Separate your professional and personal life
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.
An employee came into my office last month and started crying. He told me that he’d been arrested the night before: his wife had called the police, accusing him of assaulting her, a potential felony. He claimed he was drunk, but didn’t remember hurting his wife. I interrupted and told him to stop sharing his personal information. I think he told me because he was convinced that his wife would contact me about the incident.
If he had been charged and convicted of this felony, then my path would have been clear based upon our employee policies. However, for reasons unknown to me, the case was downgraded to a lesser charge of misdemeanor. Our policy only addresses convicted felons.
So, something about me … I previously worked in an emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence and this has really had an emotional impact on me. I now find myself avoiding this employee and I don’t know if I can trust him anymore. Help.
Gary says ...
This is clearly a very delicate and touchy situation that you have been dragged into. I am not sure if this employee reports directly to you or not, which you didn’t articulate in your question. If he does report to you, you will either have to address your feelings with him or find a way to move him to another part of your business. I would suggest in this situation that you are not being paid to be a social worker for your employees. That said, your background has given you an inside look at domestic violence and how devastating that can be for the victim. Perhaps you could suggest some external resources for this individual to get help.
Unfortunately, if your work policies do not address what happens in the event of a misdemeanor arrest, you will have to work through how you handle this personally. You will have to deal with it as your heart leads and your experience in these matters guide you. Neither policy nor rules can ever make you feel differently based on your past experience with domestic violence victims.
Kathryn says ...
Your employee showed very poor judgement to use you as his sounding board. It would have been helpful if you stopped him at the beginning of his story. This can be done – just interrupt him or her and say “Stop! This is none of my business at this point. I don’t want to hear this”. Get up and leave the room if you must.
But you heard it and words cannot be unsaid. It is hard to keep our personal experiences and feelings entirely separate from our responsibilities as leaders regarding such an important issue as domestic violence. No one wants an employee who will harm another person. Domestic violence, especially against women, is a huge problem. The National Domestic Violence Hotline tells us that one in four women (24.percent) and one in seven men (13.8 percent) aged 18 and older in the United States have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
That said, you have appointed yourself judge and jury and you assume he is guilty, regardless of the legal outcome of his case. You said you did not know the details of his legal defense. At this point, you have no choice but to accept the misdemeanor ruling and move on.
Another issue at play here appears to be this employee’s misuse of alcohol (he apparently had a blackout). You may want to talk to your HR department or an employment attorney about how to address this problem, since he, himself, described the scenario. It may be you can do nothing unless he drinks at work, or is involved in another incident. If this employee is responsible for at-risk clients or he drives during work under your nonprofit’s auto insurance, you may want to run a check on his criminal record. If he has a non-disclosed criminal history, then he may not be insurable or may violate your employee policies about certain criminal acts.
If his record is clear, your reaction is about you and he should be treated as all employees should be treated: with respect and a presumption of innocence until found guilty. Perhaps this might be the time to look at how your own experience is impacting your professional judgment.
Try talking to a trusted friend (not naming the employee) or a counselor about your internal conflicts. This is one of those situations where you may need help in emotionally distancing yourself, while still being aware of other issues this employee may be dealing (or not dealing) with.
I would really like to hear from other professionals who have had a similar experience. Given the National Domestic Violence Hotline stats, this is an issue we are all going to keep dealing with in future.
MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.
Centers for Disease Control: Violence Prevention: Intimate Partner Violence