Organizations that are hiring new staff need to be very careful about the circumstances under which the employment discussions and negotiations are taking place. Let me illustrate this with the recent experience of a colleague of mine, Bob, who had been offered a position by a known and established nonprofit organization that has an excellent reputation. He was shocked when the professional position he was offered was withdrawn because of what the organization referred to as a technical problem.
Here is some background. Bob was contacted by a colleague who suggested he contact Gimmel (not the real name), an organization serving the elderly at risk, because it was looking for additional staff in its department of marketing and communications (M and C). Bob immediately called the contact person at Gimmel and met with the director of the department. Bob was not only excited about the work of the organization but was also enthusiastic about the opportunity to join the professional staff.
Of course, it was too good to be true, and Bob was told there was a small issue that had to be settled. The director of M and C assured Bob that it could be ironed out quickly while he continued interviewing with other members of the agency staff.
A series of meetings were arranged for Bob with the agency’s CEO and with the other staff in the M and C department. The chemistry seemed to be perfect, and the position was exactly what Bob was looking for and would enable him to use his knowledge and skills. Simultaneously he found the challenge of learning more about the field of services for the aged in Israel very interesting. There did not seem to be any issue with his using his abilities in a content area that was new to him.
Bob was told that as soon as the Israel staff approved of Bob’s candidacy, he would have an opportunity to meet the agency’s director of international affairs. She was responsible for disseminating the information produced by M and C to prospective donors, current donors, and other supporters in European countries since many of the clients were Holocaust survivors. It was very important that she approve Bob’s being hired for the position because they would work together closely.
A meeting was arranged, and Bob met with her for several hours. They both felt this was a great match and they would be able to work together. Each understood the skills needed and the focus of the work for the next six months. The director of international affairs was thrilled to have someone who spoke her language and that she could count on to produce appropriate materials that would make her job easier in Europe.
Following their meeting the overseas representative told the M and C director that she thought Bob was a perfect candidate for the position. Over the next few days the compensation package was negotiated. The organization stretched a little to meet Bob’s salary and benefit requirements, and Bob was willing to compromise on what he was asking in order to come to an agreement that would be satisfactory. Following the agreement on the terms of employment including days, hours, travel, and salary, Bob asked what the next step was and when he would be receiving a contract.
But there was still the small issue mentioned earlier to deal with. It concerned one of the social workers who was an important part of the clinical department and who was then working half-time in that department and half-time in M and C. When Bob came on staff, he would be assuming her duties in the M and C department, and that part of her job would be eliminated. The director of M and C said he did not think reducing the social worker’s part-time position in M and C would be a problem because her real interest was in providing services to her clients. In addition, the M and C department’s needs had grown, and the social worker did not have the skills required to produce the new promotional materials for overseas use.
At this point in the hiring process, the director of M and C told Bob what the small issue was and said he would speak with the social worker, get back to Bob, and that in all probability the contract would be ready in two or three days. Well, several days later Bob received a phone call that the organization had to retract the offer.
Apparently, the social worker was not willing to have her employment cut by 50% and threatened to resign if the agency took the part-time M and C position away. The director of the organization did not want to lose her because her clinical knowledge and skills were of vital importance to the agency. She was so skillful and had such positive relationships with the clients and their families, and the other staff that her leaving would be a severe loss to the organization.
The M and C director told Bob that the funds were not available to both keep the social worker employed on a part-time basis in the department and to hire someone else full time. The organization would try to raise the resources to engage a new staff member, but that would probably take six months. If Bob was still interested and available when the organization secured the funds, it would offer him the job.
There is a lesson here that is relevant both to the organization and to those seeking employment. The organization should not have solicited a potential staff member for a position that was not really available. If the new position was envisioned to use part of the time of a person already employed, the agency should have first discussed the issue with the present employee. It then could have made the decision to either take 50% of her position away, realizing she would then leave the organization, or decide not to look for a new employee. By engaging Bob in a discussion and then offering him this position, the agency was not acting in good faith: this process could even be considered to be unprofessional, if not bad professional practice.
Bob, on the other hand, should have clarified what the M and C director meant when he said there was a small issue. He should have been clearer in his own mind and said, “Let me know when the small issue is resolved and then we can continue our discussions and negotiations.” By continuing the process with this unresolved small issue, Bob was placing himself in a vulnerable position, and indeed he found himself in a painful situation.
We can learn a great deal from Bob’s experience. It behooves organizations to make sure they have positions to offer candidates and not to advertise, search for, or entertain hiring someone for a position that is not available when they begin discussions with an appropriate candidate. At the same time, when a candidate hears that there is a small issue, he or she should make every effort to clarify what is meant and whether the position that is being offered is indeed available.
One of the most important phrases guiding work in any sphere or sector is, “God is in the details.” We should always make sure we have dotted every “I” and crossed every “T,” especially when we are dealing with people’s professional lives.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.