Legislative Compliance

What Is a Volunteer, Exactly? Avoiding the Perils of Worker Misclassification

July 24, 2019

No matter what type of company, no matter what industry, how you categorize the people who work for you matters a lot. Each jurisdiction has strict rules about employers’ responsibilities towards workers, but these responsibilities change depending on just what kind of worker we’re talking about. For example, Ontario’s Ministry of Labour outlines a six-part test to determine whether someone is an intern or an employee, but what about a volunteer?

Generally speaking, neither an intern nor a volunteer is paid for their efforts, neither receives employee benefits, there’s no understanding of a job at the end of the relationship between the organization and the individual, and only a negligible material benefit to the company. So, what exactly is the difference, and why does it matter? The easy part to answer is that it matters because misclassifying workers is one of the commonest mistakes employers make, one that government regulators regularly watch for, and one that can have significant legal consequences for noncompliant organizations. As regulators crack down on exploitative and misleading ‘internships’ across the country, it’s more important than ever to make sure that all categories of workers are appropriately classified.

Interns or volunteers are often in a very difficult spot. They want to be part of your organization so they can learn or donate some of their spare time, but they don’t want to be taken advantage of. If someone volunteers but you start expecting work like they’re an employee, they may feel underappreciated or misunderstood. While you may appreciate that they are willing to work without pay, it’s not fair to take advantage of volunteers. It can also reflect poorly on your business. Generally, it’s best to make sure you are clear about what tasks should be done by volunteers or interns, and where you should consider hiring an employee.

There is a very important but often subtle line between an employee and a volunteer. How do you know whether someone is really a volunteer or just a mislabelled employee? Download our FREE Guide to Classifying Employees, Volunteers, and Interns for tips on how to determine which category applies.

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