Atiya Hakeem 2015 Q&A: Conflict Resolution, Group 2

According to the 2014 Strategic Planning retreat summary, Board has difficulty “recognizing the positive aspects of people they have had complex relationships with”. Do you believe this is a current problem in the OTW? What do you think can be done to create a more professional environment?

While “having difficulty recognizing the positive aspects of people one has had complex relationships with” is probably an inescapable human tendency, I think it’s easiest to overcome in an environment in which all parties involved are strongly motivated to work towards concrete goals. Even if I have had issues with someone in the past, if I need their contribution to help something important to me succeed, I will be happy to focus on the ways in which they are competent and to interact with them as smoothly as I can. Electing directors with a history of working with others to get things done, and who know and care deeply about the success of the OTW’s projects should reduce the odds of unproductive and unprofessional behavior.

Several of the Board’s minutes for their closed sessions this year had items like this: “Discussion of how to proceed in a complaint against a staffer.” Under what circumstances do you think it appropriate for the Board to file complaints against individual staffers? Do you foresee any potential problems or conflicts of interest with regards to something like this?

I feel that complaints from Board about staffers should only be considered in extreme cases, such as a staffer being abusive to a director on a personal level. Disagreeing with Board policy, for example, even vehemently or repeatedly, should not be grounds for a complaint. In order to have a healthy organization, those doing the work must be able to freely express their views and opinions about the leadership, the organization, and its goals. If they can’t, those in charge are cut off from vital information, and those under them are left feeling frustrated and voiceless. It’s therefore extremely important that policies allow staffers and volunteers to speak their mind to the Board without fearing punitive measures.

Additionally, there is an obvious and inherent conflict of interest in Board filing a complaint when the party who will judge the merits of that complaint are Board themselves. To reduce the conflict, Board complaints should adjudicated by a neutral party such as Volunteers & Recruiting or Legal, not by the directors themselves.

The Board has retained an outside lawyer on a pro bono basis to advise them on various issues, including the involuntary removal of volunteers from the Org. What impact do you think this decision has had on the Org’s culture? Do you believe this is a useful tool for conflict management? Under what circumstances do you think external legal counsel specifically retained by and for the Board alone, in opposition to other volunteers in the Org, might be an appropriate step to take?

I am extremely unhappy about the entire idea of volunteer management being done in this way. The OTW has always prided itself as being a volunteer organization, run by and for fans. The Board are supposed to be leaders to guide the Org, not dictators imposing their will on the individuals who are its lifeblood. The entire idea that Board would be in such opposition to the other volunteers in the Org that they felt the need to resort to outside legal counsel says to me that something is deeply wrong. I don’t feel there are any circumstances that would make that appropriate, and I am concerned that it is a departure from our volunteer culture that could do lasting harm.

We have in-house structures to deal with human resource issues and conflict management. If they are not adequate, we should improve them, with advice from our own legal team.

There have been repeated complaints about the behavior of Directors toward staff and volunteers who have expressed that they have no avenue for addressing this sort of behavior. While Directors may now remove each other, most of these reports indicate that the rest of the Board was either dismissive of the concerns or actually supported the abusive actions of their colleagues. What are your feelings about exploring and instituting a process by which a requisite number of chairs, staff, and/or volunteers can call for a vote of the membership to consider the removal of a Director who has engaged in unprofessional conduct, abusive behavior, or otherwise violated the organization’s Code of Conduct?

I think that implementing a procedure for to hold directors accountable for abusive conduct is essential for the health and morale of the Org. The fact that a director can literally do anything short of violating U.S. law with no consequences is a huge temptation to bad behavior. Unprofessional conduct towards staff and volunteers creates a hostile environment in which it is more difficult to get work done, leads to loss of personnel, and makes the entire organization look bad. The mere existence of a process for removal of a director for abusive behavior would serve as a check to encourage Board members to consider their actions more carefully.

This responsibility cannot rest only in the hands of Board itself, for the reasons highlighted in the question. Accountability must work both ways between Board and the rest of the Org, and a policy where a reasonable consensus of chairs/staffers/volunteers could take action would ensure that this was the case.