Perfect Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People
©Community Associations Institute
Sam Horn's resort community in Hawaii was “like a little Camelot" in the 1980s. There was a park with Easter egg hunts and July Fourth celebrations with water slides and potlucks.
But when an attorney owner had problems with the association's plan to repave roads, unbeknownst to the board, the man secured all the in-absentia votes of owners only there a few weeks out of the year. Halfway through an association meeting, he announced he had a quorum and elected himself president.
The man's first move was to rescind all agreements from the previous year. Because attendees didn't know parliamentary procedure or Robert's Rules of Order, he “just overwhelmed everyone," says Horn, a board member at the time.
The just-ousted board president jumped on a chair and began banging his shoe on the lectern. Attendees began walking out. Many never spoke with each other again.
“In one two-hour meeting, one individual kind of ruined what had up until then been a real Camelot community," recalls Horn, author of Never Be Bullied Again: Prevent Haters, Trolls and Toxic People from Poisoning Your Life.
Horn's community had been torpedoed by a power-hungry bully.
Disruptive, bullying, and overpowering residents and board members are inevitable in community associations. They can cause a host of toxic issues that affect the working dynamics of a board and a community's quality of life.
These bullies sometimes take action without full board approval, interrupt meetings with tirades, and excessively impose their will. They wreak havoc and create divisiveness. They think rules don't apply to them. They blame others for everything. Some harass managers, board members, and residents with ridiculous requests, spew profanities in venomous emails, and spread rumors and falsehoods on everything from anonymous fliers to social media. In the most extreme cases, behavior can escalate to the point where law enforcement needs to be called and criminal charges filed.
In short, bullies can turn community association involvement into nothing short of a nightmare.
Joseph G. Carleton, Jr., a CCAL fellow based in Kittery, Maine, says problems at one of his condominium clients began in 2014 after a board election.
Of the new members elected, one became president and another treasurer. The new treasurer, a man in his 70s, quickly began making allegations about corruption when the developer was president, but soon started talking about fraud in general, pointing fingers at the current board and new president too.
“This guy saw corruption and payoff everywhere and was very critical of all the directors," Carleton recalls. In addition to disrupting meetings, the man went to the police and the Maine attorney general to report the alleged wrongdoings.
“He made everybody miserable," Carleton says, adding that the owner also sent him 110 email diatribes, “all of which I had to read to see if there was anything there."
At the annual meeting in December, the treasurer ran for re-election and was handily defeated. The president sued the treasurer for slander, and the case is pending. Meanwhile, Carleton answered none of the emails.
THE NEW BULLY PULPIT
Sara J. Ross, an attorney with Chadwick, Washington, Moriarty, Elmore & Bunn in Fairfax, Va., says social media has given rise to more bullying. Attacks on Facebook or Nextdoor, a neighborhood social network, can quickly escalate and become a free-for-all and very personal.
“It's so easy to be the keyboard commando and just spout out whatever pops in your head without any thought of the repercussions," Ross says.
In one instance, a Northern Virginia townhome community board member created a YouTube channel and posted videos to denounce board actions. The man also surreptitiously recorded meetings and posted audio on the site to pressure fellow board members and to get the community riled up on issues that were otherwise nonstarters, according to Ross.
Her firm sent cease-and-desist letters and hasn't ruled out further legal action. But Ross says a constant barrage of acrimony can easily drive volunteers away.
“I've had a number of board members tell me that their anxiety levels have been much higher and that they're not sure how much longer they can take it," she says.
IDENTIFY A BULLY
Attorney Matthew Gaines, an associate with Marcus, Errico, Emmer & Brooks in Braintree, Mass., says community association bullies tend to fall into three categories.
The weakest. This bully often resorts to name-calling and lobbing nasty emails. “We see that all the time, whether it's to the board or manager, a unit owner saying, 'You don't know what you're doing, you're stupid, you can't do your job, blah, blah, blah,' " Gaines says.
The one that puts you through the ringer. This bully likes to make outlandish requests. They may demand copies of condominium books for the past seven years—everything from big bills for landscaping down to the tiny electric bills for the front light on the building, Gaines says. And they may want it within 24 hours.
The serious challenge. This bully makes people feel uncomfortable and, sometimes, unsafe. Gaines' firm is currently dealing with a disgruntled Cape Cod townhome owner who is lashing out by letting his dog go to the bathroom on one board member's deck, blasting his car stereo, and roaming the property at all hours to keep an eye on neighbors and board members. In October, the man filed criminal harassment charges, alleging a board member sprayed him while watering flowers. Gaines' firm defended the association, and the charge was dismissed: “I don't think he was even close to the hose," Gaines notes. “And if he was, it was only because the unit owner walked right near (it)."
Beth A. Grimm, a CCAL fellow and attorney in Pleasant Hill, Calif., heard Horn speak at a recent writer's conference and read her book, which includes a quiz on how to spot a bully. Grimm modified a few of Horn's questions to illustrate how they might apply to community associations:
• Does the person have a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality? Some board members act differently in executive session than open meetings or in email versus face-to-face communications. “Some people have no filter when it comes to pounding out email communications," Grimm says.
• Do they call people vile names or make derogatory statements about others in private? Executive sessions aren't the time for bashing owners, Grimm reminds.
• Do they insist on controlling decisions—financial and other—and belittle or attack anyone who questions them? Has the person tried to isolate you outside board meetings to threaten or convince you to change your position? Do they call buddies before a meeting and badger them into agreement?
However, before accusing someone of being a bully, Grimm suggests people look in the mirror.
Horn says bullies often have a sociopathic personality—they're narcissists focused only on what they want, need, and think. Empathy, logic, letting them vent, and putting yourself in their shoes rarely work against them.
