Oliver Hanson was finally coming to the end of his joke, to the relief of everyone in the room.
...and in the morning after Dad goes to work, the milkman will deliver the milk and have his usual “quickie” with Mom….And then, he’ll catch the clap, which is just fine with me! He’s the @&%$* who ran over my dog!
There was a nervous laugh, a half-hearted groan, and the 13 others sitting around the board room conference table simply remained silent through their discomfort, staring downward, making no eye contact with either the story-teller or the chair. Other than that, there was no outward reaction to the punch line besides the labored chortling of Hanson, whose already ruddy complexion appeared to deepen even more, if that was possible.
Hanson’s jokes were unwelcome at any time—they were usually long, off-color, and it was a stretch to consider any of them even moderately amusing. But coming in the middle of a board meeting, these distractions were doubly inappropriate. Other board members had been complaining about Hanson’s incessant interruptions, which often came when the board’s deliberations were peaking at the most intense moments. Some found him annoying, while others labeled his behavior insufferable. Without warning, he would launch into a soliloquy only marginally related to the topic. Some board members would shrink back in their seats, embarrassed by the content of the material Hanson insisted on sharing, but wondering if perhaps he had forgotten to take a particularly required dose of medication that day.
“Okay, let’s return to our next item on the agenda, the spaghetti dinner fundraiser,” Harold Mathers said, reclaiming control of the meeting. “We need to decide whether we want to partner with a company that will put our silent auction online.…”
“I want to bring up the issue of whether board members can participate on the Center bowling team,” Hanson interrupted. “Every time I bring this up, you keep putting it off, and I think I have the right to be heard on this….”
Mathers, board chair of the Iraq-Afghanistan Veterans Center of Harristown, a.k.a. Vet Center, was becoming less tolerant of humoring Hanson—even though everyone around the table knew that not alienating this boorish, crude man was necessary to maintain the good will of the Hanson Family Foundation.
The organization had begun with a Hanson Foundation startup grant. Now in its eighth year, the Vet Center had created a relatively stable diversification of its income stream, with the Foundation providing only about 10% of its annual revenue. The remainder came from state grants, fee for service payments from veterans who could afford to pay all or part of the costs, contributions from individuals, an annual spaghetti dinner fundraiser and silent auction, a $25,000 earmark provided courtesy of the state’s senior U.S. senator out of the Veterans Administration budget, and a smattering of grants from other foundations. Still, 10% was 10%. In the Vet Center’s budget, this amounted to $40,000, chump change for the Foundation, which had assets of more than $50 million.
The Vet Center conducted community outreach to offer counseling on employment, family issues, and education to returning combat veterans and family members. It also provided bereavement counseling for families of service members killed on active duty and counseling for veterans who were sexually harassed. Most of the Vet Center’s services were offered on a sliding scale fee basis, although many programs were offered free of charge.
The center was staffed by small, mostly volunteer teams of counselors, outreach workers, and other specialists, including drug abuse counselors, advocates, and social workers trained in helping veterans access the full range of government-sponsored programs. A dedicated core staff of six full-time and four part-time professionals and support staff held everything together. Combat veterans in the area knew they could drop in to the Center, no questions asked, and play a round of pool in the recreation area and socialize. If they decided to receive any vocational or mental health services, they could register, but there was no pressure to participate in the formal intake process if they simply wanted a place to hang out.
Following years of military stalemate and only minimal political progress, it appeared that there was no credible exit strategy in America’s overseas armed conflicts. It appeared more and more likely that even with the election of a new President who had pledged to bring them home as quickly as possible, the number of veterans returning from overseas combat in that region had increased each year. The capacity of the Vet Center to serve this demand was diminishing, even with a healthy roster of volunteer caseworkers. As was the case in many cash-strapped nonprofit organizations in the area, the staff continually had been asked to do much more with less. The current headquarters was straining beyond its capacity, with some staff forced to have their desks in the hallways with minimal space for the quiet and privacy necessary for the group and individual counseling staff members of the Center provided.
Mathers and other members of the executive committee had been making overtures to the Hanson Family Foundation to provide a one-time grant of $500,000 so the organization could purchase an office building in downtown Harristown near the bus terminal and within a stone’s throw of one of the largest Army bases in the country. This would have been a vast improvement over the current situation of renting space that was expensive, inefficient, and had limited parking for staff and clients.
