How To Fire A Toxic Board Member

Toxic board member. Green. Long nails. Holds people hostage.

Toxic board member. Green. Long nails. Holds people hostage.

I’m able to speak freely here because the board member you want to fire ain’t reading my blog.  She needs no resources, no tools and no advice on how to approach her board service. She’s got this.

The problem is she’s toxic. In fact, that’s her name. Toxic Board Member, or Toxic for short.

Harsh? Yes, but I see it often and that’s the word lots of people use – not just me.

I know you’re anxious for my “ten easy steps that a board chair or a nonprofit CEO can follow to fire toxic board members.”

I’m really sorry to disappoint you.

I don’t have any steps.

You know how to fire a board member? If you do, please comment below because I’m dying to know your recipe.

So why am I bothering with this post? 

Because you can make Toxic go away.

Here’s how.

HOW DO YOU KNOW THE BOARD MEMBER IS TOXIC?

You might be laughing. I don’t need a list, you’re thinking. Anyone can see that this board member is toxic.

Not so.

Here’s how to know if Toxic is bringing you down.

  • She rolls her eyes at least once at every meeting (i.e. wildly disrespectful of other board members and staff)
  • She interacts regularly with the staff in order to bad mouth the CEO
  • She cares more about power than the mission
  • She complains loudly about fundraising obligations and would make a motion to eliminate the board’s give/get if she felt she had the votes.
  • You have board members who are MIA and you often pray that she would be.

OK, so you have now established that she really is toxic. How do we make her go away?

HOW TO MAKE TOXIC BOARD MEMBER GO AWAY

So I’m sorry to report that you can’t actually fire a board member. It can damage the reputation of the board member and by extension, the organization.

However, you do have two options. First, you can secure their resignation or second (the more common strategy) you can manage them out.

SECURING A RESIGNATION

This happens only in the most egregious of situations. Egregious situations may include (but are certainly not limited to):

  • Fraudulent activities as Treasurer.
  • Revealing confidential information to the public. Anything that would have significant implications on the credibility or viability of the organization. Now board members “leak” stuff all the time (and shouldn’t) but here I’m talking about egregious leaking – say, revealing the board vote on the hiring or firing of the CEO.
  • Sexual advances to any staff members.

In any of these situations, revealing the egregious action to the board would be an extreme embarrassment to Toxic and securing a resignation should be fairly straightforward.

I didn’t say easy. I said straightforward.

MANAGING TOXIC BOARD MEMBER OUT

Here’s how I think of it.  Instead of dumping the whole bucket of water on the Wicked Witch of the West, just pour slowly.

In an intentional and strategic way, the Board Chair and the CEO must work steadily to reduce Toxic Board Member’s power, minimizing her influence step by step until she disappears (resigns).

How?

  • Board Chair and CEO on exactly the same page. Toxic must go and they both agree that it will take longer than either of them will like. They also must agree that each of them will have an extra burden of work to get it done.
  • Board Chair connects with Governance Committee.   If your board is large enough to have one, you don’t want to leave them out.  You want the buy-in of this group.  Be sure everyone is on the same page.
  • Secure Other Allies. Board Chair and CEO go through the board list. Find a good handful (3-4-ish) that feel exactly the same way they do. Secure their buy-in around the plan and their commitment to speak up so that the Board Chair and the CEO are not the only bad guys when Toxic goes off.What’s happening here is that the Board Chair is building a support team. Also, the balance of power is shifting.
  • Give Additional Power to the Allies. I like the idea of some kind of ad hoc committee with an ally as Chair – it could be around board recruitment or fundraising – something where Toxic is on the wrong side of the issue. See what happens here?The power dynamics continue to shift. She’s melting away.
  • Board Meeting Agenda: Roles and Responsibilities. Now that support has been built, the Board Chair can add some discussion to a board meeting either reminding folks of their roles and responsibilities or better yet, adding one or two that Toxic will completely hate. It has to be something that will pass without her – ideally, something like raising the give/get – but anything that shows to TBM that she is terribly out of step and no one is listening to her.She has no allies. She melts. She resigns.

THE SIDE BENEFITS

  1. A few more board members have stepped up and assumed new responsibilities and power. The right kind.
  2. The Board Chair can feel enormous pride that she/he took real responsibility for the effectiveness of the board. Every board member will understand what happened and every single board member will be thankful for the outcome.

AND REMEMBER TO LEARN A VALUABLE LESSON

Have a meal – Board Chair and CEO. Dissect how Toxic got onto the board to begin with. Meet with the chair of your Nominations or Recruitment Committee. Share the lessons and adjust your recruitment process to minimize the likelihood of it happening again.

