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Blog > Positive Discipline of Volunteers

Positive Discipline of Volunteers

posted on Sep 5, 2017

by Maria Lahiffe

In the non-profit sector, volunteers are at the heart of what we do. They are the public face of the organization, doing the work of achieving our mandates. It is critical that we give them the support and guidance necessary, and at times the necessary correction, to help them achieve our mandates with maximum effectiveness.

It can be quite intimidating to deal with substandard or inappropriate behaviour. However, there can be some pretty serious consequences to letting things slide. Inappropriate behaviour can negatively influence your organization’s:

  • reputation in the community
  • ability to secure funding
  • stakeholder relations
  • morale of staff, both paid and unpaid
  • turnover

Set them up for success

Positive discipline is “the process of orienting staff (paid and unpaid) to work rules, performance standards and other organizational standards so that they know what is expected of them and what consequences result from violations. It occurs BEFORE the behaviour becomes inappropriate.” [1]

The idea behind positive discipline is to avoid problem behaviours by providing volunteers with the information they need to discipline themselves. It is all about holding volunteers accountable.

Supporting tools for success

Here are some tools you can use to implement positive discipline:

  • Mission, vision, values
  • Clear job descriptions
  • Performance reviews
  • Employee/volunteer handbook
  • Meetings
  • Peer conversations
  • Mentoring programs

Unspoken Expectations

Every organization has unwritten rules, which turn into unspoken expectations. Maybe the expectation is that people will arrive early, not just on time. Maybe you expect people to do a job exactly the way you would do it, rather than focusing on the desired outcome.

Due Diligence

If someone is failing to meet expectations, ask yourself if you have

  • Spoken the unspoken?
  • Identified the consequences of non-performance (this would normally be in a policy.)
  • Provided the information in a variety of ways? (written and verbal)
  • Checked for understanding?
  • Revisited often and in different ways?
    • Post the expectations in a prominent place
    • hold group meetings
    • have one-on-one discussions

The importance of policy

It is very important to establish disciplinary policy and procedures ahead of time. That helps you and the volunteer know what steps to expect, and makes it about the job, not about the person. Here are some sample policies you may find useful to read as you draft your own:

The Steps of Discipline

Everyone deserves to know if they are not meeting the standards of their job, and they deserve the chance to make things right. The recommended steps are as follows:

1.      Warn verbally

Make this informal and informative. Start by telling the volunteer what they are doing well and ask how they feel about the job. When offering advice for improvement, do your best to link it to something they are already doing well.

2.      Written warning placed in file

Give a copy of this written warning to the volunteer and go through it in a one-on-one meeting. Be very clear about what behaviour you are seeing and what different behaviour you need to see. Here is an example of a form you can use to prepare the written warning.

3.      Probation (still working)

Again, this needs to be put in writing and put into the volunteer’s file. What is the length of time they will be on probation? What behaviour are you looking for? Under what terms will the probation end? Here is an example probationary letter which you can use as a starting point.

4.      Suspension

Someone who is suspended is sent home for a specific period of time. This gives everyone time to regroup and reset. Here is a sample suspension letter to start you off.

5.      Termination

Causes for termination include:

  • Continued inability to meet minimum job standards after appropriate training
  • Repeated violation of policy, procedures, and work rules even after disciplinary action has been taken (steps 1-4, above)
  • Serious one-time violations of rules, e.g. theft, violence

Make sure to follow your organization’s policy regarding staff termination. Include your supervisor or Executive Director. Make sure, also, to maintain the dignity of the volunteer throughout the process.

The volunteer must be notified in writing, as well as verbally, of this termination. Here are a couple of sample letters you can use as a starting point.

Volunteer Ottawa offers a comprehensive suite of courses related to volunteer management. Click here for more information, and to register. Subscribe to our Event RSS Feed to be among the first to know when a new workshop is added to the schedule.

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[1] Engaged HR, "Discipline and Dismissal: Making the best of a difficult situation," 25 September 2014. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 12 July 2017].
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