Guidelines for Ethical Responsibilities in Hard Times

Last week I raised several issues that occur when organizations face difficult economic situations, and I asked a series of questions. This week I would like to discuss some responses to these difficult dilemmas, incorporating thoughts and ideas shared by readers who responded to my posting.

1. What are the responsibilities of an organization to its employees? An organization has a legally binding contract with its employees; underlying this contract is an agreement, whether verbal or written, that the employees are to be compensated by the organization for their successful efforts on behalf of it. If the agency is unable to meet its obligations to the employees, then their contract needs to be renegotiated. For the organization to remain silent and not communicate with the employees is neither an appropriate professional nor moral response. The lack of communication delivers a strong unstated message to the employees that they are not treated with respect.

2. If an agency is unable to pay its employees, should they still fulfill their responsibilities and continue to come to work? Professionals provide services to clients, yet as one reader posited, Jewish ethical law states that “one has to save oneself before one is able to save others.” At the point at which the employees (and their families) can no longer support themselves or pay their bills, then they have to make the decision to leave the nonprofit and to seek or accept employment at another organization. This is not being selfish, but is a means of preserving their lifestyles.

At the same time, everyone has a responsibility to give to others, and this includes giving of one’s self. It is certainly appropriate for employees of a nonprofit organization who have not received compensation to decide that they are not willing to continue working full-time. However, based on the needs of their clients, they may decide to continue to work in a limited way to respond to their clients’ pressing needs. They could work with the agency to find alternate solutions for their clients or arrange for the transfer of their cases to another worker or another appropriate agency.

3. Should employees providing essential services decide to stop working if they are not paid? Yes, there are exceptions and last week I referred to doctors and nurses who go on strike when either their salaries or working conditions are not up to their standards. However, usually in such situations not all the medical professionals go on strike at the same time, recognizing their responsibility for the care of the sick. They may revert to a holiday schedule or only handle emergency cases while still making clear to the hospital administration the impact of a work slowdown.

Similar decisions about the extent to which services are cutback or withheld have to be made by employees of nonprofits that do not deal routinely with life-and-death issues. Sometimes clients’ lives are at stake or they could be put in a dangerous situation if they do not receive professional help. In these cases, professionals need to reevaluate their situation and that of their clients. Even if they have not received remuneration they may not be able to cut off all contact with their clients; they may need to continue working on a limited basis.

4. When employees do decide that they can no longer continue to work on a regular basis or even a limited basis, then how do they carry out that decision? First they have to inform their employer, colleagues, and clients of this decision in a professional manner without frustration or anger. They have to tell their employer that, though they have a commitment to the organization, their commitment to their family and lifestyle comes first. Although they would like to continue to work and provide valuable services to their clients, they cannot do so at the expense of their personal situation. One hopes that the employer will be able to understand and respect their employees for this decision.

Many of the colleagues in the organization may be experiencing the same difficulties, and they may be encouraged to take similar actions. There should be a clear message to them that this is not a labor action but rather a decision that is personal as well as painful.

Perhaps the most difficult communication is with the recipients of the agency’s services. Undoubtedly some of them will understand the decision to leave, but others will be quite angry and feel abandoned. Professionals who make the decision to temporarily or permanently leave the agency have to engage with their clients and to the best of their ability discuss why they had to make this decision. Some clients may wish to continue the professional-client relationship, and this should be dealt with in a very cautious fashion. The relationship between the professionals and the clients is in the context of the agency’s services, and the clients are assigned to the professional by the agency. Even if clients are willing to pay privately for the assistance they receive, the professional cannot agree to this without exploring all its implications with the organization.

From the organization’s perspective the clients are receiving an agency service, and it has a strong interest in continuing to provide services to the community. If it becomes known in the community that the agency is not able to continue providing services and that clients are being seen by professionals on a private basis, this might mean sudden death for the nonprofit. The professional cannot be part of this process unless that agency determines that it has no choice because it is unable to transfer the client to another professional in the organization. Once the agency makes the decision that it cannot continue to provide services to the client, then the professional can appropriately continue to work with him or her.

It does not happen often, but crises do occur and organizations sometimes hit fiscal brick walls. When that happens, employees must follow the highest ethical standards as a guide to their behavior and performance. By performing in an ethically professional manner the agency maintains its status and position in the community, and the professionals are able to make their decisions with dignity.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.