Attention board members: Beware of staff complaints about the executive director

pandoras boxIf you Google the definition of “Pandora’s Box,” the all-knowing internet oracle says the term means: “a process that generates many complicated problems as the result of unwise interference in something.” I love this expression, and I used it a few months ago when talking to the board president of a non-profit organization who was describing to me how they were handling a complaint about the agency’s executive director.
In a nutshell, the board president in question was approached by a staff member with a complaint. The board president asked the staff member to put the complaint in writing and agreed to take it to the entire board of directors.
While on face value, this might make sense because the executive director works for the board. I believe this opens the flood gates, and anytime staff have an issue they will now likely circumvent the executive director and go straight to the board.
My advice?

Don’t undercut your executive director like this. You might as well fire them if this is how you’re going to manage them.

With that being said, I bet there are many of you who are wondering what the right course of action should be. After all, it is a fiduciary responsibility of the board to hire and manage the executive director.
Here is how I suggest the board handles all staff complaints pertaining to the executive director:

  1. Immediately ascertain if the executive director has done something ILLEGAL, UNETHICAL or VIOLATES AN AGENCY POLICY.
  2. If the issue rises to the level of illegal, unethical or policy-related, reach for a bottle of Maalox or Pepto and ask for staff to put it in writing (and if illegal call the police and an emergency board meeting immediately!). Or more importantly, follow the written process if you one.
  3. If the issue doesn’t rise to this level, then politely turn them around and ask them to try working it out directly with the executive director. Explain that there is a process to follow and it starts with trying to first work it out with the boss. Empathize with their situation and express confidence that it can be worked out. Walk them through your agency’s policy/procedure. Explain the circumstances of when they might submit something to the board in writing after they try to work it out with the executive director (e.g. retaliation, etc). Be transparent. Be genuine. Empathize. But draw the line clearly.
  4. Circle back around to the executive director. Be transparent about what happened. Encourage them to work things out. Remind them of the importance of staff morale and the power of team. Remind them to stay within the agency’s policy boundaries. Express confidence in their abilities to solve the issue.
  5. Prepare for the worst case scenario.

Please don’t misread what I’m saying here. I did not just tell board volunteers to wash their hands of staff complaints unless it rises to the level of “illegal, unethical, or policy violation“. What I am saying is . . . not all complaints are equal and the ones that don’t rise to the level of illegal / unethical / policy violation should be handled in a way where you’re not undercutting your executive director.
Because . . .
If you choose to allow staff to circumvent the board’s one employee — the executive director — then you’re opening Pandora’s Box, and I guarantee that you won’t have an executive director for long. You will either fire them or they will quit.
There are some assumptions that I’m making about your agency when writing this blog post such as:

Let me bottom line this complicated issue:

  • You don’t want to undercut your executive director
  • You don’t want to abdicate your fiduciary responsibilities to supervise the executive director and ensure the agency is well-run
  • You want to think these things out in advance — proactive and not reactive
  • You want written policies and procedures in place and you want to follow them (don’t be arbitrary or capricious in enforcing the rules)
  • You don’t want to put the agency in a position to get sued

Is that it?
LOL . . . yeah . . . that’s it. Good luck!
Since we can all learn from each other. Please scroll down and use the comment box below to share your thoughts and experiences on this topic. Please also feel free to point your fellow non-profit professionals and board volunteers to awesome samples and online resources to assist them in managing risk.
Here’s to your health!
Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847


    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this subject, Christine. I tend to look at internal staff structures a little different than the CEO-board dynamic, but your feeling about handling everything at the lowest level is certainly reasonable. The only caveat, which is the same one I mention in the post, is when we’re talking about illegal, unethical or policy-related violations. In instances that are big deals, I believe the executive director must be informed at the very least.
      Hope all is well, Christine! Thanks for weighing in.

  1. Hello Erik,
    I understand this is a old post, but i hope you can help. I’m the operations manager of a nonprofit. Our ED has been in place for almost two years. I started noticing issues after 3 months. Our board president ask to meet with me as she notice them as well. I agreed to meet confirmed her suspensions. One month after our meeting i was told by my ED that she fired the board president. We have been through 3 different board presidents. Multiple board members have left. Our orginzation is in turmoil. We are loosing money, bad press as a result of our ED. My last resort is a board member. It is a very stressful work environment for the entire and i mean the entire staff. Please help.

