Corporate volunteering – more than 'good for goodness sake'

Nishat Babu on benefits for employer and employee.

I recently read a news article in the Great Birmingham Chambers of Commerce in which an individual described how volunteering during the Covid-19 pandemic had ‘saved her life’, raising her feelings of self-esteem and confidence, and overcoming her feelings of loneliness as a result of the isolation. As someone who works within the area of social responsibility (volunteering being subsumed within this), this came as no surprise to me. Although volunteering is often considered as a charitable and altruistic activity, researchers have demonstrated the clear benefits for the volunteer themselves. And it is not just volunteering in one’s personal time that can be beneficial – volunteering through work (so called corporate volunteering) has been particularly viewed as being worthwhile. 

Corporate social responsibility

Corporate volunteering is seen as a form of corporate social responsibility (CSR), which can be thought of as an organisation’s efforts to contribute to the wider community and further social good. Many organisations have volunteer programs as part of their CSR agendas, encouraging their employees to volunteer for not-for-profit establishments, during paid working hours. Starbucks sets aside April as their Global Month of Service, where their employees around the world volunteer their time to get involved in projects within their local communities. Deloitte have their Impact Day where their employees can get involved in volunteer activities such as mentoring young people and hosting skills development workshops, whilst organisations such as Experian and Nationwide Building Society provide their employees with a quota of days each year in which they can volunteer within their local communities, during company time. 

There are a number of positive consequences of employee volunteering. These can include personal outcomes for the employees themselves, such as an enhanced sense of belonging and accomplishment, in addition to greater job satisfaction and better wellbeing generally, compared to non-volunteers. It seems at work, employees also perform better and engage in more citizenship behaviours (e.g. helping colleagues), as well as benefiting from greater morale.

In fact, volunteering can serve as a form of recovery for employees from their work-related demands, as well as reducing their negative mood and enhancing their positive mood the next day. There are also benefits for the organisation itself where employee volunteering can actually enhance its reputation. Research has further shown that those organisations that are more socially responsible and have such volunteering programs as part of this, tend to be more attractive as an employer and are more likely to attract talented to individuals to join their organisation. Even after the point of recruitment, the benefits for organisations that offer volunteering opportunities for employees are apparent. Employees identify more with such organisations, have greater pride in working for their organisation, are more engaged and committed, and are less likely to want to leave.  

Compensating

Volunteering at work can also be a way for employees to compensate for any perceived shortcomings in a job. Adam Grant, an American psychologist and professor at Wharton, specifically talks about how a job lacking in task, social and/or knowledge characteristics can trigger employees to compensate through relevant volunteering activities. He specifically builds on the job-design characteristics model, originally developed by Hackman and Oldham (1976). As per the framework, in order to foster feelings of responsibility, knowledge of results and meaningfulness at work, jobs should be designed so as to be enriched with various task characteristics. Task characteristics refer to the extent to which the job allows employees to engage with a task from start to finish (i.e. task identity), has a significant impact on the lives of others (task significance), gives individuals the freedom to schedule their own work activities (autonomy), incorporates a variety of tasks (task variety) and gives feedback on performance (feedback).  

Grant also considers the social and knowledge characteristics of jobs. Social characteristics of the job allow employees to interact and connect with others, whilst knowledge characteristics allow employees to engage in problem solving and skill development. However, when an employee is in a role which lacks any of these characteristics, they seek out opportunities to compensate through volunteering – and because they are within the context of the workplace, Grant suggests corporate volunteering is a natural avenue they explore. For instance, they may compensate for a lack of social characteristics by engaging in a volunteer role that allows them to connect with others and to develop and maintain interpersonal relationships. He further suggests that should employees find that engaging in corporate volunteering has helped to address the deficiencies within their role, they are more likely to continue with their volunteering efforts.  

This, however, does not mean that those employees who have well-designed jobs which are highly meaningful, are less likely to volunteer. Instead, research supports both perspectives in that employees volunteer to compensate for lack of meaningfulness, whilst at the same time, they engage in volunteering because they are grateful for their meaningful jobs and therefore want to reciprocate by engaging in organisational-driven volunteering.  