And by all means, avoid any board prospects wearing ruby slippers.

Next: How to Add Board Members That Are NOT Toxic

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  • Bob Witeck

    Joan, once I was reassured this blog did not highlight my past board performances, I found the advice spot on. I’ve seen the behaviors you’ve described, and witnessed some constructive strategies that isolate the toxic person and behavior. In some instances, of course, I’ve also witnessed these individuals getting frustrated and walking out on their own — which is a very satisfying outcome.

    Regrettably, however, some former board members stay or become more critical and vocal off the board than when serving within it. However, that outcome demands different ways to understand and to manage.

    • http://joangarry.com/ Joan Garry

      Bob. That’s a post for another day. “Dealing With FORMER Toxic Board Members.” I have also checked around and you’ve never been green nor held anyone hostage. So you’re safe. And as mentioned, the person I describe has not subscribed to my blog. Thanks for the comment.

  • Pat Hanberry

    Joan -

    I’m a little surprised you didn’t mention the Governance Committee in this blog. I view one of their roles as keeping the board functioning smoothly, and helping to escort a toxic board member out seems to fall under this category.

    • http://joangarry.com/ Joan Garry

      Pat. I think you are absolutely right and you make a most excellent point. If your board is large enough to have a governance committee, they should absolutely be roped in. I may in fact edit the post to make note of this. Thank you so much for your constructive feedback.

  • Craig

    Another helpful subject, thanks so much. I’ve consulted with non-profits for my entire career and I’ve served on boards for 20+ years and I’m currently an ED, so I have a broad understanding and experience with Toxic Board Members, former Toxic Board Members, etc.

    One tactic that I’ve found helpful is having the President (or somebody the person connects with) take the individual aside and having a direct conversation. “I know you love this organization, and I know you’re committed to the mission. We so appreciate all of your support. Do you know that in board meetings when you roll your eyes or grunt or …. that it prevents the rest of the board from exploring opportunities.” I find that the gentle, but direct calling of people on their behavior often becomes a jump-starter for larger issues. In nearly all cases the person either stepped up to the plate or we worked together to find a committee that they felt more “heard” and fulfilled with.

    As others have said – a clear and consistent board member job description is the best preventative medicine for this.

    Thanks Joan – you’re fabulous!

    • http://joangarry.com/ Joan Garry

      Craig. Thanks for your great comments. Wish more Board Chairs were willing to have those difficult conversations. It’s one of the reasons I do a lot of work with leadership teams on how to have an effective difficult conversation so they feel constructive and less difficult.

  • Abby

    hi Joan, nice article. Just wondering: do boards include anything in the bylaws about how they will handle “non-helpful” board members? Also, I see an opportunity to focus on the group dynamics and the skills of the (other) board members during meetings; for example, what’s the culture of the team in terms of people speaking up? How does the facilitator/chair deal with the contributions of the toxic board member? I think that US culture and US business culture indicate that it’s impolite to challenge someone, even when they’re disrupting the group, so the whole group suffers because of one person. Just focusing here on behavior in meetings – sometimes the facilitator can attend to the comments from the toxic person, and ask something in a diplomatic way. But I also think that the board members – and all of us as participants in a board or a group – have a role to play in diplomatically speaking up to this person; for example, if they’re complaining about something – “If you could turn your complaint into a request, what would you be asking for?” or “I wonder what need/wish is not being met for you?” or “This person’s comments seem to be taking us off-track; how do you all want to handle that” – or, “can we set that aside and get back on track?” Would these be helpful in the situations/toxic members you’re thinking of?
    Abby Yanow
    http://www.skillfulfacilitation.com

  • http://joangarry.com/ Joan Garry

    Abby. Thanks for weighing in. Maybe other readers know better but all I have seen as it relates to ‘non-helpful’ board members is about attendance at board meetings. Some by laws state that missing X number of board members automatically take you off the board. We had this at GLAAD. We would then vote back in board members who really were ready to re-commit. Sadly, toxic board members actually show up! As for the role of other board members, you are so write. The challenge is that so few actually will speak up and out. They silently roll their eyes and complain later over cocktails. And lastly, I really love your questions and I think they are terrific tools to highlight things and may in fact be easier ways for fellow board members to “raise concerns” without feeling confrontational. Thanks again.

  • David

    Hi, Sorry I’m not any good in reading long comments, but I have a problem with a non profit cultural center were the director is the toxic board member brining the organization to the ground.
    How would I, as a community member and constant volunteer go about chopping of the head of the organization (the director) while preserving the body to have a transplant (before its too late)?