altDear nonprofit ethicist,

A few nights ago, a fellow staff member was working late at the office when the executive director came in. She had been out drinking, apparently, with a board member. When the executive director asked the staff member what was going on, the staff member answered her curtly. It was an awkward situation, though, because the executive director was drunk. The board member then said something to the executive director like, “You have a right to an answer,” and then I saw the executive director lunge across the desk at my colleague.

No one called the police, but I called the board chair, who told me to write it up. I got a statement from the staff person involved and sent it to the chair. Now, a week later, I have heard that board members disagree about how to handle the situation, but it seems to me that a line has been crossed. The executive director had this staff person by her lapels and was pushing her back in her chair. We regularly have to work late in the office and sometimes alone.

This is not the first time that staff members have felt threatened by the executive director, and the board has received complaints from us about verbal assaults, but nothing as physical as this. Is this a clear ethical issue? Am I off base for expecting some quick action from the board? Help us!


Dear Afraid,

Abusive executive directors are usually more subtle. Appearing inebriated at the office is bad, but physical contact is strictly forbidden. The executive director is clearly wrong, even if she felt provoked verbally. But if every board did its job, there would be no need for this column. This board sounds somnolent. It surely does not help that the executive director is the drinking buddy of at least one board member.

That said, the statement you submitted to the board is not conclusive. It is just an allegation, but it should trigger an investigation that takes written statements from all witnesses and gives the executive director an opportunity to respond to allegations against her. The scope of the investigation should include the issue of appearing inebriated. This could take time. One week may not be enough, but there should be signs of movement, because eyewitness accounts become less reliable with the passage of time. Keep prodding.

The board has a responsibility to move quickly and decisively. They will be held accountable for any further violence. They have information that would cause a prudent person to think the workplace is not safe. They should ask the executive director to stay out of the office until their investigation is complete.

Woods Bowman is a professor of public service management at DePaul University.

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