Dealing with Disruptive Board Members

Rambo at the Reigns

By Liz Lent
Hannah Fons

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Every board is different, with its own individual personalities meshing for one common cause: to run the co-op or condo in their charge efficiently and with integrity.

Some board members come to their positions with years of experience. Others are neophytes. Some board members are reticent, thoughtful and measured in their approaches. Others are more vociferous, taking charge and moving things forward quickly and aggressively. These are all legitimate approaches to running a building, and any one of them can work well for the benefit of the community.

There are times, however, when one board member's personality or approach to the job can throw a wrench into the whole system. They're the people who try to dominate a meeting, try to push their agendas no matter what the cost, and try to bully their fellow board members into seeing things their way. They're the folks that boards and management dread.

(Mostly) Good Apples

Before things get too gloomy however, it's important to remember that the vast majority of board members approach their duties with a sense of integrity and a desire to do what is best for the fellow residents they were elected to serve. It's actually rare to see a board member really allow their self-interest get the better of them, and create difficult situations for everyone else around them. Perhaps they don't even realize they're doing it. Whatever the reason, the result is the same: both the residents and the building suffer.

There are ways to solve these problems though, and the answer is not always to simply vote these troublesome board members off the proverbial island. Finding that solution starts with finding the root of the problem and understanding that there are a number of reasons why a board member might cause trouble—whether that trouble takes the form of inappropriate aggression, passive-aggressive foot-dragging or simple ignorance.

"People who serve on boards are not always qualified," says Mona Shyman, vice president of the Federation of New York Housing Cooperatives and Condominiums (FNYHC) and veteran board member herself. "[A lot of] board members simply do not have the experience to run a multi-million dollar business," Shyman says, adding that in larger buildings, that's exactly what a co-op or condo is.

That lack of practical experience and knowledge can cause disruption on the board as people lobby back and forth on different issues. One person might think they know better than another, but if there is no basis in fact for that belief, troubles can arise.

It's equally disruptive when a board member starts to focus on his or her personal agenda versus the board's official agenda. If, for example, one board member wants to purchase another unit in the building, he may continually push that into discussion, hoping his position on the board will help him get it resolved more quickly.

That approach not only creates a backlog of other issues, but also foments resentment among other board members and residents. "A board member should never receive special treatment," says Sam Irlander of Manhattan-based management firm Parker Madison Partners Inc., and education chairman for the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY).

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"Board members who solely focus on issues of their interest and not the fiduciary responsibilities they were elected to fulfill" can be very disruptive, continues Irlander. "They should never put their own personal needs against the needs of the many. That's not to say that there may not be legitimate issues that they bring up, but maybe those issues aren't going through proper channels. That's not right. It's not what the post requires."

Boards should keep an eye out, too, for warning signs such as excessive one-on-one conversations between board members or committee members and employees, which could indicate that the board member is perhaps trying to get things done outside the parameters of procedure. According to Margie Russell, the executive director of the New York Association of Realty Managers (NYARM), a readiness to put aside the rules during meetings is also a sign of problems that need to be addressed sooner rather than later. "If the meeting rules are put aside, then there are no boundaries," she says. "Even if it seems harmless, it's a slippery slope."

What's the Harm?

So say your board has a bully in its midst, or someone who continually drives meetings off the tracks, or who clings to their own agenda regardless of the task at hand. What's the big deal? Is it really worth jeopardizing board harmony to avoid ruffling the problem person's feathers?

In a word, says Irlander, the answer is no. "It becomes difficult to move forward and transact business," he says. "No one wants to rub anybody the wrong way, so you start running into setbacks and your meetings don't progress."

"[A troublemaker] on the board can take a great toll," says Russell. "The good board members could shrink to the side and not voice their opinions in the face of these other issues. They may not speak up if they keep getting drowned out."

Building staff members can suffer at the hands of a loose-cannon board member as well. "Staff always get stuck in the middle in these situations," Russell says. "If one board member becomes buddy-buddy with a staff member, it puts that staff member in an awkward position."

It can also create problems between staff and other board members, especially if a staff member begins to flaunt his or her relationship with the person in authority. It can also send the message that perhaps employees can control certain things within the building if they cultivate those relationships. Basically, it disrupts the chain of command, leading to bigger and potentially more serious problems down the road.

