The Member-Termination Dilemma
For associations, ousting a member is an act of last resort, but a thorough policy and process for doing so may be a necessary evil. Is your association prepared to handle such tricky situations?
Association membership professionals spend nearly all of their time thinking about driving growth, either in the number of members at their associations or in the depth to which those members are engaged. On rare occasions, though, they must turn their attention to sending members the other way, out of the association, when some kind of negative action demands it.
Two weeks ago, the Biotechnology Industry Organization rescinded the membership of Turing Pharmaceuticals after its CEO drew a wave of negative PR for hiking the price of a drug used in certain cancer and HIV treatments. (Meanwhile, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America made a point to clarify that Turing was never a member and “does not represent the values of @PhRMA member companies.”)
We’ve seen a couple other examples recently, as well. In March, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil dismissed 15 members and suspended 61 for failure to report their progress toward producing or purchasing 100 percent RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil. And in early 2014, the New York Film Critics Circle made news when it kicked out a member who had heckled a director during its annual awards banquet.
These situations—of which surely many more occur that don’t make headlines—are unique to their associations’ particular settings but similar in theme, in which the associations find the need to disassociate themselves from a member’s bad behavior. Such cases are sticky and, for most organizations, rare, but they’re a useful reminder for associations, says Jonanthan Z. May, partner at Rosenberg Martin Greenberg, LLP, and 2015-2016 chair of the ASAE Ethics Committee.
Associations “have a chance now to think about what are our policies, what kind of standards do we have,” he says. “If we were in a similar situation, how would we deal with it? Do we have a set of rules and procedures that we’re comfortable with? It’s a chance for self-assessment.”
A documented conduct policy and procedure for terminating a member can protect the association in what tends to be a situation rife with peril. Authors of ASAE’s Association Law Handbook, 5th Edition and an earlier collection, Associations and the Law, identify antitrust and due-process risks for an association that terminates an existing member for reasons beyond failure to pay dues. “Antitrust laws may be violated when membership offers a significant economic advantage, and a member is expelled for violating arbitrary ethical, social, or economic rules or customs of the organization or its other members,” attorney Jerald A. Jacobs wrote in the Handbook.
May says it can be difficult for associations to develop rules that are broadly applicable but also aren’t overly arbitrary or vague. That may lead associations to err on the conservative side in specifying conduct warranting expulsion. “Maybe there are certain things that an association needs to say, ‘If you cross these lines we’re going to have to deal with it,'” says May. “But you’ve got to do it fairly and you’ve got to do it consistently. If you don’t, you’re going to open yourself up to perhaps some challenges as to the way you’re operating.”
An association may opt for an “aspirational” standard of ethical conduct as an alternative or supplement to mandatory rules. Such a document can be used to guide members “to think through issues that are arising and set an informal bar for how we think we’re going to operate with each other,” May says. (ASAE developed such a set of guidelines in 2011.)
Taking a firmer approach by establishing a fully functioning standards-compliance and monitoring process is less common but not unheard of. Particularly in consumer-facing professions, an association may be well positioned to fulfill a role of promoting adherence to professional standards among its members. The American Medical Association (AMA), the National Association of Realtors (NAR), and the National Chimney Sweep Guild (NCSG), for example, all administer an ethics review program.
“If the members want the association to quote-unquote ‘police’ them and to root out whatever they think are the folks who don’t follow a set of standards they otherwise agree to, they could take on that challenge,” May says. “It could be good for the trade or profession or whatever it is the association is representing. It supports the profession or the trade to have folks seen as good actors.”
But, May says, such an effort can consume a lot of money, time, and resources. And, of course, just by simple odds, more terminations of membership means more chances for legal challenges, which is all the more reason to develop a thorough policy and process. It’s no coincidence that the AMA, NAR, and NCSG ethics-review policies are lengthy and detailed.
All of this amounts to a dilemma for associations: Actively policing members and terminating violators’ memberships can be costly to manage and a source of legal and financial risk. But inaction can make the association appear to be more concerned with protecting its “special interests” than protecting the public or may give the impression that the organization only reacts when negative publicity forces its hand.
One proactive approach to try to minimize the need to act on rules, standards, and termination policies is to educate members regularly on ethical behavior. For example, in a 2012 article for ASAE titled “When Should You Part Ways With a Member?” [ASAE login required], author Apryl Motley, CAE, highlighted the efforts of the Academy of Management, which developed a video series on ethics and launched a blog called “The Ethicist” for its members.
There may not be a perfect answer, and a changing world means that even the association that tries to anticipate all possible reasons for terminating a member may still come up short and be left in a tough spot. “It’s one thing to say somebody broke a particular rule and you can point to it. It’s another thing to say some people don’t like what that member did,” May says.
How does your association handle member termination? Do you have a thorough policy and process in place? If so, how often have you had to use it? Share your experience in the comments.