    1. Good morning, Jackson. I’m sorry to hear about your organization’s situation. Here are a few quick observations:
      1) your ED cannot fire the board president or any board members because they work for the board and not vice versa. I assume the ED “ran them off” with confrontational tactics, but I assure you that not one board member has been fired. They only way board members get removed from the board is by a vote of the board. I just think it is important to be factual and accurate when discussing sticky issues like this one.
      2) You made a mistake when you agreed to meet with the board president. Unless the board had authorized an “investigation” into the conduct of the ED, your former board president put you in a box by asking you to sit down and meet. In the future, I suggest asking first if the meeting is part of an authorized board action that your ED is aware of and if it isn’t invite that board member to sit down with you AND your ED where you honestly (albeit very tactfully) answer their questions.
      3) As for your current situation, I point you to your organization’s employment policies (most likely your Employee Handbook). I encourage you to re-read this document and then ask yourself this question: “Is the ED violating any organizational policies? Acting immorally? Breaking any laws?” If the answer is YES to any of these questions, then you have a course of action which most likely begins with a difficult first meeting with the ED BEFORE you engage the board president (unless it is outright illegal in which case you likely need to call the police first or risk being part of a conspiracy to cover-up something illegal … if this is the case, then stop reading this blog and go hire yourself an attorney for legal advice). After meeting with the ED, you need to give them an opportunity to remedy the situation and if things don’t get better then– and only then — engage the board president. (I’d also try to document as much of this as possible with follow-up meetings with all individuals)
      Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many boards misunderstand their fiduciary responsibilities and they don’t understand that their ONLY employee is the ED which means they are responsible for hiring, firing, evaluating and managing that person as a group; whereas, the ED is the person who does all of these things with the rest of the staff. So, if this is the case with your organization’s board, I don’t hold out much hope that anything will resolve itself in which case your only recourse is to resign.

      Sorry to be “Debbie Downer” this morning. 🙁
      Please remember that there is nothing illegal, immortal or a policy violation just for being an ogre of a boss. If you cannot identify a specific law, policy or immoral action with which to bring to your boss, then you’re options are limited. Of course, if you hit this dead-end, there is nothing stopping you from still sitting down with you boss and having a gentle conversation about employee morale. This is what experts call “managing up”. Here is a link to an article about Managing Up: I suggest Googling the phrase and learning as much as you can about this important workplace concept.
      Good luck!

  2. This is an old post…What do you suggest if an employee files a complaint on the ED and the claims are false? The board listens to the claims of the employee and then listens to the ED. In small non profits, the ED often acts as HR. The ED of course contacts legal as false claims can be extremely damaging, however whistle blower policy is in place. No real way to prove what is true. Naturally, the ED wants to terminate the employee for false accusations, but protect the agency from being sued.

  3. Hi Erik,
    I am one Manager of six, within a 70+ employee, non-profit organization. The BOD hired a new ED approx. 2yrs ago. Since then, the ED has had 3 written, detailed, evaluations by all staff. One at 3 months, then 2 annual evaluations. The problem is this: because past ED’s consistently received very positive evaluations from staff, and the new ED’s 3 month evaluations were very negative (so much so, staff were fearful of retaliation from the ED if found out) the BOD decided to destroy the evaluations. Since then this ED has had 2 more staff evaluations with the average being negative outcomes. I have been with this organization for many years, up until this new ED joined the organization things ran very smoothly because the staff worked together to make this happen. Now it is a nightmare. We are starting to receive bad publicity, staff are approached by people outside the workplace wanting to know what is going on. Our positive, good community service provider image is being tarnished. What can staff do as a whole to have the ED removed.

  4. As I read, quote me, “A Board of Directors can’t get fired!” If you don’t make payment for Maintenance or, as well as, Mortgage? Can you be canned just because a Home Owner wants to change Board of Directors? This individual who did this petition, was also on the Board of Directors, but dismissed herself. Now this person went to Apartments for signatures to remove the rest of the Board. Is this fair to say? After all, there is a soon to be New Yearly Forms to be voted for New Board of Directors, so why did this unnecessary act take place in the first place?
    My question is about as a Board of Directors, do I have to return to the Management Company the Monthly Papers that I received during the course of my job requirements?
    Thank you for your support in the message.

  5. I disagree with this post. If you have ever had to deal with a crappy CEO, I think the board should know about it. Cuz how else would you address your concerns as a staffer? Your CEO has the power to make your life hell. In fact as a CEO, I would be administering culture surveys and leadership surveys so my staffers have a voice and I can meet their needs. I would acknowledge that some wouldn’t feel comfortable addressing concerns with me and would offer ways that they feel they could. Plus I would also be curious as to how some would view your leadership style. This is a very important KPI for CEOS. I can’t even begin to tell you how many would leave an organization and never have the gumption to tell you the truth because you never established an open relationship in the first place. Make your staffers life easier not harder.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.