Is It Ever OK to Fire a Member?

Of course you know I’m going to say “yes,” right?

So the real question is: when? And how do you do it without creating a PR nightmare in a social world?

(Here’s one tip: don’t use a post-it.)

We all have “problem” members. You know – the person who calls or emails constantly to complain. She’s never happy with what the association provides. He doesn’t feel that you respond appropriately to his complaints. Sometimes she’s on the board or in a volunteer leadership position, and the association never does anything right. He not only complains to the staff, he complains to other members (and, in fact, anyone who will listen). God help you when she attends a face to face event – she’ll park herself somewhere and gather a crowd while she moans about everything from the temperature of the rooms to the content of the educational programs to the qualifications of the plenary speakers to the food at lunch.

Of course, it’s always more than one, and you certainly don’t want to throw over anyone who demonstrates the first sign of being unhappy with something. Not only will it kill your reputation, it will kill your retention rate.

So how do you identify when someone has crossed from “problem” to “cancer”?

First, listen openly to her complaints and honestly assess whether they’re valid. No association is perfect, and while sometimes the squeaky wheel is just being a pain in the ass, sometimes she’s the canary in the coal mine.

Second, think about how he expresses his displeasure. Is he respectful? Does he share things with association staff who are in a position to do something about his issues, or does he just yell at the receptionist? Does he offer suggestions to fix the problem? Is he willing to compromise on a solution? In other words, will you EVER be able to make him happy?

Third, measure how much time, energy, effort she’s really consuming. Is this member a regular time suck? For how many staff people? Out of how many total members?

Finally, assess how prominent he is. Yeah, I’m advising that if someone is well-known and well-connected, go more extra miles for him. We all tell ourselves that all our members are equal, but that’s not *really* true. This is one of those cases where who you are matters.

So let’s say that the person’s complaints aren’t valid, she expresses them inappropriately and is never happy, no matter what you try, she’s taking up far more than her share of everyone’s resources, and she’s not the Board chair who is also the CEO of the largest, most respected company in your industry. In other words, you *can* fire her.

So how do you do it?

Aside from “carefully,” it requires an actual conversation with the problem member in which you calmly lay out the facts of his unsatisfactory interactions with the association and explain that you’re terribly sorry that you are unable to meet his expectations. Then you explain that you will be refunding his dues for the most recent dues period and that when his membership term is up, you will not be bothering him with a renewal invoice (so yes, you’re giving him back this year’s dues but not canceling the membership). Then you wish him well, and encourage him to think about checking out the organization again in a few years. Throughout the conversation, you walk the fine line of polite but firm.

Yes I have done this and it did work. Anyone else?

Think I’m crazy? Tell me in the comments.