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Non-profit Board responsibility for Human Resource Policy

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The second in a series on arts management.

The World Bank has been in the news recently with the focus on the misdeeds of its CEO, President Paul Wolfowitz. As the revelations have come forward in the news, it has been publicized that a whistle-blower brought allegations of conflict-of-interest and other irregular human resources practices to the bank’s Board of Directors who took no action on these allegations. In retrospect, the Board looks pretty foolish and was certainly not fulfilling its stewardship role.

What is your board’s policy on whistle-blowing? What role does your board have in assuring that proper human resource management practices are being followed? If you can’t answer those questions, then this article is for you.

Board responsibility for human resource policy:
Boards do have a responsibility to assure that their organization is following fair and legal human resources policies. Beyond assuring the health of their organization and being good employers, the board’s oversight of human resource policies has fiscal implications and boards generally understand their responsibility for fiscal stewardship. High staff turnover costs money in training new staff and the expectation that new staff will be less effective during the period while they are familiarizing themselves with the job and key tasks. Egregiously inappropriate human resource management puts the organization at financial risk in a variety of ways: human rights complaints, employment standards complaints, wrongful dismissal law-suits, and fines and penalities for late or incorrect employment benefit deductions are obvious financial repercussions of poor human resource management. Less obvious is the loss of sponsorships, donors and grant funding when the “buzz” in the community about your organization is that it is ineffectively managed and a poor employer.

Separation of Board and Management responsibility:
“But what about the separation of management and board responsibilities?” you ask. “Isn’t human resource policy a management role?” The role that board plays in human resource management can vary, but it is an important one.

The role that board plays in human resource policy needs to be clearly defined in the organization. And the personnel policies of the organization also must be clearly defined.

This is one aspect of non-profit governance where Board and Management must work together and where responsibility is shared. Boards can sometimes overstep their bounds and compromise the role of manager by becoming involved in day-to-day supervisory management issues. But washing their hands totally of human resource policy issues—often in a mistaken belief that this is the way to show support for management’s role—is unacceptable. Doing so is to abdicate a key responsibility of the Board for stewardship of the organization’s financial position and reputation in the community.

Defining the Board’s role in human resource policy:
What defined roles can a non-profit board assume in human resource management? The answer depends on the size of the board, the size of the organization, the role of the board and the strengths within the board. Initially in a new organization or an organization without any human resource policies, the board will likely want to develop and assume responsibility for writing a human resource manual of policies, ideally in cooperation with management and department heads. In developing the organization’s first human resource manual the Board should 1) look for resources from national/provincial agencies supporting non-profit organizations, 2) collect manuals from other similar organizations to its own, and finally 3) look for evidence of existing policies within its own organization.

Finding existing policies in your organization:
How do you look for policies within your organization when you don’t yet have a human resource manual? Ask everyone in the organization to send you copies of memos and decisions that have been made on any human resource issue. If employees have been allowed to carry vacation time accrued for a year in your organization, you don’t want to write a policy that allows for no accrual of vacation time. You want to be consistent and fair in your development of policies. You may be pleasantly surprised by the amount of policy that is in place within the organization. By bringing these policies together in a manual, you make them accessible to all and reveal the few places where policy development is needed.

Ongoing Board oversight of human resource policy:
Boards can write policies, approve policies or merely warrant that proper personnel policies are in place. But in all cases they should be aware of the existence of a human policy manual and assure that those policies are appropriate and appropriately followed. Often a committee of the board, made up of individuals with particular expertise in human resource management is charged with the job of writing and oversight of human resource policy. This committee may be mandated to write all policy or take on only key policy areas as articulated by the Board.

Health and Safety policy:
Non-profit boards often forget health and safety issues when writing human resource policy. Don’t make this mistake. Beyond office workplace safety issues such as repetitive strain injury, non-profit organizations often engage in activities that can place employees at risk. You want to be on the record as mandating that employees follow safety precautions when lifting heavy materials, operating machinery or traveling on company business. You want to assure that federal and provincial safety standards are known and followed. If your workplace is large enough to require a Health and Safety Officer, insure that your Personnel Policy Manual articulates the procedure for selecting one. Accidents will happen, but you want to assure that you have policies in place to protect employees from being asked to engage in unsafe practices. Non-profit workers have reported violations such as being asked to work in food bank warehouses without safety boots or hard hats while stacking crates that could crush them if they toppled. Arts workers have been asked to ride unsecured in the backs of trucks carrying exhibition materials weighing tons, and workers have been made sick after being exposed to toxic levels of print fumes from working in unventilated conditions with boxes of thousands of freshly printed brochures.

Conflict resolution:
What is the Board’s role in workplace conflict resolution? Conflict resolution should be a part of the employment policies articulated in the personnel policy manual. The volunteer board understandably does not want to hear day-to-day employee complaints. If they are, this is symptomatic of a flawed system of dealing with complaints in the workplace. But it would equally be a mistake to shut down dialogue with employees. A policy of never listening to employees would pave the way to a future embarrassment similar to the one facing the World Bank Board this year. They were presented with the evidence of management wrong-doing and they shut down the employee bringing them this evidence. As a result the employee went to the press.

Progressive system of dispute resolution:
Within the personnel policy manual there should be a clearly articulated progressive policy for employee complaint resolution in the same way that there should be a progressive discipline policy for employee violation of company policies and job role expectation.

