Treating Retail Employees Like Volunteers

Treating Retail Employees Like Volunteers

“Engagement is a renewable daily decision that is voluntarily given when the company has proven worthy of it.” –Jason Lauritsen, Talent Anarchy

Every month my nine year old son and I volunteer at a local shelter to serve lunch to the homeless. Originally this started out as a lesson to my son to appreciate the things he has but it has morphed into something we genuinely enjoy doing. It’s such a great experience because the kitchen team let’s me fix the gigantic salads – which I love doing – and working the window because I get to interact with the regulars who we have come to know. Initially my son was in charge of handing out milk but now when we go in, the kitchen staff asks him what he wants to do and he gets so excited when he chooses to learn a new area of the process.  The couple of days leading up to our lunch shift my son starts talking about what he wants to try and what he can teach any new people that may be there to help as well.

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There is such a supportive, welcoming, and sincere atmosphere when we go each month, it has me thinking about how conducive the work environment is to productivity and engagement – so much so that what was going to be a two or three months lesson has become an 18 month commitment that we enjoy.

How We Treat Volunteers

  • Volunteering is about finding people with a passion for the project
  • The staff asks if we are comfortable performing a task and if we aren’t, they teach us and give us resources to learn
  • They are sincerely grateful for the help and the effort put in by volunteers
  • They are kind to everyone [volunteers and visitors]
  • There is a clear alignment on organizational and individual values that drive accountability and commitment
  • They build relationships
  • Active listening
  • Involvement
  • All around respect
  • Work with our schedule to determine availability

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How We Treat Employees

  • Demand compliance and obedience
  • Exclude from decision making and just hand out orders and a laundry list of to-do’s
  • Dictate rather than engage in dialog
  • Talk at rather than listen
  • Ignore recognition opportunities because they get a paycheck for “that”
  • Dictate schedules [which results in lots of call-outs and attendance challenges in the stores]
  • We don’t always respect our subordinates

Think about it for a minute.  Volunteers are doing something because they want to, not because they need to.  Volunteers are passionate about their work and want to have impact.  They want to perform work that has meaning and purpose. Work that energizes, inspires, and motivates them. Volunteers aren’t bound by the same command and control requirements that “employees” are.  If there is too much bureaucracy and red tape involved, they simply move on.

Managing volunteers takes elevated focus on your softer skills.  In most cases a retail leader can simply say – “do this,” and it gets done or a store leader can send a passive aggressive email and get their staff to check off some to-do’s.  Leaders of volunteers don’t have that luxury.  Looking at this from a volunteer perspective changes how you look at motivation and influence if you remove the shackles of “employment” from your view of leading and guiding performance results.  It makes you work harder at aligning your goals and their goals.  It also makes for a greater a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day knowing that you have made a difference and that you have worked hard to achieve an objective.

Food For Thought

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  • For volunteers you create mission and drive to achieve specific goals and a shared end-game – people don’t volunteer for meaningless missions;
  • For volunteers you allow greater leeway for personality and individual approach – you’re super happy just to have a productive member on the team;
  • You keep volunteers informed and communicate and recognize milestones – they aren’t flying blind they are working toward a goal and they want to know where they stand on that goal;
  • For each volunteer you continually reinforce and appreciate their individual contribution to the overall goal in order to maintain consistent engagement;
  • For volunteers you work harder and engage in a dialog to find their true value and where they have the highest contribution – you don’t force them into roles they aren’t suited for or into working on teams they aren’t suited for;
  • You listen to and consider their ideas – after all they have the same level of passion as you and bring a different perspective and innovative ideas to your program;
  • For volunteers you forgive small mistakes in light of the greater good – failure isn’t fatal but stagnation is;
  • When you have a great volunteers you ask for recommendations for more volunteers – after all people are the average of the five people they spend the most time with – if they are great…chances are people they would recommend are as well, there is a values alignment and similar interests;
  • You share the success of the outcome – leaders of volunteers know that their results couldn’t have happened without the team and leaders speak to that and express their gratitude consistently.

Leading a team of volunteers means valuing their contribution and working to match desire to function within the team to achieve the stated mission and values of the program.  As a retail leader – take a few minutes and ask yourself this question, “What would I do differently if I knew all my staff would just walk out of the business tomorrow?”  I am guessing a contest or gift card wouldn’t be enough to keep them there.

How Do We Create A Model Like This

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The key to getting an employee to stay is in the quality of the relationship. If they find the key component they need to keep them engaged and satisfied, you are setting yourself up for success. The variables in that formula are similar for employees as well as for volunteers.

  • Meaning and Purpose
  • Inspiring and Motivational Work
  • Involved and Empathetic Leadeship

According to Cal Newport author of, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, there are some additional qualities of autonomy, competence and relatedness that are the basis for a fulfilling job.  Being a volunteer is defined by these circumstances as well because a volunteer will only continue to contribute when the effort has rewards and personal accomplishment is felt.

For volunteers, these characteristics shape and support the relationship:

  • Autonomy – Feeling that they have control over their day and duties and that their actions are important. Volunteers decide when to participate and what to contribute. There is typically little or no oversight and everything they do matters in an obvious way.
  • Competence – The feeling achieved – and reinforced consistently – is that they are good at what they do. For volunteers, the tasks, tools, resources should be designed so that they can be successfully accomplished using these things autonomously. Hence everyone can consistently contribute lasting value.
  • Relatedness – The feeling of being connected to other people who share a compelling reason and common purpose.
Volunteers are engaged and active as long as they are successfully contributing to a common purpose. Volunteers can and do vote with their feet; they don’t have to come back to support the intitiative so every interaction is an opportunity to build a relationship and forward progress or…not. A positive, productive, valuable experience with meaning & purpose is the heart of a successful relationship. Ask yourself  the following questions:
  • Would your employees come to work tomorrow if they weren’t paid?
  • Would you want to donate your time to your organization?
  • Would you want to work for you if you were your boss?


Founder and Editor in Chief of Excellence In Retail. Published writer. Frequent Podcast Guest. Speaker. Twenty year [oy vey!] retailer. I am passionate about leadership development and workplace culture. 646 246 1380 | [No Sales Contact, please} But it you want to call just to say hello or have a question - that's awesome!

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4 thoughts on “Treating Retail Employees Like Volunteers

  1. Really brings meaning to how volunteering can bring training and knowledge we can transfer to the “day job”

    1. Thanks Patrick, looking at our leadership from this perspective really does help identify gaps in our communication with an appreciation of our team and colleagues. People show up for their job but they do great work for the leaders who support them and deliver meaning & purpose to their roles. Thanks for the comment and for reading this post.

  2. What a great article. I work for non for profit that is supported by volunteers and has a number of inside employees. The balance of communication and delivery is a delicate balance when running an operation and supporting and appreciating volunteers. I would like to speak more about you article, if you are available. Thank you, Keith

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