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Volunteering on the Job Clock

August 30, 2010
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Work/Life Balance, Workforce Planning, Featured Article, Compensation, Benefits

Just a few months before the stock market and economy plummeted in the fall of 2008, hundreds of employees at Pepsi Beverages Co. gathered just outside New York City to help local food assistance groups and other nonprofit organizations.

Roughly half of the 800-plus people in the Westchester County corporate office participated on that summer day, a pattern that has held steady over the two subsequent summers. Even after the recession became fully apparent, halting the volunteer effort—dubbed PBC Gives Back Days—wasn’t ever contemplated, says Catherine Patterson, senior manager of foundation and community engagement at Pepsi Beverages, the distribution operation for PepsiCo Inc. “It gives our employees a sense of gratification that we are a company that really cares about this local area in which we live and work,” she says.

Corporate interest in volunteering remains high, according to a Deloitte survey of 303 corporate managers conducted earlier this year. Overall, 91 percent of managers described their employees’ skills as potentially valuable to a nonprofit organization, compared with 78 percent the prior year. Frequently, employers offer paid time off; 69 percent provided that option in 2010, according to the survey. It’s a perk that some corporate leaders like to tout to attract new talent. This spring, Cigna Corp. officials issued a press release announcing that the Philadelphia-based insurance company would pay its 26,000 employees for up to eight hours of volunteer work annually at a nonprofit organization of their choice.

Proponents of corporate volunteering, including the organizations that benefit, cite a variety of payoffs for employers and employees alike. Volunteer initiatives outside the office, albeit on company time, can build corporate connections and camaraderie by mixing people between departments and job functions. They can foster ties to the local community and serve as a recruiting tool, says Alisa Kesten, executive director of the Volunteer Center of United Way in Tarrytown, New York, which has worked with Pepsi and other large companies. “There is a real value not only for the people who work there, but those whom they want to attract.”

Launching a volunteer program, though, is challenging. Corporate leaders must consider a variety of legal and logistical issues in advance, including guarding against unintentional discrimination or creating ill will because not all employees will be able to participate due to work obligations, says Rick Hobish, an attorney and executive director for Pro Bono Partnership. The organization provides pro bono legal services for nonprofit groups in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. “For good will and morale purposes,” he says, “if you’re going to have a volunteer program, you want to encourage it among all employees.”

The volunteers are effectively still employees because they are on the work clock, raising potential legal complications if injuries, property damage or other problems occur, says Jason Kim, a partner who specializes in labor and employment law for Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg in Chicago. “It’s the whole host of potential liabilities for any employee relationship, except you don’t have full control of the employees because they are off site at a third party.”

As much as possible, companies should try to specify an employee’s role and responsibilities in writing, including whether they can leave the volunteer site, Hobish says. Employers also should consider pre-screening the organizations to assess their safety standards. In addition, they might consider vetting their own employees if they are volunteering at certain types of organizations, such as ones that work with children.

Launching a program
Typically, companies take one of two approaches, says Amy Smith, president of HandsOn Network, which includes more than 70,000 corporate, faith and nonprofit organizations. Either they will follow Cigna’s path, providing employees a block of paid volunteer hours over the course of a year, most commonly eight to 16 hours, or they will designate a volunteer day or two, as Pepsi Beverages does.

“The easier approach from the company level is to let workers go do what they want,” Smith says. “The downside of that is, it’s harder to measure and harder for the company to show their impact. Do they instead want to have a big splash from a public relations perspective and have 100 people in T-shirts out there working in a park?”

Beginning in July, Cigna employees could select a few hours—up to a full day—to be paid to volunteer at a nonprofit organization of their choice. Employees are asked to take the time in a minimum of two-hour blocks, says Ken Seda, assistant director of the Cigna Foundation. Also, any request is dependent upon a supervisor’s approval.

No formal mechanism has been established to verify that the employee did in fact volunteer, he says. “We trust that everybody is acting in a responsible and an ethical way.” Managers can follow up if they believe it’s necessary.

Pepsi Beverages decided to offer two volunteer days in summer 2010 to promote team building and employee interaction, along with giving back to the community, Patterson says. “It’s a way for you to interact with your colleagues in a very informal fashion.”

Employees were provided a list of 16 organizations at which they could volunteer. Greg Genser, a 22-year-old who had just started working in the operations center a few weeks before, was quick to sign up. He spent a day building picnic tables and painting a barn at Muscoot Farm, a nonprofit that provides educational programs for local schoolchildren. “I didn’t think companies did things like this,” he says. “As a new employee, I wanted to take advantage of any opportunities to meet people.”

At Pepsi Beverages, the designated volunteer days are available only to employees in the corporate office, Patterson says. But other employees, including those based at manufacturing plants around the country, are provided other volunteering opportunities, she says. For instance, they can submit documentation for outside volunteer work and, if it’s approved, the company will compensate the organization involved for the hours volunteered, up to $500 annually.

From a legal standpoint, companies don’t have to offer the same volunteer opportunities to all employees, Hobish says. But if they don’t, there must be a rationale, such as scheduling difficulties, to avoid any appearance of discrimination, he says.

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