Dear Prof PANL,

The chair of our board, Dick, has recently sent an aggressive email to a long-time staff member. He accused the staff person of being manipulative and lazy. Although the rest of the board and the Executive Director has responded with support and encouragement to the staff member, Dick refuses to apologize or back down. Our board is getting nervous about being sued. So far, we’ve avoided two board resignations because of this situation. I am worried the organization will collapse on itself. Help.


Dear Working-with-Dick,

I’m sorry you’re dealing with such an unpleasant situation. It’s great that the board has reacted and offered support to the staff member, because no one should be treated this way, period. I wonder if there’s a pattern of such behavior? If yes, your organization should be concerned that this staff member could sue for harassment and creating a poisoned work environment. This is a real problem for board members, because they have a duty of diligence in assessing risks and are potentially liable when a law is broken, particularly when failing to maintain a safe (physical and emotional) work environment.

This is a real threat to the survival of the organization. Time to act. It’s important to first understand if this incident is a recurrent problem or not. First, there needs to be a clear wall between the board and the staff. Only the Executive Director should be dealing with staff, especially those who have been with the organization for a long time. Why was Dick exchanging with this staff member to begin with? If it’s a one-time situation, go back to the basics with all board members and inform them of their duties and re-visit your by-laws. Adopt a code of conduct, and the board as a whole could issue an apology. If this is an ongoing situation or you feel that Dick’s presence on the board has caused irreparable harm, you need to follow your by-law process to remove a board of director. (Let’s hope you have a by-law for that! If not, time to get one.)

You could also consider inviting a mediator or a governance expert to talk to your board and develop a plan to ensure this never happens again. Lastly, a board retreat led by a third-party would go a long way to repair the broken relationships and show your staff that you are doing something to quell the situation.


Prof. P.

Photo is courtesy of David Babayan and Unsplash.

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Monday, October 26, 2020 in
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