Are traditional human resource practices harming our community institutions? What are you doing to prioritize the wellbeing of the team powering your organization's work?

Note: For this article, I'm broadly defining HR as compliance, personnel management, and culture setting - in my experience, they were the most relevant aspects of HR in community-based organizations with fewer staff and resources in our Japanese American institutions.

After spending months recovering from leading a nonprofit organization through COVID-19, I finally felt ready to put myself back out into the world at the end of March. I began scrolling through LinkedIn, looking for interesting roles. Long story short, I found a position at a well-established organization and was excited to move through the interview process with them quickly. I spent several hours in interviews, was asked to do a background check, and then told to expect an offer. A week later, I found out that the organization was restructuring and unable to offer the role.

I was devastated. Having some nonprofit HR experience, I found myself replaying some of the "by the book" HR advice shared with me in the past that never fully resonated with me. As I did this, I kept thinking, what is human about these human resource practices?

Before diving into some HR-related issues I see impacting CBOs, I want to acknowledge that the people positioned for the work we're hiring for are limited. Our staff should have the qualifications to be successful in the role, be passionate about the organization's mission, and have a willingness to sacrifice nights and weekends, in addition to being a fit for the organization's culture. I think it's also important to recognize that the reality is that CBOs are often unable to compete with the salaries offered at for-profit companies and larger NPOs. So, staff may need to have a certain level of financial stability and privilege to sustain long-term employment at our institutions. It's important to acknowledge the sacrifices staff make to consider creating more sustainable, supportive, and nourishing work environments for the staff people who are powering the institutions bringing art, culture, and programs to our community.

Let's get into it.

Issue 1: Compliance is a requirement; building strong company culture is not. Because many CBOs are understaffed and under-resourced, the Executive Director, or someone near the top of the organization, often takes on HR compliance and management tasks, among many other competing responsibilities. These tasks must include compliance to keep the organization in good legal standing as an NPO and liability mitigation. However, practicing staff appreciation, creating opportunities for team building, and prioritizing management that nurtures staff growth are not legal requirements and may be subsequently deprioritized. Unfortunately, this can result in unsustainable work practices unintentionally becoming normalized as part of what it takes to get the job done, rather than creating an environment where rest, joy, and team trust and accountability are commonplace.

Issue 2: The organization's personnel infrastructure doesn't encourage staff to stay. Some of the ways this issue shows up are that staff will often have to wait until someone else vacates a position to move upward in an organization, there is no clear upward mobility path in the first place, or the leap in qualifications between levels is too broad. In each of these circumstances, staff may not wish to leave an organization. Still, they must in order to take on more decision-making responsibilities, attain more financial stability, and progress in their careers.

Issue 3: Ok, this is the issue that might hit in a particular place if you lead or work at a CBO...Too often, because of issue 1 and issue 2, passionate, smart, energetic leaders end up being treated like machines, and their worth is reduced to numbers affecting their annual evaluation. For example, let's say your leadership has made the supportive choice for their employees to set a robust vacation and sick time policy. That's great! But if you're honest with yourself, would it be reasonable for staff to exhaust every hour of the allowed to them and still meet expectations? If not, then is the policy benefiting the team, or does it create the idea of a benefit that doesn't exist without the stress of hours of catch-up work? There are countless examples of evaluating staff's worth based on quantifiable metrics. Some include only measuring how many events or programs staff can produce, the number of registrations, dollars generated by fundraisers, etc. If you are viewing qualitative culture building, team building, and time away from the office as a barrier to productivity, staff may begin feeling underappreciated, overworked, and burnt out.

Considering these three issues, which are by no means exhaustive, it is no surprise that great employees are looking to leave the community for more sustainable opportunities. This situation is not only challenging for our CBOs but also very costly! Training and onboarding new employees costs the organization significantly in time and energy that lasts well beyond the first week of work.

While I don't have a playbook of solutions, here are a few reminders of tactics you can implement on your teams today:

  • Set reasonable expectations and clearly articulate them. Assess if you have clearly stated your metrics and success and if those metrics are attainable. How can your staff meet your expectations if you haven't made them clear?
  • Quantity and quality take time; adjust your expectations accordingly. It takes at least a year for a new team member to fully onboard and longer if they are the higher up the chain of command. Do not expect them to work at the same pace or accuracy as your outgoing staff person.
  • Embrace failure. Create space for staff to lead the projects you hired them to implement and allow them to make mistakes. Your staff will learn more from failure than success. Imagine your team is not allowed to fail or is fearful of making a mistake around you. Would that encourage a culture of anxiety or withholding instead of one of trust and confidence?
  • Be transparent and honest. Embracing failure does not mean handling staff with kid gloves. It means having challenging conversations with transparency, honesty, and respect with staff who aren't working out the way you'd hoped. Create enough space for yourself to appropriately manage any staff who are straying from your expectations and make difficult decisions if necessary for the rest of your team's success.
  • Affirm your staff! I can't believe I'm saying this, but imagine if the only time you hear from your supervisor is when something is going wrong. What type of reaction would that create in you? Rather than only pointing out when you've caught a mistake or if you're not pleased with the staff's output, flip the script! Let them know what they're doing well, what you're proud of them for, and if they bring good ideas to the table! It really does go a long way.
  • Model healthy boundaries. Your staff are taking cues from you. What are you prioritizing both at work and taking time away from the office? When was the last time you took sick leave, you were personally vulnerable with your staff, or you took an unplugged vacation? Model healthy boundaries around your work and personal life to encourage staff to do the same. Your team will be more productive if they've rested mentally, emotionally, and physically.
  • Create infrastructure within your organization that encourages staff to stay but be prepared and happy when your team members move on. If you know you've managed your personnel and culture-building well, your staff moving will have nothing to do with you. It means they've learned enough to be prepared for their next role and hopefully leave on good terms with the organization. In the best circumstances for me, this showed up as my staff giving me ample time before their resignation so I could hire a new staff person before they left the organization. Nothing was a surprise, and while I was sad to see them go, I was thrilled they found something better suited for them.

I write all this because I have a growing concern for our community. By shirking the culture building and engaging side of HR, CBOs are left with a set of policies and compliance tools that they must implement, leaving staff feeling stuck and looking for ways to exit community work. That, paired with a limited pool of candidates to take their place, puts our CBOs in a challenging position when succession planning. Yes, a significant barrier for many of these issues is limited resources*. You'll note that one of my recommendations wasn't simply to pay your staff more because I assume you'd be doing that if you could. So, CBO leaders, I invite you to assess how you're handling the human side of HR and if you could be doing more to support and nurture your staff today.

*Note to you reader: If you love and appreciate the CBOs in your community, this is your reminder to make your year-end contributions :)

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