If 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.
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:
- Immediately ascertain if the executive director has done something ILLEGAL, UNETHICAL or VIOLATES AN AGENCY POLICY.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- You have adopted a written whistle blower policy
- You’ve adopted written policies defining and prohibiting retaliation
- Your employee handbook contain a written process outlining a complaint process and open door policy
- You’ve adopted a written ethics policy
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!
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC