Join The NonProfit Times: or Become a member

Subscribe: Print Publication or Newsletter

Stay connected.
Stay informed.

You Hired Who? Top 10 Nonprofit Employment Mistakes

By Siobhan Kelley - October 15, 2014

Nonprofit employers face a unique set of challenges. They are always trying to do more with less — fewer staff members, less support, less funding. A combination of these pressures can result in poor employment practices, even when one thinks they are doing “the right thing.”

Engaging in best practices with nonprofit employees will result in helping to decrease employee turnover and retain high performers. It will also help identify problem employees who might otherwise fly under the radar or be the low performing “hot potato” that gets passed between departments.

Avoiding the most common pitfalls with employment issues can help avoid costly lawsuits. Here are some common, and uncommon, mistakes being made by hiring managers.

1. Rushing To Fill An Empty Seat With A Warm Body: Mistakes In Hiring

One of the best practices in hiring is to be honest about what makes someone a successful employee. You can prevent high turnover by being honest about the aspects of the job that are frustrating and you can sell a candidate on the mission of the nonprofit while still being honest about the challenges of the work, especially if the candidate is new to the field.

The hiring process is the first and best place to prevent problematic employment situations from ever developing, so watch for “red flags” in the hiring process. For example, you might want to dig deeper into the background of that charismatic applicant who has had five different jobs during the past five years. If you are in a rush to fill an open position as soon as possible, you’ll end up with “anyone” instead of the right person.

2. Lack Of Performance/Disciplinary Records

The number one problem that arises when defending nonprofits from wrongful termination claims is a lack of documentation to support the decision. Verbal coaching with an employee might be appropriate as an early correction, but it is no substitute for written corrective action.

Two people can participate in the same conversation and come away with two very different impressions. The employee could think they have received informal direction and coaching. The manager might think they have delivered a warning.

Effective corrective action should clearly describe the problems, future expectations and the consequences if expectations are not met. An employee who is surprised to learn they are being fired has most likely not been counseled appropriately. If a problem is important enough to trigger a termination, it should be important enough to document in writing, well in advance of the termination.

3. Not Requiring Managers To Document Performance Problems

Directly connected to a lack of documentation is the absence of tools and time available to do the documentation. Nonprofits are notoriously understaffed and managers are overworked. Managers might be frustrated with an employee’s continued performance or disciplinary problems to the point where they are ready to fire the employee.

The hard truth is that managers get paid to deal with these issues. The solution for this issue comes from the top of the management chain. Make sure that the heads of each department and the Human Resource Department (or, in a smaller nonprofit, the executive director) regularly check in with managers about low-performing employees.

Disciplinary issues should be centralized. Overwhelmed managers could need help coaching employees, writing disciplinary notices and even balancing their workload to have enough time to appropriately address these issues.

4. Independent Contractor Misclassification

Independent contractors are workers who are not employees and are not on your regular payroll. They are paid a flat fee for the services performed and receive a Form 1099 at the end of the year reflecting total compensation. Whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee will depend on the relationship between the parties. It is not a matter of preference for the nonprofit or the contractor when it comes to characterizing the relationship one way or another.

In general, employers direct the work of their employees and contractors, not surprisingly, work independently.

Taking someone who is doing the work of an employee and making them an independent contractor might sound like a great way to save money on payroll taxes, but it is also a great way to land in hot water with a multitude of federal, state and local authorities. The test used to determine whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee varies by state and by the agency enforcing the rule. When in doubt, invest in the opinion of an employment attorney. Surprisingly, a person who gives you advice on this issue who is not an attorney might share the liability if they get it wrong.

5. Making All Employees “Salaried”

You should start by assuming an employee should be paid on an hourly basis. Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, employees may only be paid a salary if they clearly fit into one of the exemptions to the hourly rule. You should also keep in mind there may be special state rules. For example, California requires exempt employees to meet a somewhat more stringent set of requirements. Just like with an independent contractor, an employee’s preference does not play a role in the determination.