Finding a Solution

There are a number of ways to rein in an out-of-control board member, but it's not always easy. "It's very difficult to get rid of people who are strong and trying to rule the world," says Shyman.

One approach calls for the board president to regain and then ensure strict, by-the-book conduct of all meetings. "One way to battle or contain these problems is to run your board meetings very precisely," Russell says. "Follow Robert's Rules of Order, staying with the heart of compliance and procedure."

It's in the absence of structure that those demanding voices try to fill the vacuum, continues Russell. "Robert's Rules were created for a reason. They allow the weaker members of a group to have a voice along with every other member." And that's important in an organization that relies upon the intellectual contribution of each and every person on its board.

Irlander suggests having a serious discussion with the "problem person" in question. "Have the powers that be have direct discussions with people," he says. Meeting one-on-one outside of the meeting means that little or no time will be directly taken up with the issue during actual board meetings. These face-to-face talks have the added benefit of being less threatening to the troublemaker, and allows them to save face.

Irlander also underscores the idea that board members—not managers—should solve board problems. "If a problem persists, it's up to the board to decide how to take care of it, not the manager," he says.

For someone intent on championing their own agenda at the expense of the bigger picture, this also might be a good time to remind him or her about their fiduciary and administrative duties as a volunteer board member. "Fiduciary duty equals the highest position of trust," Irlander says. "It means putting the interest of those you're representing above all else. You have a responsibility to transact business for others. Your needs become secondary."

Irlander also agrees with Russell in terms of following procedure. Part of reminding the individual in question of their fiduciary responsibility should also be a reminder of the proper procedures for getting their interests or questions before the rest of the board. "There's an agenda that corporate policy requires," Irlander says. Before any matters can be discussed, they must be put on the agenda and they must be put there after running through the proper channels.

Shyman suggests a solution that can help prevent personality clashes and disruptions before they begin: the creation of a nominating committee to help handpick board members. "That way you can weed out the people who aren't qualified," she says, and recruit those who are most qualified.

Finding those quality candidates is often a difficult task. "In a large building, very few people know each other, and they really don't know each other's ways," Shyman says, so it's difficult to assess how good a board member they might be. A nominating committee conducts interviews and gets to know the candidates for open board positions.

A nominating committee can also help prevent stagnation, another problem that can lead to tensions and disruptive board members. "You've got 290 apartments and nine people on the board and every year, we elect three people," Shyman says. "Who runs? The incumbents. It helps to mix things up."

Recognizing and preventing issues with board members early on is key because it can be extraordinarily difficult to remove a board member who is causing more problems than they're solving.

"It's your neighbor, so you yourself aren't going to do anything," Shyman says. And when it comes to board officers, the only way to get rid of them is for someone to go to the shareholders and begin impeachment proceedings. And with that, a two-thirds vote is generally needed to make it happen—which is to say, it doesn't happen very often.

So when tensions flare and bring out the worst in a fellow board member, it's important to remember that it's not the end of the world. The rest of the board has to stand its ground and remember its purpose: to run the building fairly and effectively. And while working with the occasional difficult board member is perhaps inevitable, such individuals need to be handled in a way that preserves the integrity and well-being of the home each and every resident and board member shares.

Liz Lent is a teacher and freelance writer living in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Comments

an unknown user

You have described two of my board members exactly. One was elected to the board and the other appointed by the board. We need to get rid of them both. It is the consensus that they are self serving, disruptive and have even become a nuisance tot he management, which we have only had a year. How so we get rid of the appointed one first? Any suggestions. Thanks.

an unknown user

We have a board member who constantly - in open board meetings - calls caucasian staff and the director racist without any basis. He makes comments that he does not like white people, he will let other board members know that he doesn't like them, he has even physically intimidated several board members and called them names. He is so disrespectful, but the board chair and other board members do nothing. He has a blatant disregard for board policy, including contacting staff directly (against policy.) He is a bully! He is appointed to the board and those that appoint him, I believe, are politically afraid of him. As a staff person who must attend board meetings, his behavior, lack of respect for staff and board, and constant criticism and noted dislike of caucasians has caused me an enormous amount of emotional stress. I am conteplating filing a grievance with the director and/or board chair. Any suggestions?

