Between Members and Governance: Member Discipline Today
- August 29, 2023
- Governance, Insight, Membership, Henry DeLozier
The call went something like this: “We need your advice in a disciplinary matter here at the club. It seems that one of our members was making offensive statements when a fellow member asked the member speaking out to stop his comments. An argument ensued and the offended member punched the member making the offensive statements in the face. What disciplinary actions do you recommend?”
Uncivil - and sometimes antisocial - behavior has become a matter of concern in clubs across the globe. Many club members began to demonstrate anomie, as French behaviorist Emile Durkheim called it during the early 20th century. Anomie, in societies or individuals, is a condition of instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values or from a lack of purpose or ideals. Durkheim summarized his findings by stating, “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings.”
The pandemic loosened ties between people and relocated them to their clubs. Children stopped going to school; their parents stopped going to work; parishioners stopped going to places of worship; people stopped gathering, in general. Many sociologists think all of this isolation shifted the way we behave. “We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened,” Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who studies social disorder, says. “When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.”
Many club leaders are reckoning with unprecedented behavioral abnormalities. “The pandemic has created a lot of “high-stress, low-reward” situations, explains Keith Humphreys, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University, “...and now, everyone is teetering slightly closer to their breaking point. Someone who may have lost a job, a loved one, or a friend to the pandemic might be pushed over the edge by an innocuous request.”
Like their friends and neighbors, club members became untethered from social norms and standards of mutually respectful behavior and their disconnection from behavioral standards has left many clubs seeking guidance in matters of member discipline.
First, each club must return to – or re-establish – its standards of decorum and respectful conduct. The most frequently abused private club standards are usage of technologies in restricted areas, violations of established dress codes, and general adherence to long-established club rules for reservations – whether for sports or meals.
Second, club members demand that their boards and management take disciplinary action with members who frequently or repeatedly stray from the club’s rules. The questions in many club boardrooms are: What? And how?
Updating a club disciplinary structure requires several steps which must be described as swift, firm, and fair.
Members want to see rules enforced in a timely manner to ensure that regular rule-breakers begin to refrain from undesirable actions.
In order to implement timely rules enforcement, clubs must establish and broadly communicate clear guidance concerning the club’s rules and regulations. Four primary steps should be used:
- Establish clear-cut steps to be consistently implemented when club rules are broken.
- Communicate that the Board is responsible for member discipline.
- Demonstrate and disclose the disciplinary process that will be used.
- Adhere to the practices that are established for disciplinary matters.
Execute the disciplinary process without passion or prejudice. It helps that the Board has already reviewed, approved, and authorized disciplinary actions – or punishments – in advance of events as they may unfold. Rules cannot be made on an impromptu basis.
Board members must be congruent and respectful of those members being disciplined. As behaviorists have indicated, good people sometimes become disconnected from their own social judgement. Be understanding and committed to the premise that members want to belong to a club that has standards and that the club stands for something to be honored.
Do not make exceptions or excuses. In pre-determining what rules violations or offenses are to be addressed, develop proportionate disciplinary responses to each.
Plan the disciplinary process to ensure that a reasonable and responsible fellow member can see that the Board is acting with balance and understanding in disciplinary matters.
The important priorities to remember are:
- Be prepared to defend your disciplinary approach.
- Coordinate your club’s disciplinary plan with capable club counsel who can review your club’s bylaws and disciplinary approach prior to taking action.
- Confirm with counsel that they can successfully defend your approach to restoring or improving discipline in your club
- Confirm all disciplinary examples and intentions with experienced club lawyers before taking action.
- Interview all participants (and witnesses) in rules violations to confirm the facts involved. Take the time to overturn all possible observations, recordings, and/or previous communications and events.
- Allow for appeals and reviews to ensure that the club’s actions align with local jurisdictional guidelines…regardless of the offense.
- Include family members for repeat offenses. Poor or disrespectful conduct means one must tell his or her spouse that the family has been suspended.
- Maintain a spirit of understanding and collegiality throughout the review and disciplinary process.
- Refer matters – such as employee harassment, inappropriate behavior, assault and/or battery – to law enforcement. Report legally relevant situations to the proper authorities.
Some members may believe that their clubs and directors are too soft on discipline. Most members want to belong to a club that honors the values being proclaimed. Be who you say you are.
Once disciplinary action has been taken, tell members that the Board has acted:
- Do not name the individuals involved.
- Communicate disciplinary actions by stating (i) the offense, (ii) the action taken by the board, and (iii) the outcome of this action.
- Maintain strict confidentiality to protect the privacy of all concerned.
- Communicate the disciplinary actions of the board monthly (note and report when no actions were required as behavior improves)
If you do not respect your own rules, no one else will respect your authority to discipline.