Monday, March 13, 2017

Involuntary Loss of Member Rights

Regrettably, there are times when a group member behaves badly. Even worse, there are times when a person's behavior is sufficiently problematic and persistent that it calls into question the viability of that person's membership. Those are not happy moments, and not at all what people had in mind when they joined, but it can happen.

Painting in broad strokes, unacceptable behavior falls into two categories: a) an egregious outburst that calls for immediate consequences; and b) persistent irritating and disrespectful behavior that erodes trust over time. Examples of the former (which, fortunately, is very rare) might be firing a gun in the common house or setting a neighbor's shed on fire. Often this kind of behavior is illegal in addition to being dangerous, which means the group has recourse to calling in the civil authorities.

In today's essay, however, I want to focus on the second kind, where a single incident might be awkward but you'd definitely give the person a second chance (or even many chances) and a key element is the fact that the behavior continues after it has been pointed out. 

In general, groups will go through a sequence of escalating steps in the hope that it can successfully resolve the issue at the least expensive level, and you only take the next step if all the previous ones have failed.

Suppose Robin has done something that Kim has a reaction to and considers unacceptable (such as gossiping viciously about another member, or getting loud and demanding when  advocating for their viewpoints in plenaries, with no apparent regard for the opinions or sensibilities of others). In this dynamic the sequence of options available to Robin might be something like this:

1.  Try to work through your reaction unilaterally (sometimes distress is more about the observer than it is about the doer, and the bulk of working through it can be accomplished internally by the person in reaction).

2.  Speak directly with Kim about it.

3.  Ask a third party to join Robin and Kim in discussing it.

4.  Ask the Conflict Resolution Team (or its equivalent, if you have such a subgroup identified to support people struggling to work through interpersonal tensions) for assistance, either to think through what to try, or to figure out the best way to configure a conversation, including who might be a mutually acceptable facilitator.

5. Invoke the help of the entire group in a last train effort to get movement on the issue.

While there could easily be variations on this sequence—and it would be a worthy topic to explore what those options might be—today I want to focus on what might happen when Robin has gone through this entire sequence and there's still no joy. Now what?

Essentially, I'm focusing on the work a group needs to put in place to be ready to engage relative to the possibility of imposing sanctions: an involuntary loss of member rights. Most groups don't put anything in place until and unless they have a dynamic which suggests they may need to invoke it. Oops! It is much harder to craft a good set of agreements when you have a candidate in mind for their application, yet it's nearly impossible to get a group jazzed for discussing it ahead of need. Yuck!

On the one hand, a group may be fortunate enough that this kind of limit is never tested (whew). On the other, you're taking a risk. If you wait until you need it, the development of policy is likely to come across as a witch hunt (created expressly to justify the desire to get rid of someone). Believe me, it's an uncomfortable place to be.

It's my view that the group needs to have three conversations:

I. Defining Unacceptable Behavior
What specific behaviors are unacceptable to the point that if they are not corrected it could be considered grounds for imposing sanctions. 

II. Defining Due Process
What constitutes due process in conjunction with an involuntary loss of member rights? This will include:

—A formal examination of the claim that Kim has engaged in unacceptable behaviors (refer to the outcome of the previous step).

—A formal notification to Kim that the community has determined that they have behaved unacceptably in specific ways that are enumerated in the communication, along with what specific behavior changes will bring them back into alignment, and what period of time the person will be given to effect those changes.

—A second formal meeting at the end of the time period to assess whether Kim has successfully altered their behavior or not. If Kim has made the changes no sanctions will be imposed but they may be placed on probation (for a defined period) to see if the acceptably altered behavior continues or degrades to something inappropriate again.

—If the community determines that the there has been insufficient change, the community may then decide to impose sanctions from the list developed in the step below.

III. Defining the Menu of Sanctions
What is the options the community may choose from if it is determined that Kim has gone through the whole process (see the previous step) and their behavior continues to be unacceptable. Note that I am not talking about abrogating Kim’s civil rights if any apply; I am talking about the withdrawal or delimiting of Kim's social rights as a community member. 

Note further that you are not obliged to impose sanctions even when you are allowed to; the group must discern what sanctions, if any, are appropriate on a case-by-case basis.

A final note: I caution groups to make sure they are not acting in haste, and to pause long enough to look in the mirror (to what extent can the awkwardness with Kim be the result of bad behavior by others as well?) before reaching for sanctions. Consequences should be a grave step, taken only when everything else has failed. 

In short, make sure it isn't a witch hunt.

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