What does this mean in practice? It should mean that the first step in any employee complaint is that the employee first discusses the matter with their direct supervisor, or where that is inappropriate (for example if the complaint were to involve harassment by that very supervisor) then to go to the next level of authority. Response to the complaint with a suggested plan of action should be delivered to the employee within a reasonable time frame that should be spelled out in the employee manual. Should the employee not be satisfied with the action plan, the organization should provide a vehicle for a final appeal process. It should be clearly stated in the employee policy manual that no punitive action for employee complaints will be tolerated by the organization.

Board role in dispute resolution:
The Board should provide some means for employees to carry complaints forward beyond the management level. By the time employee complaints are heard by the Board, usually two or more attempts to resolve the complaint will have been made at the staff level, departmental and upper management. It should be noted that it could be construed as a violation of the employee’s right to privacy to force the employee to discuss their complaint in front of the whole Board. Instead it is often advised that the Board develop a Personnel Committee to meet with employees in a confidential manner and to share their deliberations with the Board, without violating confidential information about individual employees. Such a committee will usually be comprised of two or three individuals that the Board views as having the best skills for such a committee.

It should be noted that in a unionized setting, the Board’s Personnel Committee will work within agreed upon arbitration processes.

Other duties of the Personnel Committee:
Other duties of the committee will include annual evaluation of the Executive Director or General Manager, periodic reviews of compensation levels in the organization relevant to the sector, reviews of organizational structure/departmental structure, and the important task of exit interviews. Exit interviews provide a series of snapshots of the organization from different vantage points from people who can provide impartial viewpoints as they no longer have a vested interest in protecting their jobs or advancement within the organization. A policy of exit interviews is effective only when conducted with all possible employees. It is less useful when the Board only chooses to interview either positive or very angry exiting employees.

In smaller organizations, one or more representatives of the Personnel Committee may be involved in employee evaluations and in all cases the Board should assure a fair, objective, consistent evaluation process and that evaluations are in a standard written format with opportunity for employee response.

Key indicators of an organization with effective human resource policies:

1. A Board approved consistent and regularly updated employee policy manual that is provided to all employees.
2. Employees are aware of company policies, can articulate them on query, and compliance is high
3. Most complaints are resolved at the departmental or management level without Board intervention. The occasional complaint that comes to the Board level is dealt with according to established policy.
4. Management and Personnel Committees work together on human resource policy and have good lines of communication
5. Annual evaluations of management and staff are consistent, fair and transparent. The results are written and staff response is invited.
6. The organization never or very seldom experiences law suits for wrongful dismissal, complaints to outside bodies regarding employment practices.
7. Staff turn-over is low in comparison to other similar organizations.

If all or most of these key indicators are present in your non-profit, congratulations, your board is doing all it can to promote a healthy, effective organization with high employee productivity and little risk of financial repercussion due to violations of workers rights.

Key indicators of an organization that needs to work on human resource policy.

1. No policy manual exists, or if it exists it is hard to find, inconsistent, has large gaps in policies.
2. Employees are unaware of company policies or employees have conflicting understanding of company policy based on local memos and departmental policies. Confusion leads to disregard of company policy and low compliance.
3. The organization lacks an effective dispute resolution process. There is no “court of last appeal” in the organization. The Board either hears nothing about disputes within the organization or periodically is inundated by employee complaints, deputations by employees. The Board lacks any policy for dealing with these employee complaints and either shuts them down, ignores them or takes on management roles in dealing directly with situations in the workplace.
4. Management and Board have no authentic communication on personnel issues, there is no committee of the Board charged with personnel issues. Board has a “not our business” attitude, shuts down or deals punitively with whistle-blowers, or alternatively, interferes in the daily business of management by instituting decisions on employee policy without consultation with the manager. No exit interviews are conducted. Staff are warned that communication with Board members is inappropriate and will be punitively dealt with.
5. Evaluations are sporadic, inconsistent, verbally conducted without written format or report. There are no objective measures applied nor is there opportunity for employee rebuttal or response. Evaluations seem punitive, only occurring when a manager has negative news to impart. Evaluations are without oversight. Alternatively, evaluations only contain good news and feel-good messages and board involvement is only requested to rubber-stamp good news pronouncements from uniformly positive evaluations.
6. The organization has experienced a high level of wrongful dismissal complaints, status of employment complaints, allegations of human rights violations, employment standards complaints, etc.
7. High staff turn-over is common-place in the organization. The organization has recently experienced a mass exodus of employees fed up with workplace unfairness and management inconsistency.

If your organization has to say “yes” to only one of these 7 points, likely you have one area of human resource management that you need to address in order to assure that you have an effective human resource policy. But if you answered “yes” to two or more points, your Board is leaving the organization open to potential financial loss and/or reputation loss. At the very least you are not doing your best to keep the resources of high-achieving, experienced employees productively employed in your organization. You are letting your employees down and compromising the Mission of your organization.

Some resources for the non-profit Board in Human Resource Policy:
A Checklist of Human Resource Policy Indicators for Non-Profit Boards
A Guide to Human Resource Policy for Non-Profit Boards, from Human Resource Council of Canada

Bread and Roses Life, L. Rogers
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  • The Nag

    Thanks for this, Linda. I’m bookmarking this entry.

  • Linda Rogers

    Hey there, you’re welcome!

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