New Research Reveals the Surprising Impact of Employee Perspectives on Corporate Volunteering

Employee Volunteering, Volunteering Experience

Corporate volunteering (EV) programs have become an increasingly common way for companies to engage employees while demonstrating a commitment to the community. Significant research has examined how employee volunteering programs provide organizational benefits like improved employee engagement, commitment, and retention. However, a new study takes a different approach by closely examining employees’ actual experiences of EV. 

The research, conducted by professors Joanne Cook, Jon Burchell, Harriet Thiery and Taposh Roy, analyzed data from in-depth interviews and focus groups with employees and CSR managers across seven UK companies. Rather than focus solely on collective organizational outcomes as most prior studies have done, the researchers sought to understand EV from the employees’ perspective. 

What they found challenges some prevailing assumptions about how EV automatically translates into positive organizational results. The relationship between EV and organizational outcomes turns out to be much more complex and nuanced when viewed through the employee lens. 

Key findings include:

  • Employees’ motivations to volunteer were often very personal and community-focused, rather than driven by career benefits or organizational commitment as often assumed. Many actively distanced EV from their employer’s broader CSR. 
  • Internal organizational factors like having time to volunteer and the enabling/blocking role of line managers heavily influenced employees’ experiences, not just the external volunteering activity itself. 
  • Employees reflected on EV in the context of their broader employment relationship. The link to positive organizational outcomes depended on perceptions of the company’s underlying values and employees’ overall identification with the firm, not just their experience of EV. 
  • Employees demonstrated capacity to thoughtfully assess potential contradictions between EV rhetoric and realities. Negative perceptions could undermine organizational benefits. 

These insights reveal that EV does not straightforwardly produce positive collective outcomes. Rather, the organizational impact depends on the nuanced interaction of employees’ personal motivations, their internal and external experiences of EV, and reflections on their broader relationship to the company and its values.

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Employee Voice in Employee Volunteering

Importantly, the research highlighted how employees often sought a voice in shaping EV programs based on their experiences, and interpreted company responsiveness as a telling signal. As employees gained experience volunteering, many wanted to provide bottom-up suggestions for enhancing the program and play a more active role in its design. 

How companies reacted spoke volumes about their true commitment in employees’ eyes. Openness to employee input demonstrated an authentic dedication and willingness to engage employees as partners. Conversely, dismissing or ignoring employee voice signaled that EV was more about the external optics than a real investment in employee empowerment and community impact. 

These perceptions matter immensely because employees are already pushing back against societal cynicism about corporate intentions. Many are striving to build and express their identities through work in prosocial companies that share their values. This is explained by social identity theory, which proposes that people derive part of their self-concept and self-esteem from the groups and organizations they belong to. 

Employees want to feel pride in their employer’s character as it reflects on their own identity. Doing good through EV provides a visible way to enact a caring organizational identity. But it also creates expectations. If employee experiences suggest EV is more rhetoric than reality, it can threaten their social identity and undermine engagement. 

This is where behavioral science provides additional insight into employees’ strong reactions to having their EV suggestions embraced or rebuffed. Our “System 1” thinking makes quick, intuitive judgments based on cues and mental models. An employee whose heartfelt EV ideas are ignored may rapidly and subconsciously conclude it confirms suspicions of corporate hypocrisy, triggering frustration and cynicism. 

The emotional tenor of providing then dashing employee voice sends a visceral signal that is difficult to counteract with facts and figures alone. It requires consistently “walking the talk” to maintain engagement and identity. Saying one thing while doing another registers as a threatening dissonance to our social identity. 

Implications for Social Impact Practitioners

For Social Impact practitioners, the implications are clear. Beware viewing EV as a simple, transactional path to engagement. Employees are not a generic input where you can pull a volunteering lever and expect a predictable output of commitment and retention. They are active interpreters with the capacity to see beneath the surface of programs to assess true organizational values. 

The good news is that EV provides a powerful opportunity to build relationships and identification with employees – but only if approached authentically. CSR leaders should proactively solicit and seriously engage employee perspectives in EV design. Stage 2 “Traveler” employees showing growing commitment are especially vital to retain and empower as Stage 3 “Guide” leaders. 

Dismissing or merely appeasing employee voice risks rupturing engagement and identity among this crucial group. It signals that EV is a superficial PR initiative rather than a genuine expression of values. Even without overt criticism, employees’ social identities may lead them to gradually distance themselves. 

In contrast, a sincere openness to employee EV ownership can cement affective commitment and shared identity. It makes abstract values come alive as a genuine partnership. Employees see their socially conscious identity mirrored and empowered by the organization. Prosocial identity and bond are mutually reinforced. 

The lesson is that while EV can be a powerful tool for engagement, it is a double-edged sword. A thoughtful, employee-centered approach can forge enduring identity and commitment. An inauthentic, top-down facade risks undermining the very engagement it seeks to build as employees look beneath the rhetoric. The key is to approach employees as insightful partners, not passive recipients, on the employee volunteering journey.

Chris Jarvis

CSO & Co-Founder

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Realized Worth helps you take a transformative approach to volunteering. We work with companies to create scalable and measurable volunteering programs that empower and engage employees, focus on empathy and inclusivity, and align with your most important business objectives. Talk to us today to learn more!

Employee VolunteeringVolunteering Experience

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