6. Letting Employees Work “Off The Clock” Or Volunteer

Employees cannot volunteer to perform the same or similar duties they perform as part of their own jobs. If they get paid to do a certain kind of work at 10 a.m. on a Monday, then they should also be paid if they are doing the same or similar work at a fundraiser on Saturday.

7. Overly Optimistic Personnel Policies

You should not write policies for the employees your nonprofit would like to have, but rather the employees who do work there. For example, you might put together a grievance policy that allows an employee to escalate any issue or concern from their supervisor all the way to the Board of Directors. Of course, an employee should have a way of escalating concerns if the employee reasonably believes there is unethical or illegal conduct occurring.

However, frequently the grievance policies, which are written with the ideal employee in mind, end up being a vehicle for a disruptive employee to create significant dysfunction within the organization.

The best grievance policies give each level of appeal enough time to make an adequate investigation and response (hint: three days is not enough) and exclude disciplinary decisions, including terminations. If your nonprofit has union employees, a Collective Bargaining Agreement might require a specific internal appeal process.

8. Not Appropriately Addressing Disability Issues

Laws protecting mentally and physically disabled employees have expanded significantly during the past several years. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act applies to companies with 15 or more employees. Some state laws have an even lower threshold of employees.

The focus of these laws has deliberately shifted from what constitutes a disability to the employer’s obligation to engage in the interactive process with a disabled employee. It is important for any nonprofit manager to know that it is not necessary for an employee to identify themselves as disabled to be protected by state and federal laws. The burden rests primarily with the employer to make a disabled employee aware of their ability to request accommodations for their job. You should focus on the accommodation, not on the disability. You can simply ask the question: Is there anything we can do for you to help you perform your job? Document your offer to help and the employee’s answer. You have then entered into the interactive process.

9. Treating Employees As Clients

Most people don’t work at a nonprofit for the amazing compensation package or material perks. They are there because of their passion for the mission. Particularly in social service agencies, the line between carrying out that mission and managing an employee can get blurred.

How do you fire an employee for making a mistake when you’re in the business of second chances?

The important distinction here is to identify an employee who needs different tools to be successful from an employee whose actions will negatively impact your organization in other ways, particularly when it affects client care. Employment performance standards should be distinguished from the standard of care for your clients.

This might be a matter of organizational culture. Some employers are willing to be more flexible with employees who are also former clients or who are experiencing the same types of challenges as their nonprofit clients. However, consistency must be a fundamental part of your employment practices. Employees should be held to similar standards of conduct. Failure to do so can expose your nonprofit to the risk of being sued for discrimination.

In addition, any issue that directly affects client care should always be treated seriously. Compassion for an employee’s situation should never undermine clients’ safety or the nonprofit’s legal compliance.

10. The Empty Desk: Forgetting About The Employee On A Leave Of Absence

Simply having a note from a healthcare provider doesn’t mean the employee is automatically entitled to job-protected time off from work. However, if an employee has been sending in notes for months, and has never heard from the employer, why wouldn’t they assume that they have approval for an indefinite leave of absence?

You should always write to an employee at the beginning of a medical leave to explain how much time off has been approved. You should also write to the employee again near the conclusion of their leave to request documentation releasing them to return to work so that you have enough advance notice to evaluate any medical restrictions upon their return to the workplace. While emails and text messages are great for quick, informal messages, this is not one of those times.

Employers subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or state or local leave laws may have additional notification requirements. The FMLA has a very precise timeline for notifying employees of their leave rights and whether the leave has been approved. Nonprofits may also have obligations to consider regarding leave requests under federal or state disability laws.

Nonprofit leaders with responsibility for employment policies and decisions who think they don’t have time to become informed about federal, state and local laws, contracting requirements, licensing and other regulations impacting their organization run the real risk of prolonged and difficult litigation. Sadly, common sense, is no longer enough when it comes to employment practices. NPT

Siobhan Kelley, J.D., is an employment risk manager with the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group. She previously served as in-house counsel for a large technology corporation. Her email is [email protected]


Sponsored Podcasts

Welcome to the Raise & Engage podcast, a filters-off series for nonprofit professionals hosted by Blackbaud's straight-shooting expert Danielle Johnson Vermenton. During this open-mic session, you’ll hear honest advice to help YOU do more for your cause.

