Why Would People Stigmatize Employees Who Volunteer?

What happens to employees who volunteer? After all, with the advent of social media, the activities employees engage in off-the-clock can affect their reputation at work. Coworkers and supervisors may make judgments about an employee based on the non work-related activities that he or she pursues. With this in mind, individuals may be motivated to discuss the positive activities that they dedicate time to outside of work, such as volunteering. But, is it possible that colleagues can perceive volunteering negatively? Are there times when volunteering would in fact be stigmatized or looked down upon? These important questions are the focus of a recent research study that investigated perceptions of volunteering (Rodell & Lynch, 2015).

Perceptions of Employee Volunteering

The first study involved 260 full-time employees who had volunteered at least once in the last 12 months. Each employee provided the email address of a coworker or supervisor who then completed ratings of the employee.

The results of the study revealed that volunteering was viewed both positively and negatively. In some instances, employees were given credits (positive ratings of time management, ethical values, focusing on other people, sense of community) for their volunteering, and in other cases, employees were given stigmas (negative ratings of distraction, evangelism, void filling, self-righteousness). This suggests that volunteering is not always related to positive perceptions.

Why was volunteering sometimes viewed positively and others times negatively? The authors found that behavioral attribution was the determining factor. That is, when colleagues attributed employees’ volunteering to intrinsic motivations (e.g., employees volunteer because they enjoy it), they gave employees credits. However, when colleagues attributed employees’ volunteering to impression management techniques (e.g., employees volunteer because they want to impress their supervisor), they were more likely to assign stigmas to the volunteering employees.

Consequences of Volunteering 

Although volunteering was given both positive and negative ratings, employees may experience more severe consequences beyond negative colleague perceptions. The study also found that when employees were perceived as volunteering for the “right” reasons (intrinsic motivation), coworkers were more likely to offer help to the employee, and supervisors were more likely to prioritize the employee in human resource decisions like promotion or salary.

However, the findings were reversed for employees who were perceived to volunteer for impression management reasons. That is, coworkers were less likely to help the employee, and supervisors were less likely to prioritize the employee in human resource decisions. These findings show that employees’ perceived motivations for volunteering may influence how they are treated by both coworkers and supervisors.

Volunteering Versus Citizenship Behavior

 The first study revealed that positive behavior (volunteering) is sometimes perceived negatively depending on the motives that others attribute for the volunteering. However, it could not explain if other types of positive behavior, such as citizenship, received both credits and stigmas, or if this relationship was unique to volunteering. A second study was conducted with 305 undergraduate college students, in which credits and stigmas were studied for two forms of positive behavior: volunteering and citizenship behavior. In this study, students were asked to view a profile of another student and rate the student based on the information in the profile: volunteering and citizenship behavior, as well as motivation for the behavior.

The results showed that students assigned more stigmas to profiles that indicated more volunteering rather than less volunteering. Complementing the first study, volunteering received both credits and stigmas, but credits were higher for the profiles that indicated intrinsic motivation. Interestingly, citizenship behavior was perceived differently than volunteering. That is, citizenship received only significant ratings of credits, not stigmas, suggesting that volunteering was both credited and stigmatized, whereas citizenship behavior was only credited.

Taken together, these two studies show the complexities inherent in perceptions of volunteering, a behavior previously considered only positive. However, this relationship is not as simple as it appears. Rather, volunteering can provoke negative perceptions when the motives behind volunteering are not intrinsic, and these negative perceptions can affect how coworkers and supervisors support employees who volunteer.

Practical Implications for Organizations

These findings have several practical implications for employees and organizations. First, individuals in organizations (supervisors, coworkers) do not only pay attention to their colleagues’ at-work behavior; rather, they use available information about non-work activities to form impressions of and shape behavior toward colleagues.

In addition, many organizations have established employee-volunteering programs. In light of these results, employees who participate in such programs may experience positive or negative evaluations by their coworkers. Thus, these programs should promote the intrinsic benefits of participating in the program by demonstrating to participating employees, and others, the positive benefits of volunteering. In addition, employees should be encouraged to join these programs as a result of their intrinsic motivation, and they should be informed that volunteering will not influence promotion or salary decisions, thereby trying to reduce impression management motives.