Ask The Global Field: How Can I Help A Struggling New Staff Member At My NGO?

The Global Field answers pressing questions from our grantees, addressing their on-the-field challenges. We guide and offer support to our partners and stakeholders. We further help navigate common community organizational issues.

If you have a question to ask the global field, contact us and you could see your questions posted in a future issue!

Your Question:

I’m having challenges with one of my new senior staff members. I don’t feel like they’re a fit. I hired them from the community but they are struggling in their role.

Our Response: 

Thanks so much for reaching out to us! We hope we can provide support with our answer. First, we’re sorry to hear you’re struggling with a new staff member at your NGO. Yet, this happens sometimes and you can fix it.

Let’s start with some troubleshooting. 

There are a lot of potential root causes for staff member challenges. Before deciding on a strategy and action steps, you first want to establish what this root cause is.

We recommend the 3 A’s as a helpful investigatory guide: 

  1. Ability
  2. Aptitude 
  3. Attitude

If your new senior staff member is a black or brown person, there are additional matters you’ve got to explore. We’ll dive into those further below.

Now, let’s get into these three A’s. 

Note: We’ll use examples surrounding a report-oriented or senior administrative role.

Ability: Does The Staff Member Need More Support? 

Since this staff member is new, look at the support structures in place to ensure they are successful. 

Also, take into account whether they are a native English speaker or not. If the latter is the case, you may want to give them more grace around their work.

Here are a few questions to ask relating to ability: 

  • Are expectations about the role and task clear? Are they aligned with defined functional competencies for both the job and the level (Director level)? 
  • Is there a model or strong writer the staff can pair with for support before work is escalated up to you as the ED with limited time before a deadline?
  • Does the staffing manager have a training and performance plan in place so you can monitor changes after training? 
  • Are there clear communication systems in place with room for discussion around working styles?
  • Have you given samples/ examples beyond, for example editing submissions directly from the staff?
  • What does success look like for this role? 
  • Are the tools and resources for success readily available? 
  • Are there writing/editing online resources available? 
  • Is there a writing style guide for the organization?

Remember, ability suggests a person can do the job. They may just need support to adapt to your desired style and quality. 

We’ve seen scenarios where a Director may not be as strong in one area. However, they excel so much in another that their value is worth keeping them on. 

In such a case, you’ll want to find alternative solutions for the presenting issues.

Aptitude: Does The Staff Member Have The Aptitude For This Role?

Do you feel this person does not have the aptitude for the role? 

That is, no matter how much training or resources you invest, their capacity to learn does not align with what they need to learn in this role. 

This is not a negative thing.

It often means this person is simply in the wrong place. 

Remember, aptitude has nothing to do with grit or how hard the person works. 

If you determine you have an aptitude issue and you have the resources to shift or restructure the person’s role, this could be a win-win.

Attitude: Is The Staff Member Showing Performance-Related Issues?

This issue usually isn’t as dramatic as it seems. 

When your problem lies in attitude, a staff member has the aptitude and ability to do a task but they refuse to or won’t do it properly. 

These typically lead to performance-related issues. 

In an administrative task, the person has the ability to edit and proofread, but instead, they cut corners and avoid that altogether. 

Maybe they’re resistant to paying attention to details or refuse to use spell check or your internal review system. 

If we discover the issue is performance-related and can figure out where this attitude stems from, you may then take the next steps to manage the issue.

Potential Next Steps

  • If you decide you want to invest in this staff member to bring them up to speed, a training plan could be very helpful.
  • If you decide this is not the direction you should go, discuss the matter with your human resources department. Working through this via both a compliance and management lens is necessary. You should also communicate with other staff members who may feel affected.
  • When building out processes for hiring community members, it’s important to understand best practices. You want to keep programs like these strong and stable.

Finally, you want to recruit, retain and support staff who are reflective of your communities. By doing so, you’ll have strong mechanisms in place for the next staff you bring on in this way. 

Issues Unique To Black And Brown Women In NGOs

It’s hard to turn the mirror towards yourself as a leader, but sometimes it’s in your best interest.

In the Race to Lead: Women of Color in the Nonprofit Sector report conducted in 2019, over 5,000 nonprofit staff members shared their experiences of race in their space.

Out of everyone, black women most often said they encountered stereotypical and discriminatory comments based on race or gender. 

One woman said people often mistook her for an assistant while colleagues regularly questioned her performance in meetings.

Underlying and unrecognized (call it subconscious) attitudes towards black and brown professionals could be giving you or other staff members tunnel vision.

We’re not saying this is you. But it helps to be mindful of how preconceived notions tend to give unwarranted perspectives.

What Do The Numbers Say?

Of course, your organization should be applauded for adding black and brown staff members to its workforce. Not only because of their ethnicity but because there is still so much discrimination against them.

Some make the argument that only merit should be considered. But then there’s this:

Black women are least likely to be in a senior role despite 58% of them having a Master’s degree and averaging 13 years of experience in a nonprofit setting. 

And yes, some of these women went through real experiences where white women with much less experience got senior roles — and salaries to match — over them.

Let’s look at more hard numbers: 

59% of black women pointed to race and/or gender as having a negative impact on potential career advancement. 

Seven out of ten black women don’t feel like they have a voice in their workplace, and 59% of black women pointed to race and/or gender as having a negative impact on potential career advancement.

You Brought In A Unique Human Resource

Remember, for nonprofits focused on causes related to people of color, having black or brown professionals on staff does, to varying extents, bring more authenticity to your message.

Staff from the community are the best people to convey the true stories you want to tell to others.

Overall, although your new staff member might surely have some things to work on, there are innate discrepancies to consider and a deeper value to keep in mind.

Want Formal Training Or Consultation Services?

Regardless of race, gender, age, or otherwise, problems do pop up with staff members. 

For more information on our consultation and training services, please see our Capacity Building & Consultation Services section.