Personality Conflicts: A Sticky Issue

A Sticky Issue That Challenges Non-Profit Organizations: Personality Conflicts

A regular reader to my posting has asked me to address some of the aspects of non-profit organizations that are rarely discussed and often “swept under the carpet”. For want of a better term I am referring to them as the “sticky issues” and I would like to address one of them in this week’s column. The administration, the professional staff and the administrative staff are all challenged by “sticky issues” in the non-profit organization. I am referring to all those issues that are not dealt with by having policy, or even practical, guidelines. Often they involve the more human side of the interaction between and among people and the question is how does the voluntary organization that is supposed to be guided by humane values such as caring, concern and warmth respond when confronted by these challenges.

In the voluntary sector organizations will often hire staff members and the person responsible for hiring an employee will not always be the person supervising the new staff person. Of course it is much easier to involve the supervisor in the process from the beginning and the chances are that many, if not all, problems in the gray area of “sticky issues” will be avoided. However, there is no guarantee that when a supervisor begins working with a staff that there will not be issues, challenges and/or problems.

Of course there are professional issues that are much easier to evaluate and to handle. These issues often have to do with an evaluation of professional performance. If a said staff member does not carry out his or her responsibilities as required then through supervision and an appraisal process, either there will be a change in the identified behaviors or a process will be implemented to assist the employee in understanding the reasons he or she is not suited for the particular position. Often the staff member learns more about their strengths and weaknesses through such a process, and the person can find a more suitable employment opportunity.

However, the most difficult situations both for the organization and the employee are when the issues are not clear cut and the appraisal process does not provide an understanding of either the staff member’s weaknesses or the organization’s need for the employee to perform particular tasks. This happens when there are “personality conflicts” between people and there is an inability of people to work together.

How does the organization respond and what process is initiated to deal with these issues, on one hand, and what should the staff member do to insure that his or her rights are protected in this situation, on the other hand. Both the organization and the staff member have to work out the conflicts and deal in both a professional and ethical way. It does not mean that either or both will be totally satisfied with the resolution, however, it is imperative that the policies and practices that are employed are of the highest professional standards.

The organization’s interests are generally represented by the supervisor and if there is a department of human resources then it is recommended to involve one of the “HR” professionals. The conflicts that a supervisor has with the employee should be identified and specified. The greater the clarity in these situations the easier it is to implement a process and reach an equitable solution for both parties. The employee should also have the opportunity to discuss his or her conflicts with the supervisor and to be able to speak with someone in the organization in addition to the supervisor. Depending on the size of the organization it could be the chief executive or some one from “HR”. Of course a key element both for the non-profit and the employee is for there to be complete confidentiality.

When there are personality conflicts then the focus has to be on the employee’s professional performance and both parties need to be able to see beyond their disagreements in style of work or in other areas that are not suitable for evaluation and appraisal. When this is not possible then there should be a way of ending the employment of the staff person without prejudice. Of course, this can often be the most uncomfortable and even painful part of the process for both the supervisor and the staff person.

The focus then turns to the process of ending the employment of the staff member with the organization and it should be done in the most professional manner possible. There has to be a high level of respect for the individual and their self-esteem. Personality conflicts occur and are not grounds for immediate or unplanned dismissal, rather there should be a higher level of sensitivity demonstrated for the person when there are irreconcilable differences. To ignore that this occurs in organizations is “to turn a blind eye” to a serious problem and it is far more important to acknowledge its occurrence and develop appropriate guidelines for professional practice that apply to the organization, the supervisor and the staff person. Doing it this way is respectful to all involved and raises the professional standards of non-profit organizations.

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