Although Hanson had been an ally for this proposal, albeit with constant prodding from the committee, the family members with control over funding had so far resisted increasing their investment in the organization. Yet, Mathers thought progress had been made toward realizing the dream whereby the Center could relocate to a modern facility that could meet the needs for expansion for several decades into the future. Even with all combat troops exiting from Iraq, the war in Afghanistan was likely to expand, with no likelihood of any negotiated political settlement nor possibility of a military solution, either. Even if the Vet Center board decided against expanding its mission to provide services to those veterans who were not returning combat veterans—as was considered on occasion—it was almost a certainty that the organization would have a steady flow of new clients for many years to come.
For more than a year now, Mathers had debated with other board members on how to deal with this particular board member’s deteriorating behavior. It was clear for a long time that Hanson attended every board meeting, but offered nothing constructive with his participation other than being the conduit for his relatives’ philanthropy. The board previously had voted two other board members off simply for non-attendance, consistent with a provision in the organization’s bylaws. At the last meeting, the board had surprised the current vice president of the board and charter board member with a plaque for recognizing his perfect attendance at each of the 50 board meetings in its history, the only board member with that distinction. Ironically, most board members would have voted in favor of some award for Hanson if he agreed simply not to attend any board meetings.
If the predicament had been limited to only Hanson’s propensity for telling off-color jokes, the organization might have been able to weather the consequences. Anyone who spent any time around the Center would have been exposed to language that the nuns in the convent across the street would have blushed at.
But his vulgar behavior extended to verbal abuse, as well. Only an hour before, as lunch orders were being distributed, Hanson had bawled out a staff member for the insult of adding a sprinkling of onions on his hoagie sandwich when, Hanson had insisted, he had explicitly asked for no onions. In a gruff, hostile manner that was as much dog bark as human, Hanson had verbally pummeled the offender in front of the board and her executive director. The staff member, a young social work student doing her MSW program field placement who had volunteered to help out at the board meeting on what would otherwise have been a Saturday off, had been in tears. Two board members had tried to intercede, one of them protectively getting between Hanson and the student in case Hanson had any thoughts of physically attacking her. Although it never came to that, Mathers wondered whether the distinct, quick change from abusing the staff member to playfully telling a dirty joke might indicate some form of bipolar disorder.
And his appalling behavior extended beyond the six board meetings he attended each year.
Perhaps twice each month, Hanson would visit the Center and act as if he owned the place. He would order both staff and clients around as if they were his domestic help, and insist that as a board member, he had the right to examine the personal files of clients. When the executive director had calmly informed him that he could not have access to these files, Hanson had threatened to have the executive director fired at the next board meeting. Literally within the next five minutes, he had scolded one of the staff with a healthy dose of expletives mixed in to his ranting for refusing to agree to pick up his dry cleaning. As gently as they could, several staff members suggested he register for services himself so that he could participate in programs designed to help those like himself who were in need of a trained therapist to help him sort through his problems. Of course, he refused, railing against those who might suggest that he needed any kind of professional help.
At times, he seemed like a motor that wouldn’t turn off, sharing comments during discussion that only marginally contributed to the board reaching a conclusion, if at all. During the few times that he was knowledgeable enough about an issue being discussed, he acted as if anyone who had a different opinion was either ignorant or plain stupid, and badgered those who refused to endorse his views until they were forced to show the white flag. It was clear to many on the board that his participation was not designed to serve the Vet Center but rather his own need for attention and power and to assuage whatever demons were inside his head.
Mathers might have forgiven the inappropriate outbursts to some reasonable extent. He, himself, had seen his share of bad things in Iraq, having led a platoon of infantrymen as a young second Lieutenant in Falusha, initially being a true believer hoping to rid the world of the evil dictator, Saddam Hussein. That idealism had inexorably melted away, replaced by a desire to do whatever he could to live another day and escape that hell-hole, the IEDs, and the constant sleep deprivation. Awarded the Bronze Star in 2004 for a Second Gulf War operation that he had difficulty discussing with others, he had returned and reentered civilian life a changed person.
