Participation Rates and the Perils of Conformity

Employee volunteering programs with ambitious participation rates may not be generating value for the company. Worse, they may even be creating a negative culture.

By Chris Jarvis

Why Participation Matters

Among CSR and corporate community investment teams, the most important measure of success for employee giving and volunteering programs is typically participation rates. Why? Because the general belief is that a good employee volunteering experience can either enhance existing job satisfaction levels or compensate for work that may be viewed as mundane or not meaningful. And the research supports this belief:

In general, employees’ desire for meaningful experiences grows from their positive work experiences and translates into increased volunteering. At the same time, the nature of the interaction between job and volunteer meaningfulness provides support for the compensation lens. Employees who report lower levels of meaningfulness in their jobs may also increase volunteering to the extent that it provides the desired sense of meaning.1

Either way, this is a win. Employee volunteering and giving programs improve employee satisfaction and performance. Additionally, despite the concerns of some, the research demonstrates that these programs don’t distract employees from their day jobs. 2

It is then reasonable to suggest that a high participation rate in employee giving and volunteering is a good goal in and of itself.

Or is it?

There are some very real dangers to persuing the goal of high participation in your companies CSR and citizenship programs without considering whether people “feel” it was their voluntary choice and free of workplace pressure.

Here’s why:

Participation is not engagement

First, let’s be clear about what we mean by the word participation. Sometimes the word is used interchangeably with engagement, but when it comes to employee giving and volunteering programs, these words have entirely different meanings. While you cannot have engagement without participation, you certainly can see people participate in a fairly unengaged way, acting in a kind of spectator role. In this context, engagement includes two observable behaviors:

  1. Participation. Obviously, if you don’t show up, you’re not engaged.
  2. Sharing. If people find the act of giving time and/or money engaging they will either tell someone about and/or invite others to try it out as well. This is connected to the concept of social capital. We generate social capital when we share tips on good restaurants or offer cautions such as what movies are not worth seeing.

With this in mind, participation is an important output metric, but it should be considered neither an outcome nor impact. In fact, fixating on participation rates without understanding what the desired outcomes and impacts are for the company, community, and the employees themselves, is dangerous.

Participation through pressure (even if it’s gentle and polite)

While we may understand that our employee giving and volunteering programs are voluntary, as soon as we set goals around participation without thinking through the outcomes that we are hoping to achieve through that participation we run the real risk of reducing engagement in the workplace. Author Francesca Gino explains in a recent Harvard Business Review article Let Your Workers Rebel:

Conformity at work takes many forms: modeling the behavior of others in similar roles, expressing appropriate emotions, wearing proper attire, routinely agreeing with the opinions of managers, acquiescing to a team’s poor decisions, and so on. And all too often, bowing to peer pressure reduces individuals’ engagement with their jobs.

Most of us would agree with Gino’s observation. Those responsible for community investment programs will likely argue that they are very careful not to pressure people to participate out of obligation. But for organizations that tend toward a culture of conformity, programs tend to be influenced by broader cultural norms.

In a recent survey of 2,087 U.S. employees in a wide range of industries, nearly 49% agreed with the statement ‘I regularly feel pressure to conform in this organization.’ This takes a heavy toll on individuals and enterprises alike. Employees who felt a need to conform reported a less positive work experience on several dimensions than did other employees.

Pressure to be good makes us bad

Besides feeling less positive, there is another – perhaps more dire – consequence that results when employees feel pressured to participate in voluntary, prosocial behavior such as giving and volunteering. As Justin Teo points out in his article, research produced this past year (2016) by the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School study From Good Soldiers to Psychologically Entitled: Examining When and Why Citizenship Behavior Leads to Deviance clearly makes this link. The article states that any type of coercion or pressure to engage in Organizational Citizenship Behavior (OCB) will ultimately result in a display of negative behavior in the workplace:

The negative behaviours observed from the research range from; stealing office supplies, neglecting core work duties and intentionally working slower than one could have, to yelling or cursing at fellow co-workers, treating customers poorly, and behaving rudely toward co-workers.3

Why does this happen?

When employees feel compelled to engage in OCB by external forces, they will subsequently feel psychologically entitled for having gone above and beyond the call of duty. Furthermore, these feelings of entitlement can act as moral credentials that psychologically free employees to engage in both interpersonal and organizational deviance.

How bad is bad?

Apparently, employees who felt this pressure not only displayed an entitlement to behave badly in the workplace but also acted uncharacteristically negative towards friends and family. This suggests that forced OCB may be experienced in some workplace giving campaigns, creating negative experiences across employee social networks. If we think carefully about our own experiences with feeling pressured or obligated to do something good, this may not be a surprising result. Remember when your parents forced you to follow a rule? They had you clean up your room or act in some other prosocial way in your own home? Didn’t you resent being forced to do something good? And on occasion, didn’t you use that event as justification for breaking a rule or behaving badly? (For example: I feel pressured to babysit my sister. I agreed, but I certainly don’t have to be nice to her while doing it.)

What does this “pressure” look like?

First of all, let’s be clear: whether or not the company has a culture of conformity, the real problem is when participation rates are held up as the ultimate measure of success. They are not. Holding to this metric as success contributes to a negative corporate culture.

Secondly, the pressure to participate in giving and volunteering programs can come from a variety of sources. If participation is the point, then it will be expressed through manager demands (as in many “month of giving” programs), peer pressure, and in constant reminders to record hours.


Focus on getting the right leaders, and participation will lead to engagement.”


If these dynamics are at play as a result of our fixation with participation rates, then, as Teo points out, employees “engage in negative behaviour because they believe that they are accumulating ‘credentials’ by providing something which is above and beyond their job requirement. This allows them to draw on the credentials necessary to give them a sense of entitlement to engage in negative/self-serving behaviours.”

Ouch.

So … what is the solution? Shouldn’t we want high participation in our employee volunteering and giving programs? What about the benefits cited at the beginning of this article? What about getting to engagement (because engagement cannot happen without participation)?

Just change two things: the measure and the means of success.

Focus on modeling leadership and not coercing participation

Employee volunteering and giving programs that focus on finding the right leaders and giving them a platform upon which to model that leadership will produce the right kind of results. In a fascinating article, Prosocial Conformity: Prosocial Norms Generalize Across Behavior and Empathy, researchers found that people are incredibly susceptible to the influence of prosocial behavior and empathetic responses to need. When people see others, especially leaders, engage in OCB, they are likely to find voluntary expressions of mimicking such behavior. But the research also discovered that observing the behavior was not actually a requirement. Even seeing how leaders respond to others matters in that “prosocial behavior can emerge simply by observing empathic norms.” That means that “merely observing empathic or non-empathic responses to homeless individuals influenced how much money participants donated to a homeless shelter.” 4

Focus on getting the right leaders, and participation will lead to engagement.

Wondering about next steps? Here are some helpful resources:


You may be interested in an online course Chris is leading this March (click the image for details):


Realized Worth is a global consulting firm that works with companies to design and implement employee volunteer programs. We focus on equipping individuals to lead programs in a scalable way, achieving impact for the company, the community, and the employee. Would you like to discuss your program with us? We’d be happy to hear from you! Email us directly at contact@realizedworth.com, or find us on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.


Chris Jarvis
Realized Worth Co-Founder & CEO
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