Handling Conflicts Between Residents and Staffers When People Stop Being Polite (and Start Getting Real)

A board would do best by its constituents to address any conflict regarding staffers or contractors as soon as they happen (iStock).

While the residents of a condominium, cooperative or homeowner's association may stay fixed for years happily coexisting in a communal environment, there remains a revolving door of staffers, contractors and vendors servicing the property in some capacity. And it stands to reason that certain personalities might not prove compatible. Even as little as a mistaken glance can cause friction, and words misinterpreted – or intentionally used to antagonize – can stimulate genuine conflict.

The question thus presents itself: what responsibility does a board have to mitigate a dispute between service workers and residents in its community? Is it wise to intervene, or better to let the individual parties settle the conflict on their own? And at what point is a board responsible for both sides? These disagreements are unfortunately common, and it's important that an association be prepared to smooth things over if necessary, before things get out of hand.

Where's the Beef?

“As much as we would like to believe that problems involving individuals should be handled by themselves, that's rarely what happens,” acknowledges Andrew Brucker, an attorney and partner with Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP in New York City. “If a unit is emitting too much noise, it's common for the board to become involved. When smoke from one apartment seeps into another, the board ends up in the middle. And these situations are difficult. Despite the fact that these problems are the nature of multiple-dwelling living, the 'harmed' party doesn't want to hear that. The board must learn to walk the tightrope necessary to handle these issues carefully. Establishing and enforcing house rules may be the best place to start.”

It can be difficult to ascertain which complaints are worthy of intervention, and which are rote and par for the course. “I manage a large residential building in Queens with a full-time door staff,” relates Cody Masino, a broker with real estate management company David Associates in Forest Hills. “We get regular complaints like 'the doorman is out of uniform' or 'the doorman failed to deliver a message.' But I have also received other types of complaints that are not so easily addressed, such as 'the doorman ignores me' or even 'the doorman is smug.' I find that it's always best to get both sides of any story before addressing the issue in a more direct fashion.”

Staff Infection

While a board's responsibility is to best represent the owners, it's worth remembering that a vendor or staff member's job is at stake, and to lend a professional some benefit of the doubt.

“Oftentimes, a super, for example, is very equipped to handle owners,” says Abdullah Fersen, CEO of Newgent Property Management in Yonkers. “They're smooth and they're sweet; they do their work and avoid politics. These staffers, if they get into a problem with an individual owner, will often be validated by the rest of the ownership. They'll say that the good outweighs the bad, so we'll talk to them as managers and address the issue calmly. But if a staffer plays a lot of politics and takes sides in issues involving the board and owners, that staffer then owns those politics and any problems. If they're taking shortcuts and focusing on income over service to the extent that multiple owners are upset, we'll send them a notice, address the issue in a meeting, write up the problematic employee, and only then will we discuss termination. It's a long process to get to that point.”

Resident Evil

These types of conflicts don't always involve any misconduct – or even perceived misconduct – by a staffer or vendor, of course. Sometimes a resident may be entirely in the wrong.

“We very recently had a situation where a tenant-shareholder was 'stalking' an employee,” Brucker says. “The tenant-shareholder was making the employee feel very uncomfortable, and making the parties understand immediately that this was something the board was very concerned with helped the problem get resolved quickly.”

Sometimes these skirmishes will even get physical. “Verizon had to install high-speed internet at a property we manage, which involved access from the street to the roof,” recalls Fersen. “So we blocked off the road, but one of the owners showed up and protested, as the connection necessitated Verizon's going through their roof deck. They became incensed and put one of the workers in a headlock. The super arrived at one point to resolve the situation, but that owner then got into a fight with the super. Eventually the police were called, and that settled things. We sent the owner a letter telling them to be less confrontational and work harder to deal with the community at large. They didn't respond, but that was a year ago, and we haven't heard a peep from them since.”

So while some things work themselves out, that's unfortunately more the exception than the rule. A board would do best by its constituents to address any conflict regarding staffers or contractors as soon as they happen. People tend to grow less reasonable as discord festers, so the old adage about a stitch in time saving nine is apropos here.

Mike Odenthal is a staff writer for The Cooperator and other publications.

Related Articles

Tough Cases - Handling Difficult Situations and Resolving Conflict

Seminar- The Cooperator Expo Chicagoland

Roommate Partners: Can Unrelated Individuals Co-own a Co-op?

When Buyers Are Just Strictly Friends

Handling Conflicts

When Should the Board Intervene?

Q&A: Problem Neighbor

Q&A: Problem Neighbor

Top Legal Issues - Nightmares & War Stories - What You Can do When Things go (Really, Really) Wrong

Seminar - The Cooperator Expo New Jersey

Conflict in Client Communities

What's the Manger's Role?