The Grapevine of Wrath: How Poor Communication Insults Residents

Grapevines are an effective, but famously inaccurate. form of communication

We’ve all heard (and likely employed) the old saying, “Better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”  The inference is that while you were going to do something anyway, once it’s done, the resulting hassles are less than having to deal with the before-during-after trio of carping.  But that strategy doesn’t play well in multi-family dwellings that often operate as a Peyton Place of wagging tongues.

Of course the other issue here is that resident-representatives on HOA boards are generally untrained in the ways of communication. Management companies can be equally untrained. All seemingly unable to operate on even the most basic “what would I like” litmus test.

Last week, my high-rise management company, with the approval of our HOA board, elected to fire two of the management company’s employees, one who had been in the building for over 35 years. Their communication plan was … whip up the grapevine until forced to answer with bumbling bum-covering.

“Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.”
– Thomas Jefferson

The grapevine roared to life with all manner of bits and pieces of the story coupled with expected righteous indignation. Many seemed not to care why these workers were fired, their view being that whatever it was would be forgivable. As with all grapevines, parts were right, parts were wrong, but without any guidance from the management company or the HOA board, a wildfire of truth and half-truths consumed the building.

So stunning was the news that residents who wouldn’t tinkle on me if I was on fire, were calling and writing to ask me to come out against the HOA board. I declined. Seeing poor communicators hoisted on their own petard is sort of a hobby of mine.

There were demands for a town hall meeting, reinstatement, and other remedies all wrapped in ire.

Nearly a day later, after the phone lines had been singed and emails cut across the building did the HOA board finally answer. The note was simple confirmation of the firings adding that while they knew it would cause angst, the actual reasons were private (and they are) and that this was a long-time coming.  Attempts had been made over many months to change behavior that ultimately failed.

Many residents responded to phrasing and lack of detail as sounding like “pound sand.”

But here’s the thing, procedurally, the HOA board was correct.  The management company  employs those working within a building or complex they manage. Residents may get to know and trust these people, swapping stories and doing favors, but the building isn’t paying their salary. In fact, one reason buildings hire management companies is to not have to deal with employment issues.

Also, the HOA board is elected and empowered to interact with the management company on a variety of topics.  And according to Texas condo rules, employment issues are one of the few areas where an HOA board is allowed (actually required) to act privately from the prying eyes of all residents.

In this case, the HOA board agreed with the management company’s decision. Now many will debate whether the HOA board pushed the management company or if the impetus really came from the management company, but it’s ultimately academic. Residents have to trust their HOA board and management company. If they decide they don’t, they can make that known at the ballot box.

Better Communication

Contentious issues happen everywhere, often you’re most remembered for how you deal with them.  Did the HOA board and management company deal with this situation the best way?  Heck no.  Theirs is a textbook case of poor communication making matters worse … sort of like the landlord changing the locks and hoping the neighbors will let you know.

The HOA board knew the action would be alarming to many and yet they chickened out and let the grapevine do their work. Also, since this issue had been brewing for months, surely there was time to craft a communication to residents that was ready to transmit immediately after the workers had left the premises (double chicken out). Imagine if residents had immediately receiving a note saying …

“Today, after months trying to remedy issues with two of our employees, we were left with no option but to terminate the employment of John and Mary. We understand the shock this decision must be, but know that it wasn’t taken lightly and that we, too, wished it hadn’t proved necessary. Ample time and opportunity were given to change these problematic behaviors which were ultimately unsuccessful. We know that over the years many of you have formed personal relationships with these people and so this news is particularly difficult to hear. Texas law requires that employment related issues be kept private, which is why this announcement lacks the detail many will seek.  We ask you to trust that in making this difficult decision, we have acted in the best interest of the building.”

Etc., etc.,etc..

Sure, the grapevine would have still churned, but it would have been a different tone and a smaller reaction.  Many residents would have understood the situation and felt informed.  They would have felt respected.

Working in the corporate world, getting ahead of something softens the impact. Being ready with answers is key to crisis management by blunting an ill — and partially informed grapevine. But with HOA boards and management companies untrained in even basic communication skills, residents often feel ridden roughshod over. This directly impacts trust in both their HOA boards and management companies.

The silver lining here for the communication-challenged is that residents have incredibly poor and short memories.  This action occurred three weeks before the next HOA board meeting.  Much of the rawness will have dulled with only the die hards causing a ruckus at the meeting. So they got the timing right.

Of course now I wonder how ham-fisted they’ll be in communicating this year’s upcoming 3 percent dues increase. It’s been “known” for months but not disclosed. Oops, was that supposed to be a secret?

Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement.  If you’re interested in hosting a Staff Meeting event, I’m your guy. In 2016 and 2017, the National Association of Real Estate Editors has recognized my writing with two Bronze (2016, 2017) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email