This post is written by guest Blogger – Ian Bland
Many people who are unemployed for a significant period do some form of volunteering. This can be an excellent way not only to gain experience and even progress to paid work with the organisation they’re volunteering for, but also to maintain a connection with the working environment and gain social connections, avoiding a sense of isolation, which long term unemployment may induce, which can be debilitating psychologically.It can also promote diversity in employment.
It’s probable that most people would agree with the above paragraph, but if you read it through again you might notice that it is entirely framed in terms of benefits the volunteer gets from their volunteering. In discussions with other group members about their volunteering experiences, it occurred to me that this might not be the best way to look at it- or, at least, not the best way to present volunteering when applying for a job or, particularly, in an interview situation.
To understand why, we have to think about the concept of value, in economic terms. Job hunting is all about value in the market economy, and in particular the applicant needs to convince the employer that, firstly, hiring them will bring positive net value to the company or organisation and, secondly, that they will bring greater value to the company than all the other applicants. For people with disablities, this can be problematic and there is a tendency to think in terms of being hired despite the disability and thus an implicit assumption that the company will receive less value than by hiring some other candidate; and if that is the mindset, then it does indeed make sense for the company (who are naturally trying to maximise the value obtained from employees in terms of productivity) to just choose somebody else. Therefore, the main thought from the employer is not about improving diversity in employment, but rather, how does this affect the ‘bottom line’.
Thus, if we consider volunteer work- or indeed former paid work- it’s very useful for the disabled applicant to think and present themselves in terms emphasising the value they brought to the organisation they have volunteered for. So, rather than thinking like my first paragraph- in which I described things that the person got out of volunteering, they can do themselves a service by thinking in terms of things that they brought to the organisation. A charity uses volunteers because those volunteers do work that needs doing- not, in fact, as a favour to them. That means that the volunteers have brought value to the organisation by giving it their time and skills.
What are those skills? They may be physical skills. They may be administrative/organisational skills. They may be customer service skills. Perhaps our hypothetical candidate brought better organisation and presentation of goods for sale in a charity shop, or made it a more welcoming environment for customers. Perhaps they have participated in designing promotions. Perhaps they simply better organised a stock room, or kept the shop areas particularly clean and tidy (which retailers will understand is a very important part of the customer experience). Perhaps our candidate was flexible in their working patterns and always ready to help out in a jam- these are attributes which are appealing to employers seeking to hire for flexible working hours.
So in essence, although of course you may describe at an interview various useful skills acquired from volunteer work, by presenting the value you have brought to that organisation in your time with them, a far more positive impression will be created than focussing on what you got from them or how they helped you, and this will help dispel the implicit framing that you are asking to be hired despite your disability; instead, you are a potential asset who will bring to the employer the value that you brought to the volunteer position.