerned solely with what’s convenient for her and not what good for everyone else – including Edward.

    1. Honk*

      Yes to all of this! Thank you for articulating that this sucks the most for Edward, who seems to have very little agency here. Makework is definitely not a solution.

  41. Rainbow*

    This whole thing reminds me of a work experience kid we once had – son of a very high-up. Unbelievably spoilt, very rich kid (so probably different from that sense to Edward) shows up, and everyone has to scramble to find him stuff to do, which the guy neither cared about nor even pretended to have any interest in whatsoever.
    That was literally two days. Dealing with that for longer? Hell no.

  42. Minimal Pear*

    Man, obviously I feel bad for OP, but I also feel really bad for Edward! This whole situation sounds AWFUL for him.

  43. Mmmmmarianne*

    What has happened to people that it is impossible to say ‘no’ to ridiculous circumstances/situations? Over the course of my forty year career, I have seen this more and more frequently, and it is very disheartening. Thank goodness I’m close to retirement, and can leave this nonsense behind!

  44. CA Cupid*

    I feel sorry for Edward – he doesn’t appear to be learning any useful, transferable skills. He’s just there, in the way, because someone said he has to be doing something. Therapy usually has goals and I doubt Edward’s goal list includes “be useless and in the way”.

    1. CA Cupid*

      Thinking about it more, I feel like a huge problem is that LW is expected to take on a huge extra burden without any pay in or training. Not that Edward himself is the burden! But making up work for him, checking it, redoing it, correcting him… this is all NOT LW’s job! LW is not an occupational therapist, coach, a carer/assistant or anything like that. It’s totally unfair to be asked to take on a new role that has nothing to do with your actual job without compensation.

  45. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

    It honestly seems to me that Martha is also harming her son and his efforts to become more independent here. She’s helicopter mothering and insisting everyone pretend it is working, which prevents him from engaging in a role where he can take the reins, do the work, and gain skills that help him with occupational therapy. I bet the occupational therapist would actually not be thrilled with this set up, even if it wasn’t so problematic for OP, because having mommy dearest in control and taking the reins is preventing the son from getting the benefits from the volunteer experience that he needs in order to become more independent.

    Of course this won’t help OP. But Martha is making a mess out of this for everyone, and I think if boss won’t do anything, OP may need to talk to someone higher up and ask for advice/help in getting this shut down (with heavy emphasis on the liability issues with regard to his access to rare and valuable items and his/Martha’s failure to send things he has handled incorrectly back to OP. In fact, I think this needs to be OP’s main focus in bringing the issues to higher ups, because the fear of liability needs to exceed the fear of Martha’s annoyance for them, and OP alerting them to the liability and documenting it will be a good CYA move and will minimize the risk that OP will be turned into the scapegoat when something inevitable goes wrong.

    As always, document document document. Document all conversations with boss, and put things in email to her. Make sure you have notified all the right people in writing of these concerns before something goes wrong, OP!

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