Using Court-Ordered Community Service Workers

Using Court-Ordered Community Service Workers
Posted on July 30, 2013 in Safety Managers, Volunteers

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Habitat for Humanity relies on the service of volunteers in all of their operations to decrease labor costs, expand capacities and create a tangible experience, working together for the common purpose of getting families out of substandard housing. The ReStore functions in much the same way, bringing volunteers together for a similar, though slightly different, purpose. Often, when gratis volunteers are scarce, managers will turn to court-appointed community service (CS) workers to stock their stores. While certainly not outright discouraged, ReStore managers should note the following risks associated with improperly using court-appointed community service workers within the ReStore.

Reputational risk to Habitat for Humanity – Habitat for Humanity is a valuable and well-known brand. Countless volunteers have worked tireless hours to make our world a better place with the Habitat banner flying high nearby. Unfortunately, court-ordered community service workers aren’t giving their time because they believe in the cause and the mission of Habitat; they are entering into a contractual relationship that has been sanctioned by the local court system. Like it or not, ReStores and their volunteers, staff and community service workers will often interact with more of the public than most of the affiliate resource development and staff. ReStores have a responsibility to uphold, protect and inform the general public of the nature of Habitat. Sending community service workers into the homes of your donors poses a fundamental threat to the very reputation of Habitat for Humanity. The good works of your affiliate and affiliates around the world could be one unfortunate accident away from being unraveled. Protecting the brand and name of Habitat is one of our most important responsibilities as ReStore managers.

Actual situation: Customer calls and complains to HFHI Affiliate Support Center than the ReStore will not refund her money from a sale because the ReStore “employees are felons.” 

Negative perception by customers and donors – There is an old saying that perception is reality. Not all court-ordered community service workers are inherently evil. Most are decent citizens who just got caught on the wrong side of the law. Every ReStore manager can attest to working with some spectacular and not-so- spectacular CS workers. They can be some of the hardest working folks in the store. However, an ill perception of the ReStore and its operations can begin to permeate if the ReStore manager is not careful how to best use the skills and commitments of CS workers. Think carefully about the interactions your CS workers have with the public, many of whom are learning about Habitat or experiencing the ReStore for the first time.

Actual situation: A community service worker working on a ReStore truck, helping with a donation pick-up, went into the homeowner’s bathroom and took some jewelry. The homeowner noticed it was missing and confronted the worker about the missing property. The donor went to the police and reporters and told all her friends about the terrible experience she had trying to donate to the ReStore. Affiliate funding also suffers as a result. 

Mission drift – Our business model is a noble but difficult one. The ReStore essentially exists for one primary purpose: to generate as much funding as possible for the affiliate to put towards the mission of eradicating substandard housing. The work of the ReStore has many other peripheral benefits: keeping usable materials out of landfills, providing low-cost building materials to the community, and providing an alternative place for contributors to give their time and talents who may not feel comfortable swinging a hammer on a construction jobsite. In this same way, ReStore should not be seen as a rehabilitation center where persons serving hours for violations of the law can learn new skills, gain structure and experience constructive discipline. However, these things can and do happen. It is one of the many wonderful peripheral benefits of our business model. ReStore managers can often be so faithful to following through with these other benefits that their ultimate objective to raise as much funding as possible becomes misguided.

Resource strain – With all of the proper court documentation involved: the progress letters, training, orientation process, and development, directing CS workers can be quite exhausting. Many of the CS workers may not serve their hours on any kind of predictable or regular schedule, so the learning curve for them can often be quite slow. Even a regular volunteer may not feel fully oriented and confident with the operations of the ReStore until perhaps their fourth or fifth serve. With the hectic nature of any ReStore, it may not be the best use of the manager’s time to chase after a CS worker who doesn’t want to be helping at the ReStore on a Saturday morning. The CS worker may not have been back to the ReStore in a few weeks and thus, has forgotten all of the procedures. That worker feels lost while the ReStore manager darts between customers and donors. Both parties may feel like they have wasted each other’s time. This process may repeat for a few weeks for a CS worker having only 15-20 hours to serve. At this point, it hardly seems worth the manager’s time considering by the time the CS worker is familiar with the ReStore protocol, the ReStore manager is signing his/her completed timesheet.

Finite time commitment – As mentioned above, one of the greatest disadvantages of a CS worker is that the ReStore manager knows the exact moment that their commitment will end, with the exception of any actions that would be grounds for immediate contract termination. If the CS worker is assigned 30 hours and has four weeks to complete those hours, the manager knows they will be seeing that CS worker all day for the next four Saturdays. However, rarely do they continue to serve the mission of the ReStore once their court-ordered commitment is complete. Certainly, it can and does happen, but the motivations of CS workers are different from those volunteers who are freely giving their time. Once those hours are complete for a CS worker, the contractual obligations are neutralized and the relationship landscape changes.

Alienation of “regular” ReStore volunteers – If your ReStore is like most ReStores, it is one with a constrained staffing structure and in need of a firm volunteer program. Dynamic volunteer programs do not just spring up overnight; they take countless hours of recognition, involvement and relationship building on the part of all those involved with the ReStore. The largest threat to the sustainability of your ReStore’s current volunteer program may be the manager spending inordinate amounts of time corralling CS workers instead of focusing on the viability of the entire program.

Actual situation: A longtime ReStore volunteer decided to not return to his volunteer post on Saturday afternoons as most of the other job functions at the ReStore were being held by a constant rotation of CS workers with ever-changing faces. “They just seem like they don’t need me any longer,” the volunteer stated. 

False sense of a strong volunteer program – With the ReStore manager and staff focusing on the placement and the constant management of CS workers at the store, less emphasis may be placed on recruiting traditional volunteers. Volunteers, like donations and customers, cannot be expected to just show up because you put the name Habitat for Humanity above your door. There is a preemptive measure involved with identifying specific volunteer opportunities, crafting the expectations for that position and seeking potential volunteers through proactive recruitment. With a top heavy CS volunteer program, your ReStore is lulled into a false sense of security in which no real, long-lasting community is being formed. The CS workers may not be able to correctly articulate the mission and purpose of Habitat for Humanity, let alone know the donation criteria or how to speak on the family selection qualifications to become a Habitat partner family. A thriving volunteer program lets their dedication seep into their every action within the ReStore and they build a vibrant sense of community. Healthy volunteer programs contain individuals that attend the christenings of other volunteers’ grandchildren, attend bowling leagues together and visit fellow ailing comrades in the hospital. A ReStore volunteer program is a second family that just happens to sell used toilets together on Thursday afternoon.

One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch – You can’t guarantee the attitudes of people when they’re “forced” to work in the store and a bad attitude can have a negative effect on employee morale and customer service. As ReStore manager, make sure you are properly blending the cultures, but be mindful of negative attitudes that might seek to disrupt the equilibrium. Make sure that every volunteer and CS worker has a crystal clear understanding of the job expectations and the basic policies and procedures of the ReStore. Do not be afraid to draw the line in the sand.

For more information on using court-ordered community service workers in your ReStore, check out these resources on my.habitat.org

Court-Ordered Community Service Workers audio conference call 

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