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When Should You Part Ways With a Member?
CENTER ONLINE, 11/20/2012

Membership termination is counterintuitive for associations, which typically focus on recruiting members and keeping them. But sometimes, a member's misconduct requires that you show him or her the door. Examine these scenarios and strategies as you consider your association's membership termination policy.

You hope you'll never have to enforce it, but you need one anyway: a policy for terminating memberships. You probably think your members wouldn't ever engage in behavior that would warrant terminating their memberships, and most probably wouldn't. But the reality is that, once in a while, someone might.

The Academy of Management faced that situation when a member stole personal email addresses and harassed a volunteer leader, prompting the organization to revise its code of ethics to address membership termination.

The academy views termination of membership as a sanction of last resort, says Terese M. Loncar, the organization's associate executive director, programs and services. "But it is important to have that sanction, were we ever to have egregious behavior by a member," she says.

The academy's code of ethics allows for four kinds of sanctions: private, public, denial of privileges, and termination of membership. In six years, the organization's ethics committee has reviewed nine formal complaints and never employed the membership termination sanction. Most complaints had to do with publishing, and one involved the misrepresentation of a volunteer role.

Misrepresentation of credentials triggers a violation of the National Chimney Sweep Guild's code of ethics. Making false claims about certification and selling unnecessary services to homeowners are among the actions that could eventually result in termination of membership in NCSG.

"Most of the complaints come from the consumer side," says NCSG Executive Director Mark T. McSweeney, CAE. For example, a member chimney sweep may have gone into a home and underperformed services, and the homeowner complains.

NCSG's ethics committee would review the complaint, which typically would be documented with photographs and work orders. "Make sure that, if and when you're challenged, you have documentation," McSweeney says.

At the American Association of Anatomists, the details were definitely in the documents. When AAA Executive Director Andrea Pendleton learned that a member had falsified information on his resume, she used the situation as the impetus for developing a policy for revoking membership. "At the time, we had no process in place to expel him as a member," Pendleton says.

The policy was instituted in conjunction with an overall review of the association's bylaws, which was completed earlier this year. Thus far, the association's three-member ethics subcommittee has not recommended revoking any memberships, but Pendleton says a process needed to be put in place to ensure consistent treatment of all members, should complaints arise.

Revoking membership is a drastic step, and Pendleton, Loncar, and McSweeney urge association leaders to handle it with care and consistency. They offer these tips:

Err on the side of providing more due process than less. "Even if it seems that the process is cumbersome, give members every opportunity to make their case," Pendleton says. "It could be a member's career on the line if he or she is expelled from our organization.

"Apply whatever process there is consistently, and approach each case as if it could result in litigation," she adds. "Ideally, these policies never have to go into effect, but when they do, they must be applied consistently in each situation."

"You're either all in or all out," McSweeney says. "You've got to be committed to taking [ethics] on. If you do it halfheartedly, it won't be successful. You have a due process that must be followed, or it will backfire on you."

Educate your members about ethics. Loncar acknowledges that many members had no knowledge of the academy's code of ethics before the changes were made. "We developed a series of ethics videos about research and publishing that are available on YouTube," she says.

Last year the organization also launched a blog called "The Ethicist" to create a dialogue about ethics issues. "We post monthly questions on the ethics of teaching, publishing, and professional life," Loncar says.

Expect challenges and be prepared to make changes. "Our code of ethics has been challenged, and we have honed it," McSweeney says. For instance, in one case a member raised questions about another member who had committed a felony.

"It occurred to us that our revocation policy didn't address a crime having been committed," he says. "But we couldn't be generic in making reference to crime. Instead, we have incorporated language that gives us the option to revoke membership based on the relevance and severity of the crime."

Membership termination policies help associations prepare for the worst-case scenario. "As ethical as most people are, things happen, and you don't want the association to be tarnished because of the actions of one person," Pendleton says. "You have to protect your organization."

Apryl Motley, CAE, is a writer, editor, and communications consultant based in Columbia, Maryland. Email: amotley27@aol.com

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