Horn believes there's a 95/5 percent rule when it comes bullies. Ninety-five percent of people care about what's fair. They want to cooperate. They have a conscience and play by the rules. The other 5 percent don't want to cooperate. They want control, and they want power.
“They do not self examine, and they don't self correct," Horn says. “They're Machiavellian. And they will do anything to get what they want."
TAKING THE BULLY BY THE HORNS
One of the best ways to ways to ward off bullies is to know your governing documents and state laws, notes a former board president in Burke, Va., who wished to remain anonymous.
She says her association's previous president and vice president often launched “gotcha" attacks that put others on the defensive and even periodically threatened legal action against members and owners in response to questions or requests to view documents.
Passive-aggressive behavior, which included name-calling and rumors, often prevented the association from conducting business. The bullies were focused on promoting personal agendas at the expense of the community, she says. When she and others began bringing copies of governing documents and state statutes to meetings to defend their position, the “gotcha" events dwindled.
Grimm, the California attorney, doesn't advocate physical or emotional responses to bullies, but that doesn't mean you have to sit silently or run out of a meeting when things get acrimonious. Education is key; a director who carefully reads board packets and prepares for a meeting “is at least on equal footing with the bully," Grimm says.
If a bully is behaving inappropriately, point it out for others to hear and see, “but point to the action, not the person," Grimm recommends.
During meetings, it's imperative to create, share, and stick to an agenda and conduct them with parliamentary procedure. Without that sort of structure, bullies have an opportunity to prevent productive sessions.
“People can interrupt each other, someone can dominate, people can call each other names, and it's just bedlam," Horn says of meetings without structure. In addition to meeting procedures, associations should share ground rules for speakers during open forum. The message should be clear that “everybody has an opportunity to speak, and that we treat each other with the respect we all want, need, and deserve," says Horn.
When it comes to more problematic bullies, Gaines, the Massachusetts attorney, usually recommends one of three responses: send a letter; ignore; or call the police.
Some bullies will back off if you send them a letter asking them to stop their aggressive behaviors. Others will be unfazed and may even act out more.
“It's like adding fuel to the fire," Gaines says. “They'll say, 'Bring it on. I'm calling your bluff. You're not going to sue me.' And, 'Yeah, watch what I'm going to do to you now.' "
If the bully is just sending nasty emails saying you don't know how to do your job, it's probably best to hit delete and ignore: “He's not worth your time," Gaines says.
Carleton, the attorney in Maine, agrees.
“Sometimes, the most effective way of dealing with errant people is to do so as little as possible," he says. “It's not responding to provocative statements. It's saying nothing that will be an excuse to set people off."
If your bully is on the board, the last-resort option is ousting, isolating, or neutralizing the individual, says Grimm. The board should seriously consider removing that person from office and maybe even from tasks like communicating with vendors or owners about association business. “Any board members who are allowing bullies to run the show are part of the problem," she says.
And if the bully shows up at 10 p.m. banging on your door, or if the person is getting in your face when you see him or her in the elevator, Gaines recommends contacting police. “This is your home, and you want to be safe in your home and to protect your castle."
D.C.-area attorney Ross also encourages clients to call the police if there's ever any indication that there may be a threat. “It may end up being nothing. But it's better to be safe than sorry," she says.
Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer in the New York City area.
A NEW FEDERAL RULE might force community associations to get more involved in disputes or be liable for discriminatory actions of residents who harass or create a hostile environment for other residents. In October, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released new regulations related to the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits harassment based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and familial status.
In the past, two owners may have loathed each other, given each other the “stink eye" in the hallway, or even resorted to things like banging on walls, but Matthew Gaines, an associate with Marcus, Errico, Emmer & Brooks in Braintree, Mass., says his firm typically advised associations to stay out of such disputes or, at most, act as a neutral party to help residents talk the matter out. Yet with HUD's new guidance, boards will now have more of a duty to act, according to Gaines. Associations may need to send a letter to an alleged harasser saying that to the extent allegations are true, they need to cease and desist or face a fine.
“Obviously, the rule is so new that we haven't seen any cases with it yet," Gaines says. “But I think it's really going to be interesting to see how this plays out." –P.B.
RELATIONSHIPS with challenging owners don't always have to end badly.
For about a decade, T. Peter Kristian, CMCA, LSM, PCAM, general manager of Hilton Head Plantation Property Owners Association in South Carolina, had his hands full with an owner who monopolized his time and complained about everything from maintenance of the green space to guards at the gatehouse.
“You pick it, he was an expert on everything and was going to tell you how to run the organization," recalls Kristian, a CAI past president.
At one annual meeting, the owner was forcibly removed by armed security guards after he refused to sit down and be quiet.
In 2009, the man's wife passed away, and he wanted a tree planted in her honor. The association advised against the specimen and location. Before long, the tree died and another was planted in a better location.
“It was my fault because the tree wasn't thriving," Kristian recalls.
The man repeatedly told Kristian that he was “the worst manager ever" and should be fired. Yet several years later, the owner was hospitalized after a mild stroke. Kristian and a colleague went to see him. The man was so taken aback that in the last years of his life, he “ended up being our best friend because we were the only people besides his son who went to visit him," Kristian says.
When the owner passed away, Kristian and his colleague attended the service. Five people were present, including the man's son, the priest, and parish secretary. At the service, the priest turned to Kristian and asked how he knew the deceased.
“I said, 'He made my life a living hell.' And the priest responded, 'Oh. You knew him well,' " recalls Kristian.
In the end, Kristian encourages board members and managers to protect and defend themselves when faced with a bully—but do it an appropriate matter.
“Be the professional." he says. “And never, ever, no matter how bad they bait you, get down to their level." –P.B.