What legal status do volunteers have?

What legal status do volunteers have?

We are often asked by charities: what legal status do volunteers have? And how they should be recruited? It’s increasingly common for school leavers and the unemployed to undertake volunteering to boost their CVs.

Although volunteers aren’t covered by discrimination legislation it’s sensible to adopt the same recruitment practices as paid employees, including a robust paper trail documenting every decision made in the process:

  • from shortlisting;
  • to interview notes; and
  • the offer.

Decisions should be recorded clearly and in an objective manner to minimise disputes about status.

A key indicator of an employment relationship is the payment of wages in return for providing work. So if you want to mitigate an argument that your volunteer is in reality an employee, avoid making any payments that could be construed as wages in return for the volunteer’s services. Make sure it’s absolutely clear that any payments relate to expenses incurred (with receipts) and are properly documented.

Wages covers holiday and sick pay, so make sure that you don’t pay when volunteers are off sick or on holiday.

Another indicator of an employment relationship is the employer’s obligation to offer work and the employee’s obligation to accept it. So if you wish to avoid an dispute , give the volunteer the ability to refuse tasks and the choice of when to work.

Volunteer agreements are useful in clarifying expectations. We recommend that a basic volunteer agreement is put in place, which covers:

  • the volunteer’s role,
  • induction and training,
  • who will be responsible for supervising them,
  • how expenses will be paid,
  • health and safety, and
  • insurance.

Some organisations have a volunteer policy, providing a framework for their volunteer programme and setting out overall principles and a volunteer handbook with appropriate short policies for volunteers. While some policies e.g. equal opportunities, apply to both paid and voluntary staff, procedures for other aspects of the volunteer’s relationship such as dealing with problems and issues at work, should be unique to volunteers.

Finally, it’s important to treat volunteers fairly. A volunteer with good experiences in your organisation, means good PR, and is good for morale in the wider sense. Having clear procedures to deal with problems should reduce the likelihood of disputes.

If you would like more information or advice, please contact our employment team. 

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