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Volunteering for the boss? No such thing

When the boss asks, the pressure is on to say yes — that’s a lesson Toronto Mayor Rob Ford should learn

By Todd Humber

There’s no such thing as volunteering for the boss. And the boss should never ask.

That’s a lesson I learned early in life, when my dad refused to take whatever it was that my school or scout group was selling to his office. Chocolate bars, cheese, raffle tickets, sponsors — you name it — I never got the fundraising boost that came with a parent taking goods into work to pawn off on co-workers.

Fed up with seeing my classmates beat me in the competition of who could sell the most (because there was always a cool prize attached, like a stereo or a bike), I finally worked up the nerve to ask him why.

His answer was simple, and it always stuck with me: “Because if I did, people would be feel obligated to buy something. And that’s not fair to them.”

My dad was in management at Chrysler with a significant number of people reporting to him. He didn’t think it was right to put people accountable to him in an uncomfortable position, even if it was just over the matter of $2 for a chocolate bar for his son’s school fundraiser.

That’s a lesson that, apparently, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford never learned.

Ford, no stranger to controversy since he was elected mayor of Canada’s largest city, is facing criticism over the use of city resources to help with football teams he coaches.

While the facts sort themselves out, this much is clear — some of Ford’s staff have been helping out with the football team. Toronto Councillor Doug Ford (the mayor’s brother) “repeatedly and angrily insisted that the staff members help the football teams on a ‘volunteer’ basis,” according to a Toronto Star article. His point was the staffers aren’t helping out with football while on the clock.

While that may appease taxpayers, it doesn’t really make it much better. When the boss asks you to volunteer for an after-hours cause he feels is worthy, the pressure is on to say yes because there are consequences to saying no.

It could make things awkward in the office. It could be held against you, or you may feel guilty you didn’t say yes.

Want that big promotion? Who do you think is going to have the edge? The employee who turned down the request, or the one who’s buddy-buddy with the boss hanging out after hours taking an interest in his pet project?

Even if the volunteering has absolutely nothing to do with the promotion, the optics can be terrible.

It can hurt morale. It can create a country club atmosphere with a modern spin on the “old boys club.” That’s not a healthy culture for any workplace.

When my dad used to ask me to do something for him, he’d tell me: “You’ve been voluntold.”

When the boss asks his staff to support his cause, regardless of how worthy, he might just as well say the same thing.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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