Sceptics of volunteering, especially those who are perhaps wont to engaging in micromanagement in the workplace, might say that this volunteering will distract employees from their core role. This has not been found to be the case – that is, volunteering does not interfere with an employee’s job performance. Rather, research shows that when employees return to their regular work, they are more likely to be engaged, suggesting a positive carryover effect from the volunteering to the work context. Not only this, volunteering can enhance an employee’s job performance by leading to upskilling through the volunteer role itself. With regards to continuing volunteering, personal development has been shown to be a key predictor, as well as perceptions of volunteering being seen to be professionally valuable with regards to skill development. Research shows that employees are perhaps more likely to develop their capabilities if they perceive themselves to be working on projects which they believe are truly meaningful and important for the not-for-profit organisation. 

Complications

There can be complications with workplace volunteering, however. For instance, research has shown that it might be stigmatised at work if your colleagues feel you are doing it simply as an impression management exercise. However, when it is perceived to be due to intrinsic reasons, your colleagues are more likely to help you at work, and your manager is more likely to provide you with greater resources.

Interestingly, it also seems that in some cases engaging in volunteering may later lead to deviant behaviours in the workplace, such as stealing and calling in sick without reason. The authors argue that this is explained by what is known as ‘moral licensing’ – that is, when employees feel they have engaged in morally praiseworthy behaviour, they feel they have a psychological license allowing them to engage in morally undesirable behaviour. They demonstrate specifically that engaging in volunteering led employees to feel more psychologically entitled (i.e. feeling one is more deserving), as a result of this moral licensing phenomena.

Given these findings, a manager might be discouraged about encouraging his/her employees to volunteer. The authors do provide a solution to this. In their research, they found that when perceptions of organisational justice are high, this can counteract these negative effects, and so they advise managers to encourage volunteering whilst working to enhance employee perceptions of organisational justice (e.g. by treating employees fairly). Aside from this, given moral licensing is seemingly a conscious process, the authors suggest that managers could focus on training employees and making them aware of the negative effects of the moral licensing thought process. 

Overall, it seems therefore that volunteering at work is not about being good for goodness sake. Instead it can have myriad benefits for the employee, helping them to upskill, derive greater meaning, and to compensate for any deficiencies in their day-to-day jobs. Not only this, but organisations benefit too with respect to furthering their CSR agendas, benefiting from more engaged and skilled employees, and employees that are more committed and less likely to leave the organisation. Ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, these volunteering efforts can be a vehicle in furthering social good.

Nishat Babu, Ph.D. FHEA CPsychol

Lecturer in Work Psychology

Aston Business School

[email protected]

References

Caligiuri, P., Mencin, A., & Jiang, K. (2013). Win–win–win: The influence of company‐sponsored volunteerism programs on employees, NGOs, and business units. Personnel Psychology, 66(4), 825-860.

Glassdoor – companies that offer corporate volunteering: https://www.glassdoor.co.uk/blog/time-off-volunteer/

Grant, A. M. (2012). Giving time, time after time: Work design and sustained employee participation in corporate volunteering. Academy of Management Review, 37(4), 589-615.

Hackman, J. R., & Oldham, G. R. (1976). Motivation through the design of work: Test of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16(2), 250-279.

Loi, T. I., Kuhn, K. M., Sahaym, A., Butterfield, K. D., & Tripp, T. M. (2020). From helping hands to harmful acts: When and how employee volunteering promotes workplace deviance. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.

Rodell, J. B. (2013). Finding meaning through volunteering: Why do employees volunteer and what does it mean for their jobs? Academy of Management Journal, 56(5), 1274-1294. 

Rodell, J. B., Breitsohl, H., Schröder, M., & Keating, D. J. (2016). Employee volunteering: A review and framework for future research. Journal of Management, 42(1), 55-84.

Rodell, J. B., & Lynch, J. W. (2016). Perceptions of employee volunteering: Is it “credited” or “stigmatized” by colleagues? Academy of Management Journal, 59(2), 611-635.

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