Alex Tischer 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?

Considering the 2014 SP retreat summary made this point in particular about one of the committees I work with, I would say that yes, this is a current problem in the OTW, whose consequences I have witnessed closely. To create a more professional environment, the first step should be to ask people to behave professionally: this is a work environment, after all.

The bare minimum of professionalism to me includes: answer emails in a timely manner, attend the meetings regularly and on time and have discussions in the open where people have the chance to call you out on any inappropriate behaviour. It’s important to be able to take criticism of your work, conduct and ideas without taking it personally. In my work in the OTW so far, I’ve had countless disagreements with people in my committees, and everyone involved moved on after the discussion ended. That is how a professional discussion should go, in my opinion, but that hasn’t been the case with regards to the Board.

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 don’t think there are circumstances where it is appropriate for Board to file complaints against individual staffers. Due to the inherent power imbalance, it is next to impossible for a staffer to break the Code of Conduct against Board collectively as the injured party, and Board should acknowledge that power imbalance by following the simple principle of not punching down, ever. The fact that volunteers have no recourse themselves and are powerless against Board makes matters even worse. They may be able to file official complaints (harassment, bullying, anything) but there are no consequences. Board members are immune. It’s an extremely unequal atmosphere, so I can’t imagine any fair situation in which it might be acceptable for Board to complain collectively against one person.

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 think the general idea of having outside legal counsel is not a bad one; our Legal department is by definition mostly focused on copyright law. I do question the fact that the existence of this outside legal counsel was never mentioned until the run up to these elections. Having an outside lawyer available to advise the Board and any committee that might need it (Elections and Communications come to mind first, but Legal themselves probably could benefit from it) sounds reasonable. Having external legal counsel specifically retained by and for the Board alone, sounds unnecessary and underhanded.

I certainly don’t believe that outside legal counsel is in any way a useful tool to internal conflict management. If internal conflicts have escalated to a point where legal expertise is required (for example, to have a volunteer removed against their will, as was the case last month), we have to take a hard look at what exactly we are doing and how far this is from the ideals the org was founded on. I would imagine outside counsel working for the Board would only intervene to terminate the conflict, and I’m not sure I would trust them to act as a neutral third party.

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 would support instituting such a process and would do my best to make sure that any group attempting to explore the possibilities with a view to suggesting it be implemented would be supported in their research and not hindered in any way by Board. We need more checks and balances in our setup, and the power imbalance between Board members and other members of the org has been a concern of mine for a while – especially given that we don’t select for qualifications at most levels of the org and thus being elected/appointed to Board in most years requires little but a pulse, stubbornness, and hanging around, nominally doing minimal work somewhere in the OTW.