Initially, he had experienced some adjustment problems, but he overcame them, unlike many of his buddies who still had neurons in their brains misfiring whenever they heard the mention of names like Nasiriyah, Debecka Pass, and Umm Qasr. Six years after being back in the States, he still flinched whenever he heard a car backfire. He had found and gotten involved with the Vet Center, and eventually was recruited to serve on the Center’s board. Within a year, his quiet leadership merited a nomination as the board’s fourth chair.
Hanson, also a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, the First Gulf War of 1990-1991, had seen combat more than a decade prior to Mathers. He had been awarded a Purple Heart and was in many ways emblematic of those individuals the Center sought to serve. Like many veterans, Hanson had seen and heard things during his service that he would have liked to forget. No one really knew whether he had received treatment for mental illness, but it was perceived that he had bouts of depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse following his return from overseas. Like thousands of his colleagues, he had experienced a puzzling array of symptoms, including headaches, joint pain, hair loss, memory loss, rashes, and unusual fatigue. The military had dismissed his symptoms as psychosomatic. It was only years later, as those with the symptoms had traded notes about their frustrations in receiving official Pentagon acknowledgement that they had real maladies, that Gulf War Syndrome was named. No cause was ever identified, and treatment remained elusive.
If Hanson was a sufferer of this syndrome, his outward symptoms were relatively mild compared to some of those who were served at the Vet Center. Yet, it was becoming increasingly clear that the board of the Vet Center was dysfunctional as long as Hanson continued to disrupt the board with his ill-timed outbursts, intimidation of other board members, and abuse of staff.
Had he simply been a filthy-mouthed fool, it might not have taken as much courage for Mathers or his predecessors to find a way to rotate him off the board gracefully without putting the Hanson Foundation funds going to the Vet Center at risk. But it wasn’t that simple; there was some sympathy and compassion for Hanson’s outrageous behavior that some within the organization thought may have been attributable to factors out of his own control, such as a physical chemical imbalance or a brain disturbance, or emotional problems emanating from his wartime experience.
Mathers had always treated Hanson with respect as a fellow combat veteran, and they were on good terms. It was assumed by the other board members that Mathers, both as someone with a good relationship with Hanson, and in his capacity of serving as chair, had the responsibility to deal with him.
Mathers had dealt successfully with disruptive board members before as chair of another organization. In one such case, he had scheduled a lunch meeting to discuss this, bringing along another member of the board for support.
He had begun by shaking hands warmly, making good eye contact, and calmly informing that board member that he and other members of the board had noticed behavior that might indicate that he was having problems outside of his board service, and that members were concerned about him. In any case, he had told the board member that there were times when he was interrupting too often and not focusing on the agenda. When he did so, the other board members were distressed, and the board was unable to do its job. Was there anything bothering him about the board that elicited the behavior that was of concern to the other members? It was important that every member have a chance to participate, and not feel uneasy about sharing their views. It was important for this board member to tone down the volume and try to listen more to what others had to say.
The board member, in this case, not only didn’t become defensive, but apologized, and agreed to end his rudeness at board meetings. The rest of the meeting consisted of Mathers giving the board member some easily accomplishable assignments to keep him busy and reassuring him that he would continue to serve as a valued member of the board.
Instinctively, Mathers assessed that the outcome would be quite different if he employed the same strategy with Hanson, who would likely become defensive and create a scene, no matter how delicately Mathers handled the situation.
Perhaps they should meet in the park for lunch, with Mathers offering to bring some sandwiches and cold beer. He made a mental note that if he did so, he would be sure to not include onions in Hanson’s sandwich.
1. Who has the responsibility for dealing with disruptive board members?
2. How useful would it be to have a written policy on the roles and responsibilities of board members?
3. How much power do individual board members have when they visit the organization?
4. What is the role of staff in dealing with abusive and demanding board members?
5. Should Hanson simply be thrown off the board? What would be the consequences of doing so?
6. How can a board chair deal with a disruptive board member at a meeting and after a meeting?
7. Discuss the dilemma of dealing with maintaining the fiscal health of the center by protecting the funds it receives from the foundation while maintaining the functionality of the center and its board.