Mary Federico in Board Operations on August 20, 2021
This is our monthly advice column, Ask Mary.
Dear Mary: In my condo, we have a few unit-owners who are always asking for things that go against the building’s rules or policies. Sometimes the requests involve local laws or other guidelines. How can we deal with this time-consuming tsunami of “asks”? – Inundated in Inwood
For now, let’s focus on unit-owners with sincere requests. We’ll deal with “board antagonizers” in another column. Can I use a grill on my balcony? Can I sublet my apartment while I’m at my summer house? Can we get a common-charge rebate for amenities we couldn’t use during COVID-19? I know my alteration ran over by three weeks, but can’t you waive the penalty?
First, take a deep breath. This isn’t about your competence or good intent. Make a conscious effort not to react defensively. Then follow a strategy that can help you deal with the immediate request while reducing future requests. Here are some guidelines:
Have you communicated about this? Don’t assume people have read the bylaws and house rules and then committed them to memory. They may simply not know the rules or local laws, and a straightforward explanation might suffice. People can generally live with rules that make sense, so always provide the “why.” Cite laws or safety issues where relevant. Consider telling everyone, not just the requester.
Are your rules and policies clear? Maybe you have communicated, but the rule is vague or hard to understand. Have someone who didn’t write the rules read them over to see what might be unclear. Resolve any ambiguities. You might want to consider putting your rules into “Plain Language.” (It’s a set of guidelines from the federal government; New York City has a shorter version.)
Are your rules or policies outdated? It’s a lot of work to keep up with this. But if you haven’t reviewed your rules and policies in 25 years, you have to accept that some of them may no longer make any sense under current conditions. For example, you probably didn’t expect a pandemic. Or anticipate emotional support animals. Or imagine nonsmoking residential buildings. Maybe it’s time to take a fresh look.
Is the request actually reasonable? Would you approve the request if there weren’t an existing rule? Rules should serve your building, not the other way around. But while boards often feel the need to add restrictions, they typically don’t subtract them. So if it’s not a matter of law or safety – and if it would be OK if everyone did it – maybe it’s time to retire that rule or policy. Maybe it’s OK to bring a child’s bike through the front entrance.
Does it make sense to allow an exception? This is always tricky. You don’t want to send a message that the rules don’t apply equally to everyone, nor that anyone who complains loudly enough can do what they want. But sometimes it’s the right thing to do. So if you decide to make an exception but you’re otherwise keeping the rule in place, you need to be extremely clear about why you’re doing so. And you need to communicate that to the unit-owner. Yes, we’ll waive those overdue alteration penalties since your contractor had a heart attack.
Follow these guidelines to reduce that tsunami of requests to a manageable stream. Meanwhile, always respond in a timely and respectful way to unit-owner requests. Don’t have an answer right away? Just acknowledge the question so they know you’re on it. Commit to when you will respond. Then do so, even if it’s only to say you don’t have an answer yet. And remember: Good communications and good relationships with unit-owners are keys to a peaceful building.
Mary Federico serves on the board of her 240-unit Upper West Side condominium. Through her consultancy, Organizational Behavior Strategies, she helps leaders use behavioral science to improve their organizations.
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