Guest Post: Jan Masaoka on The Nonprofit's Guide to Human Resources

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Jan Masaoka I once served on the board of a group whose executive director adamantly insisted that managing staff was her responsibility, not the board's. We stayed hands off until we started to hear rumors of favoritism. After we prevailed in a battle with her about getting a listing of staff pay, we were shocked to discover that her assistant was paid $20,000 more than the program director and nearly as much as the development director.  A lesson - actually several lessons - learned.

The role of the board of directors in personnel or human resource administration is frequently a sticky issue for nonprofits. Should the board approve all salaries, or just the executive director's? If a staff member has a grievance, should it come to the board? How can the board's finance committee members, for example, be helpful in hiring accounting staff, but not usurp the hiring role of the executive staff? How can a board member appropriately give feedback to the executive director on the behavior of a staff person?

Boards tend to be at one extreme or another: some insist on approving every raise for every staff member, while others never see a salary report. This article proposes specific guidelines for board oversight that don't take away from the chief executive's authority or responsibility. The board can approve various policies such as salary ranges while not interfering with the staff's ability to manage. However the board structures its oversight, it needs a formal process to exercise that oversight. These guides provide such a process, and follow the principle that the board as a whole governs the organization, while individual board members can be helpful advisors to staff.

Guidelines for the Board's Role in Human Resource Administration

1. Committee(s): The board establishes a board-staff committee that works with matters related to paid staff. Only board members have votes on the committee. This committee makes recommendations to the board for approval (rather than deciding matters on its own). Following are the areas for this committee's scope of examination.

2. Personnel policies and employee manual: The executive director is responsible for ensuring that personnel policies and procedures are disseminated and implemented, and that the policies are reviewed as appropriate by the board. Individual members of the human resources committee may be able to bring their human resources expertise to make suggestions. Every two years or so, the human resources committee (or a task force) reviews the policies with staff and, if appropriate, drafts changes or a complete revision.

3. Salary scales: The executive staff draft a rate schedule (salary ranges for each position or category) of salaries, which is reviewed by the human resources committee or task force. This ensures that the board has considered the strategic matters related to salaries: whether the schedule is in line with the organization's values, whether there is appropriate internal equity or differences among positions and departments, whether specific positions are appropriately placed on the scale, whether compensation is in line with that at similar organizations, and/or whether the compensation supports (rather than hinders) the organization's ability to recruit qualified staff.

The salary schedule is sent by the committee or task force to the whole board for approval. In this way, the executive staff are still responsible for salaries, but the range of salaries is one approved by the board.

4. Salary scale compliance: Once a year, the human resources committee or task force reviews the specific salaries of the staff (by name and position) against the salary schedule, to ensure that no individuals are being paid outside the range for that person's position. The committee's job is to protect against favoritism and ensure compliance with the salary schedule, NOT to review whether any specific individual deserves a particular salary.

5. Benefits: The benefits schedule - health insurance, long-term disability insurance, 401(k), and so forth - is reviewed annually as part of the budget process, with costs projected for the coming year. The human resources committee should review the benefits package at least every two years and suggest changes (additions or subtractions), and their financial implications, to the executive director, the board's finance committee, or both.

6. Hiring: In some cases, at the request of the executive director, one or two board members may help with hiring. A common example is the board treasurer helping to interview and select the chief financial officer (CFO) or accountant. It should be made clear to everyone involved that the final decision is made by the staff person to whom the new hire would report. In these situations individual board members are acting as advisors to staff.

7. Diversity: If an organization has established goals or principles regarding a staff that is diverse in race, ethnicity, gender, age, disability, or other characteristics such as client status, there will be an HR role to play in implementing the policies and goals. A board-staff diversity committee, or the board or board-staff HR committee, can assist with making sure that recruitment efforts reach out effectively (for example, through the ethnic press), be on the alert for indicators of weak management of a diverse workforce (such as a string of resignations from Latina nurses), and with monitoring progress towards goals.

8. Layoffs: A management decision to lay off staff usually reflects a financial situation that should already have been shared with the board. In this context, the steps that management is taking to deal with that financial situation -- whether layoffs, paycuts, new income strategies, or others -- should be discussed with the board and the board should bless or put a hold on management actions. Although in most staffed organizations the decision of who to lay off and when and how are management decisions, it's critical for the board and management to be in sync about how the organization is responding to financial problems.

9. Grievances: Grievances on the part of employees must first go through the written procedures outlined in the employee policies manual. If an individual has exhausted the grievance process and that process has been documented, individual employees may be permitted (if it is so written in the policies) to raise a grievance to either the board chair or the board's human resources committee, which then acts as the final arbiter. This may be especially appropriate where the complaining employee reports to the executive director and has an unresolved complaint about the executive director.

10. Serious charges about the organization's management: Sometimes a staff member has a serious charge against management, such as the illegal or improper use of funds, sexual harassment, discriminatory behavior, or improper accounting methods that cannot be taken up in the grievance process. To provide an outlet for such matters (other than a complaint to the state attorney general), some organizations allow staff members to raise such concerns with the board chair. When other board members hear such complaints, they have a responsibility to direct the staff person to the board chair. By making the board chair the sole recipient of such charges, the board can prevent a disgruntled staff member from trying to develop allies on the board against the executive staff,  and can provide a way to bring an organizational matter to the attention of the board as a whole.

Delegating Personnel Work

The board can choose how to delegate personnel-related work. The most common choices are:

  • a standing (permanent) human resources committee,
  • a human resources task force (that is, a temporary committee),
  • a board-staff standing committee, or a
  • board-staff task force.


Committee members might include the staff human resources director (if there is one) or executive director, and/or non-board volunteers such as a human resources attorney. (Note that if non-board individuals are members of the committee, either they should be as non-voting advisory members of the committee, or the committee's recommendations should come back to the board for approval.) In some cases, the human resources committee is also responsible for developing plans and strategies for appropriate recruitment and utilization of volunteers, while in other organizations the human resources committee looks only at paid personnel.

Each organization will want to choose its own guidelines on these sensitive and important issues. Striking the right balance between board and ED authority may initially be challenging, but it's far from impossible. In the end, sorting this out will strengthen your organization while making life easier for board members and staff.

NPHRJan Masaoka is the author of The Nonprofit’s Guide to Human Resources.   This article is a condensed version from chapter 8, The Board’s Role in HR.  The book is available for sale at or This article originally appeared in Blue Avocado ( Jan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Blue Avocado, an influential online nonprofit magazine with a remarkable 63,000 subscribers. In January 2012, Jan became executive director of the California Association of Nonprofits.