Episode 6: The Power of ‘No’ at Work|| daniellejohnson-76

You have a job description, but on any given day, you're probably doing dozens of things outside the scope of that description. Combine that with the challenge of a fast-paced environment and the shifting priorities of funders, colleagues, and board members and it’s easy to fall short of doing your best. By being mindful of your limitations and capacity—and saying “no” when your plate is full—you can actually do more for your cause. In the sixth installment of the Raise and Engage podcast Danielle Johnson and Robin Anderson discuss the power of saying “no” at work.

Episode 5: Professional Development: Getting Un-Stuck|| daniellejohnson-76

In the most recent episode of Raise + Engage, Danielle is back with Brian Reich from little m media to discuss how nonprofit professionals can stay motivated and energized in their day-to-day roles. Brian shares his experience working with nonprofits and the lessons and tips he's learn from and shared with them over the years, including tips for avoiding a professional rut, creating forward momentum in your career and pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. If you're considering making a career move or want to ensure you're on the right path, you won't want to miss this inspo-packed episode!

Episode 4: Apps and Hacks to Stay (Mostly) Sane || daniellejohnson-76

Episode 4: Apps and Hacks to Stay (Mostly) Sane, is all about tips, tricks and tools for sanity. Blackbaud’s own interactive product marketer, Julia Lenz, joins host Danielle Johnson to share some high tech. (and no tech.) productivity tips to help nonprofit professionals stay sane in the crazy world of philanthropy.

Tune in to hear:

  • Tips for how to spend the first 30 minutes of your day
  • The benefits of 15 minute meetings
  • Why notebooks are still relevant to a successful organization
  • Ideas for better managing your inbox
  • Why you should take lunch outside the box
  • ...and much more!
Don’t forget to visit the #NoFilterNonprofit Hub afterwards to download our newest tip sheet10 Productivity Hacks for Nonprofits.

Episode 3: Tech. Connection: Solutions, Strategy, and Staff || daniellejohnson-76

Episode 3: Tech. Connection: Solutions, Strategy, and Staff In episode 3 of the Raise + Engage podcast, Danielle Johnson is joined by Chris Geady and William DaSilva, two IT experts in the nonprofit space, to talk technology integration for NPOs: when you need it, when you don’t, and how to do it successfully.

Tune in to hear:

  • When to say NO to integration
  • How to set your strategic plan before even looking at technologies
  • Ways to get your entire team on board
  • The importance of identifying a project lead
  • The RFP process - how it should and should not go
And William shares a story about a nonprofit that may or may not have still been using a typewriter. You don't want to miss this one!

Episode 2: From Socially Awkward to Socially Awesome! || daniellejohnson-76

According to Danielle Johnson, straight-shooting host of the Raise + Engage podcast series, if your staff members aren’t the number one advocates for your cause on social media, you’re failing. In the most recent episode, Danielle is joined by Blackbaud’s own social media guru Madeline Turner to discuss overcoming social struggles and creating a social ambassador program at your organization. This entertaining and insightful duo dishes on the importance of making your social media presence human, making the case for a formal social program to leadership, how University of Michigan turned a one time social media campaign into a long term social program, and how Madeline's mom unknowingly became a social ambassador on #GivingTuesday.

Episode 1: Corporate Culture & Development: Shake It Up! || daniellejohnson-76

In the premiere episode of Raise & Engage, Danielle is joined by three straight-shooting nonprofit rock-stars: Jodi Smith of Sanford Health Systems, Veronica Brown of Chicago Public Library Foundation and Ali Burke of Southlake Regional Health Centre Foundation. The group talks organizational culture, problem employees, why its important to celebrate and how to shake things up this year and build a better more authentic team that gets stuff done!


Stay informed, catch latest trends in the nonprofit space.

Subscribe to Our Free Newsletter

No obligation, unsubscribe at anytime.

Success! Check your email inbox.

Follow Us On Twitter

NPT 2016 Buyers' Guide

Newsletter Sign-up

click here to return to the previous page