Managing conflicts between the Board and Staff

Conflicts concerning directors and staff can be disruptive to an organisation’s operations and burdensome on all individuals involved. They can also be detrimental to charities and not-for-profits to the extent that they detract from their charitable purpose and the efficient use of their limited resources.

This article is part one of a two-part series concerning the duties and expectations of directors as they relate to staff. It explores the options available to manage conflicts between directors and staff as and when they arise within an organisation.

How do conflicts arise?

While the board is responsible for the governance of an organisation (including setting its objectives), staff are responsible for meeting an organisation’s immediate operational needs in order to meet those objectives. Directors and staff are often required to work together and communicate with one another to carry out their respective responsibilities.

Directors and staff may interact with one another in a number of different ways. Staff may be invited to attend and speak at board meetings, while directors may be invited to attend and speak at staff events. Directors and staff may also serve together on committees.

Conflicts may arise when there is miscommunication or a lack of communication between the board and staff. They may also arise when communications are disrespectful, discriminatory or intimidating. This makes it important for organisations to set behavioural expectations around how directors and staff treat and communicate with one another.

How can organisations reduce the risk of conflict from arising?

  • Clearly articulate the separate roles of board and staff members. The role of the board is to oversee the operations of an organisation, not to carry out those operations by stepping into the shoes of staff. This can be reinforced through the board charter, the induction process (when expectations are set) and regular board conversations.
  • Adopt a Code of Conduct and disputes framework consistent with the organisation’s values that applies to directors and outlines how they are expected to communicate with one another and staff. This will ensure there are clear expectations of directors and consequences for behaviour that does not meet those expectations. Establishing clear policies and processes before an issue arises can be invaluable.
  • Require directors and staff to use appropriate communication channels. Outside of joint committees, communication with staff should occur through (or with the knowledge of) the board chair and/or CEO. Ideally, directors and staff should communicate through business emails instead of personal emails, signalling that communications are expected to be courteous and professional.
  • Introduce new directors to staff upon their appointment. This will assist to establish a positive rapport between directors and staff and can be included in an organisation’s induction process.
  • Set a positive tone. There may be occasions where the board is required to reflect on the performance of an organisation and its staff. When doing so, the board should consider the tone of their communications and how they will be received by staff.

How can conflicts be managed once they arise?

When determining how to manage conflict, organisations should consider:

  • their legal obligations to create a safe working environment for staff, including in relation to responding appropriately to allegations of bullying and harassment;
  • the potential power imbalance (real or perceived) between staff and board members;
  • the requirements of their governing document (such as their constitution or rules), policies and procedures; and
  • any relevant legislation (such as the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) for companies or associations incorporation legislation for incorporated associations).

Typically, dispute resolution frameworks require parties to attempt to resolve the dispute informally before further steps are taken. It is appropriate for the chair to take the lead in this conversation (unless they are personally involved in the dispute). Depending on the gravity of a dispute, more formal avenues may need to be considered (such as mediation, an investigation, termination of employment or cessation of directorship). It is critical to understand and comply with the particular requirements of the applicable framework.

Whichever avenue is chosen, organisations should ensure that the parties to a dispute (or the respondent to a complaint) are afforded natural justice and given an opportunity to respond to any claims or allegations made against them. This will ensure that the perspectives of all parties are considered before a final decision is made.

How we can help

Our For Purpose team helps charities from the ground up, from support when applying for registration to assisting charities to manage complex disputes. If you are dealing with a dispute or conflict concerning your board, we can assist you to develop and implement a plan to help manage the dispute or conflict.

Contact us

Please contact us for more detailed and tailored help.

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