Take care when appointing volunteers

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The number of volunteers has increased dramatically according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. And this seems to be particularly so amongst 16-25-year-olds. So what steps should you be taking to ensure you are doing the right thing from an employment law perspective? Because not adhering to specific terms and conditions in the appointment and management of volunteers could potentially be costly. 

Despite the obvious benefits that using volunteers brings – a lower wage bill and a pool of talent from which to later employ, for example – it is vital to set certain conditions from the outset and constantly monitor that these are being stuck to. Simply labelling someone as a ‘volunteer’ won’t prevent them from acquiring ‘employee’ or ‘worker’ status because tribunals will always look at the reality of the relationship. 

The volunteer agreement

It begins with the initial ‘volunteer agreement’ that should be issued at the appointment stage. Whereas a standard contract of employment specifies various rights such as an entitlement to paid holiday, a volunteer agreement is less legalistic in nature. As none of the ‘ordinary’ employment rights apply to volunteers, the document should simply outline the duties and working hours that are expected of them, any issues around supervision and health and safety and details of how the volunteer will be reimbursed for any expenses that may be incurred. 

It is at this point that you need to be careful. If anything more detailed than a simple volunteer agreement is put in place, you risk creating what lawyers call ‘mutuality of obligation’ -where you become committed to providing work and the volunteer becomes committed to accept work. In such instances the volunteer may be deemed to be a ‘worker’ or ‘employee’ – giving them the right to be paid the national minimum wage, annual leave, etc. 

It is also important to ensure that the duties laid out in the agreement are not exceeded by the volunteer. If duties end up going beyond those set out in the volunteer agreement, claims that a volunteer is moving into the sphere of an ‘employee’ or ‘worker’ might be upheld. Allowing volunteers to refuse tasks or choose their hours of work will help to avoid the implication of a contractual relationship.

Where volunteers are being reimbursed for expenses incurred, strictly monitor these to ensure they are only paid for genuine claims. Going beyond this could lead to claims that volunteers are being paid for their work (not just expenses) and therefore are workers and entitled, as a minimum, to the national minimum wage. 

Disciplinary issues

In terms of day-to-day HR issues, managing the disciplinary and grievance process should be done more informally than for permanent members of staff, to avoid the implication that volunteers, if dealt with under existing procedures, are employees or workers.

Where misconduct is concerned, it is best practice to directly discuss the matter with the individual to ensure they understand that a similar incident should not occur again. If a volunteer has committed gross misconduct then the terms of their appointment simply allow an employer to dismiss them without notice. 

Health and safety

Where health and safety is concerned, however, the process for investigating accidents is identical to that used for workers and employees, the employer owing a similar duty of care. It is also important that you check that volunteers are covered by the terms of your liability insurance. Their inclusion means that any compensation paid out to, or caused by, a voluntary worker involved in a workplace accident would be covered by the terms of the policy.


Crucially, volunteers are not covered by the employment provision of the Equality Act, see X v Mid Sussex Citizens Advice Bureau. However, it would be best practice to ensure that equality and diversity considerations are applied in the recruitment and management of volunteers - it making no moral or reputational sense to rely on a technicality to justify discriminatory treatment.

It is possible that the pressure the National Living Wage is bringing to bear on businesses will lead them to consider using voluntary workers, perhaps for the first time. However, without recognising the need to manage their terms, conditions and day-to-day schedule in a specific way, there is a real risk that their legal status, and subsequently the obligation of the employer, will fundamentally alter and cost businesses more in the long term. 


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