Greek Reader

I am a little younger than your target audience, but this was great advise. I am the president of an organization and wanted to continue a rational approach to this exact problem before throwing around the word "impeachment." Thank you very much.

anne hernandez

I am president here in Spain of an elected board of 7 members. We meet monthly with an agenda and discuss, negotiate and decide what and how best to run our community of 477 properties. Myself and 3 other s have been members for 5 years and we have had 3 meetings so far with the other new members. Last month for the first time ever I had to leave the meeting, I couldn't tolerate the insults and obvious disruption by one of the new members. This month after another disruptive display by that same new member, another member stormed out. The new member has now openly called me a thief, is secretly checking on other member's work (she says if we have nothing to hide why are we offended?), will not shut up even when politely asked to, insists that every outburst is minuted and contrary to tradition that the meeting is conducted in Spanish even though 50% do not understand Spanish. She has become unbearable. Please help, I have been involved in many committees in the past but have never come across her type before. 4 of the members are also at their wit's end and threatening to resign. The other 2 members seem to think that we need to be patient with her and she will run out of steam. As president I can't force my members to wait that long and I do not know what to do for the best!

Menezes

Shareholders of a Coop have called for a special meeting to dissolve the board due to lack of accountability and transparency and other corrupt dealings. We are looking for an inexpensive attorney who can guide us in this matter. Can you suggest any names of attorneys we can approach"? Thank you

Dee Jackson

We have three members in our community base organization. I am the Chairperson and I appointed a vice president to the organization. She is much older than me and the other member so we sort of allow her to have her way. However, she is a trouble maker and a selk serving individual. Our organization is small cut we do big things. She is looking for recognition so she joins well name organizations and work like a work house for them but when it come down to our small organization, she works like a show horse. We want to get rid of her. What should me and the other member do. We have not spoken with her in awhile and she called us to say: we can not write letters using the organization name without her permission. Is that true? Remember, we do not have a 5019(c)(3). but when I write letters for support of events we sponsor, I list her as the Vice President. Do that give her rights?

Norm Czerski

Sir/Madam, You are not familiar with Roberts Rules. If you were, you would know that a board member is a member of a committee and as such, can only present findings to the members. They do not have the authority to make decisions. If on member is too vocal, the other committee members may expel him or her and during a membership meeting, it is the job of the president to maintain order. The problem you have described does not exist. It is you that is a waste of time.

Moolikna

What do you do when the President is the inept one? When the VP does not even have a high school diploma, and the Secretary is in foreclosure? My condo board is so bad that in the last 4 months we have acquired almost a 1/4 million doller debt. Oh the management company is has voter fraud. This is condo HELL

johnnie gonzales

sir / madam we move in to a community that has a small board of 5 with a nuisense board member that harasses the other home owers threatens to shoot them and even brandish her pistol and riffel at them instead of worrying about her post as the key holder she runs the neiborhood like she has say so over other home owers personal property has been stalking some home ower and the rest of the board refuse to take any action the home owner has filed a grievance letter against her they have file the stalking order in the court and the board said they can't do anything about it. is there something else we can do thanks

unknown

we have a board member who conspires with shareholders and would never stand with the board once a decision is made by the majority. if a shareholder complains about something instead of trying to make peace and explain why it is being done , he immediately sides with the shareholder and blames the board as if he is not part of the board. he even encouraged a shareholder to start a legal proceeding against the coop. how can we handle this?

an unknown user

we have a board member who continously puts the younger board members down saying they are inexperienced or to brusk.. how can this be dealt with in a nice way, she has been on the board for 10 years

an unknown user

We have a situation where an owner became President and her neighbor friend came in also and are voting against our Experienced Vice President with decisions. They are power hungry and spending all our money on various beautification projects that are not voted for. Help ... what do we do..

indian

I SERVE AS CO CHAIR OF A NON PROFIT ORGANIZATION AND HAVE 2 INDIVIDUALS THAT ARE CONSTANTLY DISRESPECTIVE, LOUD AND ABUSIVE TO BOTH THE CHAIR AND OTHER MEMBERS, HOW DO YOU HANDLE THEM?

Fritz

. I am in the EXACT same situation.as Dee Jackson We're also a501c3, 3 member board. The 3rd member's self interests aren't being met so now they have a personal vendetta. They are resorting to slander of the other 2 members, conspiring with outside parties to ruin the credibility of the organization and has not contributed anything positive for the last 2 yrs. It's become an emergency situation. How do we legally get rid of them before any damage is done to the organization's good reputation ?


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