Many congregations assign to each staff member a personnel liaison: a lay leader who serves on the board or personnel committee and is charged with supporting that specific team member. Few congregations manage these liaison roles well, and as a result they often do more harm than good.
Congregations appoint liaisons for a variety of reasons. The board may want to keep the laity involved in employment relationships to help ensure the fair and equitable treatment of employees or to give appreciation and support.
But the liaison relationship is often poorly defined. The liaison is assigned to a staff member and the staff member is told the name of their liaison. From that point, it generally is up to those two individuals to find a way to craft a constructive, meaningful relationship.
In many instances, after the initial assignment of a liaison to a staff member, nothing happens, leaving both parties feeling guilty that the relationship never developed. Some liaisons simply tell their staff members to get in touch if they need help—a conversation few employees feel empowered to initiate. Some liaisons even set up confidential meetings to solicit employee feedback. Needless to say, such meetings often prove quite problematic.
The Underlying Problem
Healthy employment relationships require a clear distinction between the supervisor’s managerial work and the oversight role of the personnel committee. It is the supervisor’s job to set employment expectations, provide feedback, and create performance accountability. The personnel committee, working on behalf of the governing board, establishes employment policy, requires compliance with personnel policy, supports supervisors in their management role, and ensures the fair and equitable treatment of employees.
The appointment of personnel liaisons tends to conflate the managerial and oversight roles, confusing the employee and weakening the employment relationship.
The best person to resolve most employee complaints is the supervisor, but the supervisor is often sidelined in a liaison relationship. When a liaison meets alone with an employee, the employee feels invited or emboldened to complain about the job or supervisor. In time, employees learn to work around their supervisors and run to the personnel liaison with complaints. But a liaison lacks authority to resolve complaints. All the liaison can do is to report complaints to the supervisor or to other members of the personnel committee. This practice promotes triangulated communication, which increases tension and conflict in the staff team.
A Better Way
Employees need a process for addressing serious grievances that cannot be resolved with the supervisor. The personnel committee needs assurance that employees are treated fairly and equitably and that applicable laws and policies are followed. There are better ways to accomplish these objectives than with personnel liaisons:
- Create a clear set of employment policies that all employees are expected to honor.
- Expect that employment issues will be worked out between the employee and their supervisor.
- Appoint a head of staff to manage the performance of the staff team, and hold the head of staff accountable for the team’s performance and compliance with church policy. This accountability is to the board, not to a committee.
- Define a clear process for addressing employee grievances. Typically, this involves an employee speaking first with their supervisor, and then with their supervisor’s supervisor or an HR specialist on staff (when these roles exist). Then an employee who still feels a policy has been violated may approach the chairperson of the personnel committee for a hearing on that issue.
- Remind personnel committee members not to receive general complaints from staff. The committee should engage with staff only on serious legal or policy-related issues—for example, if an employee claims to have been denied vacation time or required to work under unsafe conditions—and only after those problems have been raised first with the supervisor.
- Personnel committee members should never engage in conversations about employee preferences—for example, a complaint that someone would like to do more or less of a task, work more or fewer hours, work with different people, receive a different type of feedback, or experience a different style of supervision. These are managerial conversations that should remain between the employee and the supervisor.
- Establish an annual performance review for each employee with the supervisor. Include space on the review form for the employee to comment about their employment relationship. Have a member of the personnel committee review all annual performance reviews to ensure that the reviews have been completed and to look for problems that need policy solutions.
- If there is ever a need for a personnel committee member to meet with a staff member, invite the supervisor to be present as well (unless the staff member’s safety or emotional well-being is at stake).
- Express appreciation for the staff in appropriate group contexts. Sponsor a staff appreciation event rather than individual meetings between staff and personnel committee members.
The impulses that lead congregations to establish personnel liaisons are worthy. In practice, though, the role of liaison rarely promotes healthy employment relationships. With a little bit of work, you can establish alternative practices that promote a healthier climate and ensure the fair and equitable treatment of your staff.
Susan Beaumont is a consultant, coach and spiritual director. Susan is a practical contemplative. She works at the intersection of organizational health and spiritual guidance. Specializing in the unique dynamics of large congregations, Susan’s work focuses on staff team dynamics, board development and leadership in times of transition. Rev. Beaumont is the author of How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going and Inside the Large Congregation and co-author of When Moses Meets Aaron.