Sketch: A DSC conference ..

A DSC conference hears that the sector's "stroppy staff" are its Achilles heel - and its great strength.

"Your greatest nightmare is to represent a religious charity," declared William Garnett, employment lawyer at Bates Wells & Braithwaite. "You will be up against someone who will start quoting verses from the Bible or the Koran and asking management to reconcile their behaviour with those texts."

Garnett was talking during a debate provocatively titled 'Do the type of people who work in the voluntary sector lead to the high number of tribunal claims?' at the Directory of Social Change's Managing People conference last week.

Not everyone was ready to answer 'yes', although it was hardly surprising that the chief naysayer was Unison's voluntary sector guru Mike Short. He said the problem was a lack of resources for dispute resolution training.

"The sector doesn't have its own type," insisted Short - although he admitted public sector workers would have pushed their pens into management's eyes before accepting the pay offer of four percentage points below inflation that staff at one charity have swallowed.

But most agreed voluntary sector workers were a bit high-maintenance. Henny Braund, resources director at Shelter, should know: her charity's recent restructuring provoked five strikes. "The strength of the sector is its stroppy staff, but they are also its Achilles heel," she observed. "They don't have a sense of hierarchy and they have a strong voice against everything, including management."

Garnett said people who accepted relatively low salaries to change the world inevitably got upset when things went awry. "In truth, many organisations don't have the values they claim to," he said. "Most people say 'I just want an apology' - though when they get it they say 'now give me £50,000'."

He said many tribunal cases were launched out of "naive self-indulgence" by people the commercial sector would never employ. "People have to realise it's better to go and work for another organisation than be in conflict," said Garnett, who also agreed with a suggestion from the floor that trustees should not interfere in disciplinary issues.

His colleague and debate chair Andrew Phillips interrupted him here to say: "But I think the lady was talking about situations in which there aren't any managers and the trustees are running the organisation."

To much hilarity, Garnett retorted: "But then there wouldn't be any staff. Andrew has applied to work in my department, but he is still on probation." It looks like another tribunal case in the making.

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