Property managers handle a wide array of tasks from the physical to the administrative. While many of these jobs are outlined in black and white (send out monthly bills, attend meetings, file paperwork), one important component is not as easy to pin down: the actual management of people—boards, building/HOA staff, and residents alike.
The job is a lot in a community with a functional, cooperative board and harmonious residents—it becomes a herculean task when a board has jumped the tracks, residents are up in arms, and staff members are antagonistic. There are obviously methods of human resource management and conflict resolution for managers dealing with dysfunctional, apathetic, or chaotic boards and association communities.
Using Human Resources
Much like any other company, having a group of people that manage daily processes is necessary for a smooth functioning operation.
Human resources in a community is much like having one within a company, says Steve Inglis, PCAM, of Jupiter-based Bristol Management Services, Inc.
“They cover all the same issues as any companies with a number of employees,” he says, such as family or medical leave, divorces, pregnancies and worker’s compensation.
So who takes care of the human resources within a condo or co-op?
Sue Carpenter, CEO of Associa, community management professionals in Orlando, says it is usually the on-site manager that takes care of all these issues.
“Most of the sizable management companies have companies handle personnel and payroll for them. It would mean supervision of that staff and responsibility for their payroll and benefits,” she says.
“We’re here to listen to them vent,” adds Inglis.
Bill Worrall of The Continental Group, a management company in Hollywood, points out that as of July of this year, new legislation was passed that gives the management companies and board of directors the ability to have closed session board meetings to discuss personnel matters.
“The board of directors agrees to hire a management company and the employees are now employees of the management company,” he says. So a formal human resource department doesn’t really exist.
A Dysfunctional Community
Unfortunately, even with a management company to handle the requirements of everyday operation, problems can arise and things can occasionally become dysfunctional. This doesn't happen overnight, however. The biggest warning signs that management companies should look out for come from board members who don’t act with civility, says Inglis.
“It’s okay to disagree,” he says. “But the key is disagreeing with civility.”
Inglis cites instances where people have gotten into fist fights in the parking lots of their communities, in board meetings, have gotten their cars keyed and have had offensive symbols painted on their garages because of a disagreement or feud.
Carpenter agrees. “One person or small group seeming to control the conversations and elections is a sign of dysfunction,” she says. “Shutting out those who don't ‘yell louder.’ Polarizing meetings to the point no decisions are made.”
Worrall also mentions board members who work with their own specific agendas and not for the greater good of the community as a warning sign for trouble. He cites, for example, a board member that makes decisions without a duly noted board meeting.
“That’s a big red flag,” he says. “Something that can jump out.”
He recalls one example where his management company found out that every new board that came in at one of his communities would sue the old board for things they thought were done wrong. “Their insurance policy started to become very expensive because of the years and years of lawsuits,” he says.
He says problems often arise when there’s a lack of information and board members aren’t on the same page.
“A board is dysfunctional because they don’t have all the information,” says Worrall. This sometimes causes the board to not act transparently and have tension between board members themselves, and board members and residents.
He cites another example with one community that had cabanas around the pool deck which the homeowners paid maintenance fees for.
“One day a decision was made by the board of directors that the cabana owners don’t have to pay the fee,” he recalls. “You can’t change something like that without at least a membership vote.”
Consequently, he says the membership got upset, the board of directors got upset and a shortfall in the budget was created because not enough money was being collected.
“It was complete board dysfunction,” Worrall remembers. “It should have never happened.”
Along the same lines, Carpenter also says that a board that is too cautious or conservative about making decisions or feeling insecure about decision-making leads to problems. She says that boards that don’t follow procedures to write up or replace a staff member or boards that are not aware of safety procedures can cause tension as well.
How To Not Manage
Inglis says the worst thing a management company can do is to get sucked into favoritism during a dispute. “Our number one goal is to follow the instruction of the board and give advice,” he says. “The worst thing we can do is take sides.”
Carpenter agrees, adding that another common error may include saying the wrong thing to an employee without realizing its implication or that it could result in a discrimination or other type of lawsuit.
Inglis emphasizes the need to remain courteous towards one another and to not let meetings run like free-for-alls. “Don’t get into verbal debates,” he says, citing that some boards will let homeowners come up and speak but that the governing body is only allowed to say that they’re taking the suggestion “under consideration.”
“Three percent of homeowners suck up 90 percent of the board members’ time,” he says.
Worrall says that communities with management companies usually get more informed opinions whereas ones with independent managers do not. “They’re an island,” he says, citing that independent managers usually own one building and don’t face the challenges that come with dealing in big groups.
“They think they’re making good decisions when they’re really not,” he says.
So how does one learn how to prevent and deal with unruly boards?
“Some of it is years of experience,” says Carpenter. “Trial and error. There are professional courses given all over the country by other professionals or professional groups such as the Community Associations Institute (CAI). I’ve attended classes on any subject you can name. We depend on these to be successful.”
Inglis says that there are training sessions and that his management company has a lot of classes and seminars that teach how to deal with people’s personalities. “Most of it is dealing with people’s personalities,” he points out.
Worrall also cites the nationwide courses as a place to get training. But, he says, “that education is completely irrelevant to daily basics and these types of issues.”
He says his management company has several conflict and resolution courses or even customer service courses that are better fitted to train employees.
“When you put community management into context it means that the board of directors are the customers or the management company or independent manager and you’re able to satisfy the boards,” he says. “Once you’ve accomplished this, boards will see this is run like a business.”
Inglis says that 60 percent of education on these issues is more hands-on and that people learn techniques on how to deal with them not only from everyday operations at the community, but from their previous and current careers as well, such as law enforcement, he cites. “The biggest thing to teach them in this industry is to have thick skin so that they don’t take things personally,” he says.
Cleaning Up a Mess
Sometimes a management company is brought in after the damage has already been done and a community is left with nothing but chaos and bitterness towards one another.
In these situations, it’s important to open up a line of communication that will get everyone talking in a civil manner again. Worrall says that his management company holds one-on-one sessions with each board member to understand what their top priorities are.
“Each board member has a different vision,” Worrall says. It’s the job of the management company to aggregate what their visions are, come up with an action plan that has due dates and present it at the board meeting. Then, he says, the plan can be tweaked and approved.
“It’s magic,” he says. “It makes [the board members] feel good because they feel like a productive board.”
Inglis says that his management company creates social community events like wine and cheese nights to get people talking about issues that don’t have to do with the community. “Get people talking about their grandchildren or golf,” he says. It’s about trying to bring civility back into communities.
Inglis also believes in the one-on-one approach in this case, saying that sometimes he suggests going out for a meal to chat about a problem.
When things are a little more complicated, Carpenter advises to call in additional help. “Getting a divided community back on track usually means a change in the board of directors,” she says. “Sometimes it can be educating them about their responsibility and obligation as a leader of the community. Maybe the association attorney can step in and help.”
Worrall agrees, saying that if there is something illegal happening, it is an obligation to bring an association attorney in. Additionally, he warns, managers should not try to act as attorneys themselves because that can only make the problem worse.
In the end, the best thing to do is just be cognizant of other people and their feelings.
“Treat everybody with the same respect you’d like to be treated with,” says Inglis, citing an old time-worn adage for dealing with people.
Bernadette Marciniak is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The South Florida Cooperator.