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The New Pandemic: The Effects of Loss of Civility on Private Clubs

The global health crisis was very generous to private clubs. Although clubs have welcomed the substantial growth experienced in most categories and locales, the response to COVID-19 produced a different sort of pandemic for leaders in clubs large and small—namely, a widespread loss of civility. As testimony to the lack of civility is the increase in disciplinary cases, particularly those involving members.

The pandemic loosened ties between people: Kids stopped going to school, their parents stopped going to work, parishioners stopped going to church and people, in general, stopped gathering. Sociologists have posited that all of this isolation caused a shifted in the way people behave.

“We’re more likely to break rules when our bonds to society are weakened,” says Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who studies social disorder. “When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.”

Turn-of-the-20th-century scholar Émile Durkheim called this state “anomie,” or a lack of social norms that leads to lawlessness. “We are moral beings to the extent that we are social beings,” Durkheim wrote.

In the past two years, we have stopped being social, and in many cases, we have stopped being moral, too. Conduct previously thought unacceptable has taken center stage. The result is that people in general and club members in particular think rules do not apply to them.

Time may heal some difficulties and help restart disciplinary traditions faced by private club leaders and operators. But the question raised right now is: What can we, as leaders, do to reverse the trend of uncivil behavior at our clubs? Here we offer some recommendations.

Clarify the Rules

Make sure you have a clear set of rules that are well-documented in your member handbook or other publication that members are required to confirm having read. Ensure your rules are everywhere and consistent with the most current set of state regulations governing private clubs.

Clarify the Process: What

Club bylaws often lay out rules for member suspension or expulsion, which typically include failure to meet financial requirements and other matters worthy of a specific punishment. Often, bylaws leave the process for adjudicating the matter to the board. Accordingly, it is critical that the board clarifies the disciplinary actions linked to particular offenses. The schematic nearby may be the kind of table included in the board policy to communicate with the members the disciplinary action associated with the types of offenses. As shown in the chart, there are some offenses that warrant only suspension and others that lead to expulsion. Similarly tied to the type of offense is the number of steps leading to the disciplinary action. Each club must lay out the actions associated with the offenses and the steps to suspension or expulsion.

Clarify the Process: Who

From surveys and focus groups, we know members expect management (general manager and staff) to execute disciplinary action when the rules are not followed. However, most private club bylaws authorize the boards of directors to maintain and carry out discipline. If the board delegates authority to management to implement the disciplinary process, it needs to clearly document the policy conveying the authority, including the actions the general manager can take associated with the various offenses. Further, the policy delegating authority to the general manager needs to be well known to the members. It’s important to support the general manager in this role. Don’t leave them hanging. If there’s an appeals process, don’t go there immediately. Let the general manager work with the member to resolve the matter and allow an appeal only under certain circumstances.

Speaking of the appeals process, clearly identify the final arbiter. It may be the board, or the board may give the authority to a membership or disciplinary committee. As intimated above, don’t allow automatic appeals to attend to every situation. Document which circumstances warrant the right to appeal. Otherwise, the general manager’s role will simply be a step on the way to adjudication.

Clarify the Process: How

Above all, remember that this process needs to balance the rights of the accused member with the protection of the club’s culture. In finding that balance, ensure that your process is:

  • Enforced: Rules are made to be followed, but they won’t be if they are not enforced. As emphasized earlier, rules must be well-known to members and staff. Further, the staff must be trained in both substance and style to professionally remind members when a rule is being violated. Respectful verbal reminders not only signal that a rule will be enforced, they reduce the instances that lead to disciplinary action. While prevention is the most effective part of a disciplinary process, it’s not easy for a staff member, or even a general manager, to approach a member with the message that he/she is violating a rule. Equipping them to do so calls for good training and follow-up by club leaders.
  • Firm but Fair: Although you want your general manager and staff to prevent infractions via gentle reminders, you don’t want them to abuse the license to forgive. Constantly overlooking offenses does not invite compliance and the policy governing member discipline needs a firmness that encourages the staff to initiate disciplinary action when an offense is egregious or when a rule is consistently violated. In the same vein, a club’s discipline policy cannot cover all situations, and sometimes the firmness conveyed by bright lines bordering a rule needs to be balanced with fairness when circumstances warrant an exception. That said, be clear in why an exception is allowed as you will be establishing a precedent that will be cited in future cases.
  • Swift but Thorough: On one hand, it’s best to deal quickly with an alleged offense. Allowing it to linger invites trial by innuendo and gossip. On the other hand, any alleged offense deserves to be investigated thoroughly before recommending disciplinary action. Fact-finding takes time with interviews, comparing accounts and reviewing histories of past offenses. Balancing these two seemingly conflicting concepts relies heavily on two factors: the trust members have in the fairness and confidentiality of the investigation.
Communicating Disciplinary Actions at the Club

A common theme in our member focus groups is that club leaders are too soft on discipline. This is not an insignificant concern. A club’s brand is not defined by espoused values, but by values honored by its members, leaders and staff. Members expect the club to be who it claims to be.

Communicating disciplinary policies and related actions is an effective way to give members confidence that the club’s brand is being protected.

Here are four steps to ensure members are aware of the club’s disciplinary policies and the leaders’ commitment to enforce the policy:

  1. Communicate with members proactively. Do not assume that members remember annually published rules. Insert consistent reminders in the club’s emails or newsletters.
  2. Communicate the disciplinary actions of the board monthly, listing the offense and the action taken. If no offenses or actions occurred the month, report that as well.
  3. Do not name the members, guests or employees involved in disciplinary actions. You are not trying to publicly humiliate a member; you are trying to remind the members that rules are being enforced.
  4. Require strict confidentiality from all parties involved in the decisions. If information discussed in board meetings has a habit of leaking out to members, consider requiring all involved to sign a confidentiality agreement.

People join clubs to be part of a community where members have a shared set of values. One of the most important roles of club leaders is to protect the values that make up the brand. Especially with the incivility that seems part of these post pandemic times, protecting the club’s brand calls for an extra measure of commitment from the leaders, sound policies and procedures, a willingness and capability of the management team to enforce the policies, and a board to support the management team at every level in the process. It requires an initial investment in developing the policy and a faithful follow through to ensure that it is honored, but the return is a brand that is intact and a membership that respects the civility fostered by policy.