Dear Nonprofiteer, It may be a tempest in a teapot but I’m the one in hot water

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I am the Executive Director (Founding Director) of a small nonprofit with two staff members and a close group of clients who all know each other and see the organization as a community. A part-time staffer
recently quit with no notice because, with the support of the Board, I changed her job description to take away a part of the job that she was not doing competently. In her resignation letter, she said that if the decision was changed she might consider returning. Meanwhile, she told clients she was leaving before telling me. She sent her resignation letter, with one lie and several important omissions, to the clients, who rose up in support of her and in outrage against me and the Board for treating her badly.

Adding her recent actions to her general incompetence and insubordination, I am just as happy that she quit and am planning to accept her resignation even though she has approached me, asking to talk about having her job back in its changed form.

Employment law says that I and the Board members, as employers, are not allowed to discuss any personnel details with the public. This means that I am not being able to defend myself or explain why I took this very necessary action. The clients are not aware of the many problems with her job performance; they see only her public side. They are crying out (in emails to the whole group, not in direct communication with me) about open communication and treating people as human beings, and protesting that they were not consulted. The situation is threatening to tear our organization apart.

I gather that this situation is fairly common in small organizations when personnel changes have to be made. Do you have any suggestions? How can I get rid of this person without seeming to be “coldhearted” and “unwilling to work things out”? How can I calm down the clients enough to go on with our important work (about which they are not complaining)?


Under Fire

Dear Under Fire:

In these circumstances (as in many others), the person who wins is the person who knows how to keep silent. You’ve already identified a water-tight excuse for not discussing the matter with this meddlesome “community”–employment law prevents you from doing so. So send out an e-mail to whatever listserv the clients and your soon-to-be-ex-employee are using, saying, “I gather questions have been raised about Mary Jane’s decision to leave the agency. You will all of course understand that employment law prevents me from discussing the particulars of her work situation, just as your own employers are (happily) unable to talk about you behind your backs. Mary Jane has submitted her resignation and the Board and I agree that it’s in the best interests of our agency to accept her decision. We appreciate your concern for the agency, but please be assured that we will continue to do the vital work that’s so important to us all.”

THEN SHUT UP, and tell each and every member of your Board to do the same. Your motto henceforth is “Never complain, never explain.” The clients who are so upset will run out of steam eventually–and sooner if you don’t provide any new fuel for their fire. Anything you say beyond “I can’t talk about it” is fuel–no matter how well-thought-out, accurate, or persuasive. By contrast, silence is smothering.

Your biggest challenge will be to stiffen your Board members’ spines; they’re members of this community, as you say, and may feel they owe its members an explanation. THEY DON”T, and neither do you. You did everything right: identified a weakness in the performance of an employee, confirmed with your Board that the weakness could be cured by moving responsibility to someone else, and made the move. If Mary Jane didn’t like the job as re-configured (which she apparently didn’t), she was free to leave (which she apparently did). If she now regrets her reaction, that’s too bad–as you say, it merely confirms your original view of her ineptitude and/or bad judgment.

More to the point, everything about this is your business and no one else’s except the Board’s. Clients may be interested, they may be concerned, they may even be loud–but they don’t get to make employment decisions, any more than the customers of your clients’ businesses get to decide whether they keep their jobs. So just keep repeating again and again, “Of course I understand your concern. But of course you understand that I’m not allowed to talk about this, any more than your boss would be allowed to talk about you. By the way, did you hear about our great new program?” Lather, rinse, repeat. Change the subject often enough and it will stay changed.

Don’t worry about being cold-hearted: even clients who are the most vocal on Mary Jane’s behalf will hesitate to give up the benefits of your agency’s community. If they do: you’ll get new clients. This is a situation that tears apart only the nonprofits that forget they’re governed not by their employees or clients but by their Board and Executive Director.

Good luck, and happy tongue-holding!


2 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, It may be a tempest in a teapot but I’m the one in hot water”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    The Nonprofiteer’s answer seems exactly right. To Under Fire, I would add that if you can get past the repetitive and annoying grumbling, you can see a big compliment. You founded an organization whose clients are passionate about the mission. When a subordinate performed poorly, you reconfigured her job in a way that she wants to keep–even though she toodled off, most usefully to you and the organization.

    Once you embrace–and really believe–the truth that you’re not being attacked, you can turn every whine-fest e-mail or face-to-face conversation into an opportunity. You could see each grumbler as someone who is saying, “I really care about the good work that’s been going on. How can I do more?,” and ask anyone who contacts you to redouble his or her commitment to the mission. It might take a strong stomach to proceed this way at first, when the interlocutor appears pissed off. Nevertheless you have won a victory you didn’t seek, but can use.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    It’s true–“a soft answer turneth away wrath,” and it’s easy to give a soft answer once you realize you’ve won the battle. It takes a sensitive ear, though, to interpret “You stupid ninny, why didn’t you do it my way!” as “You effective leader, you’ve made me care so much about the agency that I want you to do it my way”–so I’m sure Under Fire benefits from your having provided the translation program! Thanks.

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