What to Do When 1% of Your Members Cause 99% of Your Problems?

Sound familiar? Although this topic has very little to do with the law, we are nonetheless often called upon by client organizations for help. Over the years we have encountered scenarios such as:

  • A parent, volunteer or member having issue with a staff person and continually harassing them or complaining about them to others, to the point of malicious defamation
  • A vocal and high-profile athlete repeatedly challenging every decision of the organization through complaints and appeals
  • A volunteer going to great lengths to seek redress for some perceived former ill-treatment
  • A newly-elected president having interpersonal conflicts with others and appearing to be on a push to force them from their positions
  • The volunteer, director or committee chair who is a ‘bully’ that no one will stand up to
  • A suspended or expelled member seeking reinstatement through a campaign of threats and defamation

These sound like extreme examples but they’re really not. At times, it seems that the issue that was at the heart of the initial conflict gets forgotten, and the dispute takes on life of its own, reaching, at times, pathological dimensions. When we have been contacted by an organization dealing with situations like these, often the most helpful thing we can tell them is ‘this road has been traveled before and you are not alone’.

There does not really exist any special language to describe situations such as those set out above. In our work, we use the term ‘problem people’ to describe the excessively needy or demanding parent, volunteer, board member, coach, official or athlete. Problem people cause harm far out of proportion to their number or their importance to the organization. Without revealing particulars, it is not unheard of for an organization grappling with such a situation to spend tens of thousands of dollars, and hundreds of hours to accommodate the demands of the problem person.

We do not have a magic pill to make problem people go away, but we can share some insights that we have acquired over the years:

  • Problem people do not always know what their problem is, or if they did, they lost sight of it some time ago. ‘Conflict analysis’ might be called for – this means having a neutral person, independent of the parties, intervene to explore what the issues truly are.
  • Do a cost-benefit analysis. No organization should bend over backwards to accommodate the excessive demands of a single volunteer or a single member. It might be painful and complicated to take the drastic step of dismissing the volunteer or suspending the member, but worth it in the long run. Get professional advice before you go down this path.
  • Limit your communications. Problem people almost always promote their cause through e-mail, which gives them an easy platform to reach an unlimited audience in no time whatsoever. The problem person, more often than not, also has a habit of cc-ing everyone in their missives. Don’t get drawn into a ‘reply all’ mode – often the simple act of acknowledging a message gives credibility to it. The best advice is tell the problem person that you will not reply to their e-mail, and to stick to that, while you formulate a firmer strategy for responding.
  • Institute the 24-hour rule. Actually this is good advice in any circumstance… When someone says something, writes something or does something that really angers you, take 24 hours to reflect before you respond. Invariably, you will be glad you did, because you will regret any response you make in the heat of the moment.
  • Where the problem person is a director, the onus is on the other directors to rally. If the problem person is undeservedly attacking staff, then the board must take steps to protect the staff person. Failing to do so can have some nasty consequences for all board members – in some cases we have noted that a serious board-staff conflict can have the unintended result of a legitimate wrongful dismissal claim by the staff person – a serious liability that no director should invite upon himself, or the organization.
  • This is advice directed to administrators. Some of you may find yourself in challenging situations when dealing with changes in board leadership. The problem person may, in effect, be your new boss. If your relationship becomes unduly strained, it may be beneficial to obtain legal advice in order to develop coping mechanisms and to formulate a longer-term strategy for both your own professional well-being, and for the well-being of the organization.
  • And lastly, there is a little law involved. The decade-old case of D’Cruz v. Field Hockey Ontario, showed us that the reputation and credibility of a volunteer is not a ‘proprietary interest’ that the courts will take steps to protect. In other words, D’Cruz as a volunteer provincial coach was not able to convince the court that it should intervene to safeguard his reputation. We acknowledge that the Canadian sport system could not function without its millions of volunteers – but at the same time, having (and losing) a volunteer position is not the same as having (and losing) a job.

In closing, we like to reinforce that ‘sport is not a right, it is a privilege’. Membership in a sport organization is a two-way street – member benefits are balanced by member obligations. Membership in a sport organization is a contract, and when the terms of that contract are clearly defined through good governing documents and policies, life is better for everyone. But we are also all human, with emotions and memories and varying skills in communication and problem-solving. All of us will have to deal with the problem person at some point, if we haven’t already: when that time comes, heed the above pointers, take some time to reflect and plan (‘stand still so you can move forward’) and consider getting outside advice in the implementation of your plan.

Originally published: Centre for Sport and Law Newsletter (2007) Vol. 3(3)

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