The Right Place; The Right Time; and The Right People

Two weeks ago Ms. Erica Brown wrote an Op-Ed piece “Choose Civility” (9/2/09) on the JTA Fundamentalist blog and she addressed the issue of professionals who “…had experienced an egregiously hostile encounter with a lay person…”. I would like to address the general issue of the working environment within the Jewish communal organizations. Using the lens of having worked within the Jewish community and for Jewish communal organizations for over 40 years provides me with a somewhat unique perspective. To see what is happening now in the post-Madoff era and during a recovery from a world financial crisis, offers all of us much to ponder about how we perceive of our professionals and what kind of work environment we create to enable them to deal with salient issues confronting Jewish communities today.

We all are aware of the shrinking budgets and the cutbacks in staff positions that many organizations have experienced during the last year. At the same time, there is turn over in organizations and professional and administrative positions become available. The process of selecting an employee and the employee’s process of selecting a place of employment is two sided. The employer selects the candidate that is evaluated as best suited for the position and the candidate decides on the organization that seems to offer the best and richest opportunity for growth and advancement.

There are two aspects of the “work culture” of the organization and one focuses on the volunteer – staff relations and as Ms Brown has identified the critical issues facing us today. Candidates for employment will want to know about the volunteer leadership and the nature of the relationships with staff members. Of course, much of it depends on the individual personalities of those involved, however, there are some general guidelines dealing with mutual respect and preferential behaviors for the way people should work together in the setting of non-profit organizations. The clearer people are about the expectations they have of each other the easier it will be to form a good working relationship and the greater the chances are for their developing a productive partnership.

The second aspect of the “work culture” focuses on the professional side of the organization. Beginning with the announcement of an opening for a staff position the agency projects an image of itself to the candidates who are interested in pursuing the possibility of working for the organization. The way the candidates are processed from the response to initial inquiries to the arranging for interviews to the nature of the background information that is given to those applying all communicate a sense of what the organization is like.

One of the most important questions is how does the organization structure its relationship to the employees. Do employees have clearly written job descriptions? Is there a personnel code for all employees? What process is used for assessing the performance of the employee? Are the policies and procedures the organization follows clearly stated? What rights do the employees have? What recourse do the employees have if policies in the personnel code are not implemented by the agency?

Although an “employers’ market” presently exists and open positions are not always filled. There are candidates who are not accepting offers because they do not want to enter a situation where the agency’s expectations are too high. Executive as well as the volunteer leaders have hopes, desires, and dreams to develop the organization that are at times unrealistic at the present time. Candidates have been known to pass up executive positions as well as senior management jobs in areas such as resource development.

In many of our larger organizations in the Jewish community staff become victims of internal bureaucratic politics, and in spite of positive performance evaluations people find themselves vulnerable to the whims of senior management. When there is a lack of job security due to senior staff changes or an agency’s reorganization this can often signal a change in the culture of the organization. It is difficult to build a strong staff dedicated to the mission and vision of the organization when they feel at risk.

Ms Brown wrote, “We need to affirm that Jewish institutional life is about creating warm, nurturing and welcoming environments…” and this should refer to the relationships among professionals and their supervisors as well as between professionals and volunteer leaders. To accomplish this we need to embrace and adhere to the highest professional and ethical standards. There needs to be a system of checks and balances so that when “cracks” develop they can be repaired and we can maintain our ethics and values as we simultaneously strengthen our local services and communities.

This is an appropriate time of the year for Jewish communal organizations to review our policies and practices and to engage in self-evaluation to ensure we are maintaining our organizations in a way that reflects the highest Jewish values and ethics. I would like to wish all of our Jewish readers a Healthy and Happy New Year.

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.