Winter is Coming

By Robyn Bage

In the wake of the East Coast’s Hurricane Irene, nonprofit administrators are faced with many dilemmas to resolve:  Managing building and equipment damage, maintaining normal operations, and addressing a surge of new client and community needs, to name a few. The ethical dilemmas that have arisen are among the most difficult to sort out. One in particular reminds me of a similar dilemma brought about by a more common (and upcoming!) occurrence in the North East—snow storms: Balancing the needs of our clients with the needs of the staff who serve them.

Snow storms in the northeast can behave in unpredictable ways.  You  may end up shoveling feet when inches were predicted. Similarly, you might expect a blizzard and celebrate just a dusting in the driveway.  The hype is contagious. “It’s going to be a big one!” echoes through the hallways. Employees speculate, often days in advance, if we are going to close. Or open late. Or end the business day early. You can almost hear them whisper in agitation, “Isn’t SOMETHING going to happen?”

A veteran of nonprofit operations, I firmly believe we have an obligation to remain open. Our clients and our communities rely on us to be there for them. It is a sacred trust. We also have contractual and legal commitments to uphold. On the other hand, I also firmly believe we have an obligation to our employees.  Asking them to get to work in bad weather conditions seems uncaring and perhaps imprudent. Hence the ethical dilemma:  In the face of bad weather do we close and ask folks to brave the weather and come to work, or do we remain open to serve clients?

Typical decision-making perspectives, as usual, do not provide easy ways to resolve this quandary.  F or example, from a legal/justice perspective, as long as we meet our contractual obligations it’s a coin toss. The utilitarian perspective (“the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”) leaves someone in jeopardy. The “every man for himself” standpoint of the individualism approach is no way to successfully run a business. (Imagine the difficulty operating if you have no idea who will come to work—or if anyone will come!) It can also leave employees without guidance or support.

In the final analysis it comes down to making sound, defendable decisions that you can live with, decisions that don’t make you queasy in hindsight. For me, it means that when the roads are impassable and the danger is clear and pervasive for staff and clients, the business is closed. Otherwise, I put my faith in my employees. If individual employees believe they cannot make it safely to work, they can choose to stay home and use their benefit time. (We offer generous benefit time for this and other reasons.) I find that this trust empowers employees to make decisions in their best interest while assuring that clients are served— even in 24-hr programs.

I wonder, what guides your inclement weather decisions?

My wish for you is that you and yours weathered the recent storm in good spirits and good health, or better yet, avoided Irene altogether.  Let us take this opportunity to  plan for events that we will all face in upcoming seasons of inclement weather. After all, with due respect to George R.R. Martin, “winter is coming.”

Ms. Bage is a nonprofit CEO and Assistant Professor in a Community College.

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