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Put your human resources hat on

Nonprofit experts Gary G. Godsey, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, and Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, have teamed up to create MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the authors' personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

The question

I have a coworker who is like a venomous serpent on the loose in the office. Constant gossiping about people’s personal lives and creating drama about what is going to happen at our nonprofit (scaring people about possible upcoming layoffs, money issues, etc., all of which turn out to be lies). She never hesitates to put anyone and everyone down.

As far as I know, this poison pill of a woman does her actual job in an adequate manner. It’s her unkindness and willingness to spread constant chaos that is the problem.

I don’t know if our executive director knows how this woman acts and how much she disrupts our team. Should I tell him? What should I do?

Gary says ...

Why does there have to be a least one of these in every workplace? Guess it’s to test our mettle and keep us on our toes! This person needs to be dealt with directly by your executive director. Before you step out and get the ball rolling on this, be sure you have all the facts. Rumors and innuendo are not good enough. Be sure you can document actual examples of her negative behavior and how it is impacting you and your ability to get the job done, which is all that really matters here. I always remind people of this.

Don’t speak for others, speak only for yourself. You are not the surrogate or torch-bearer for others' feelings, experiences or problems, just your own. Don’t get sucked in to that vortex.

If the situation is as dire as you describe, your executive director must get involved and take appropriate action.

Kathryn says ...

If this woman is as toxic and disruptive as you describe, your executive director should already be aware of this viper in the garden. If he doesn’t know, he is likely not paying close enough attention to the team and the organizational culture of your nonprofit.

Nonetheless, it is time to enlighten him, but I personally would not do it alone. Enlist a few co-workers who are also unhappy to join you for an appointment with the director. When you all talk to your director, try to keep it simple and use two or three specific incidents that can illustrate your experiences. Don’t get emotional or heated, as your complaints may then be interpreted as a witch hunt, rather than a constructive conversation.

If your director does the right thing, he’ll document your concerns and then meet with this troublemaker. His job is to suggest quantifiable and positive changes in attitude and behavior and to put her on alert that her position is in danger if she doesn’t change her ways. The documentation that you have provided, as well as detailing any other complaints, helps create a paper trail of employee problems, which is important if he ultimately terminates her employment. Also, a crucial element of his conversation with your co-worker should be that of protecting your anonymity. From then on, it is your director’s role to help her improve her behavior or show her the door.

Now, your take!

Wendy W-H says ... I advocate for handling the relationship between myself and the toxic person first before moving it up the organizational ladder. Too often we skip this step and insist that the 'boss' should handle the situation. We can own our personal power in a toxic relationship by considering these three things:

  • Other people's 'venom' isn't about us. Some people use either violence or silence when they don't feel that they can clearly communicate their wants or needs. If we try to understand that others may be in pain and don't know how to ask for what they want or cannot say no to what they don't want, we can become more neutral and compassionate instead of making assumptions about their negativity.
  • Make boundaries clear with others. Letting someone know that you won't continue a conversation until they can speak civilly or productively sets limits and expectations with future interactions.
  • Re-focus the dialogue on how their behavior and communication style is a barrier to contributing their full value and how it reduces productivity for others will help help re-direct the conversation out of the personal realm.

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MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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