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Social Services

The Social Services Board and the Director: Some Questions and Answers

This document contains information about maintaining effective relationships between the social services board and the social services director, hiring (and dismissing) the county social services director and advising the social services director.

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FAQs

What defines the relationship between the county social services board and the county director of social services?
Answer: 

The relationship between the county social services board and the county director of social services is defined by the laws that specify the respective roles and responsibilities of the board and the director and, more generally, by the roles and responsibilities of a governing board of a public agency and the agency’s chief executive officer.

What are some of the laws that limit the board’s authority with respect to the county social services director?
Answer: 

The social services board’s legal authority with respect to the social services director is limited by state laws that give the county commissioners, the State Personnel Commission, or the state Department of Health and Human Services authority with respect to the county social services director, and by state laws that vest certain powers, duties, and responsibilities in the social services director. For example, state law gives the State Personnel Commission the authority to establish minimum education and experience qualifications for the position of county social services director and specifies the grounds that warrant a director’s dismissal from employment [G.S. 108A-9(a), 108A-12(a)]. State law also requires that the county social services director’s salary be approved by the board of county commissioners [G.S. 108A-13]. And state law makes the county social services director responsible for appointing (and dismissing) county social services personnel [G.S. 108A-14(a)(2)], administering public assistance and social services programs [G.S. 108A-14(a)(3)], administering funds appropriated for public assistance and social services programs [G.S. 108A-14(a)(4)], and carrying out other responsibilities specified by law.

How does the director’s position as “executive officer” define the director’s role and his or her relationship to the social serv ices board?
Answer: 

According to John Carver, author of Boards That Make a Difference, the chief executive officer of the governing board of a public or nonprofit agency is the highest-level agency employee through whom all upwardly accumulating accountability flows. A CEO is not only responsible for his or her own job performance, but is also directly and ultimately accountable to the board for the agency’s performance in achieving its purposes, goals, or objectives. The CEO is accountable for the entire product and behavior of the agency. Carver claims: The job of the CEO is “to work whatever magic it takes” to ensure that the agency’s purposes, goals, or objectives are achieved through prudent and ethical means.
According to Carver, the board’s relationship with its CEO must be based on the accountability of the director’s position—not the director’s responsibility for his or her own individual job performance. The board’s relationship with the director should focus on the director’s overall accountability for the agency’s performance—not the specific job-related responsibilities of his or her position or his or her performance of those responsibilities. The CEO’s job performance is merely a means to the end of the agency’s overall performance.
The CEO of a board is the board’s only employee and serves as a bridge between the board and the agency’s staff. This does not mean that there is never any direct contact or communication between board members and the agency’s staff. But it does mean that the board’s policies are implemented through the board’s CEO; that the board does not go over the CEO’s head or behind the CEO’s back in dealing with agency staff; and that the CEO is responsible for the supervision of, and is the only person who is ultimately accountable to the board for the performance of the agency and the agency’s staff.

Can the differentiation between the board’s role and the director’s role be described by the difference between responsibility for policy and responsibility for administration?
Answer: 

Yes, but not completely. A common adage used to describe the difference between the role of a governing board and the role of the agency’s director and staff is that the board is responsible for “policy” while the director and staff are responsible for “administering” the board’s policy. This, however, is not completely true. The role of governing boards is seldom confined to policy-making, and this is particularly true of social services boards, which are legally required to perform certain administrative or executive functions. And the “administration” of any policy, program, or service by an agency director and staff inherently includes any number of decisions and choices that can be characterized as “policy.” Nonetheless, it may be somewhat useful to think about the difference between the board’s role and the director’s role and the relationship between the board and director in terms of the board’s determining (at least in part) what the agency will do and the director’s being responsible (at least in part) for how the agency will do what the board (and federal and state law) require the agency to do.

What are some of the laws that define the board’ s authority with respect to the county social services director?
Answer: 

State law [G.S. 108A-9(1) and 108A-12(a)] vests in the county social services board the authority to “select the county director of social services according to the merit system rules of the State Personnel Commission.” By implication, these statutes give the board the authority and responsibility to evaluate the director’s performance and to dismiss (or discipline) the director for unsatisfactory job performance or personal misconduct in accordance with the State Personnel Act and rules adopted by the State Personnel Commission.
State law also gives the board the authority to determine the director’s salary (with the approval of the board of county commissioners and in accordance with the State Personnel Commission’s personnel classification plan) [G.S. 108A-13]; to assist the director in planning the social services department’s budget [G.S. 108A-9(3); and to consult with the director of social services about problems relating to his or her office [G.S. 108A-9(3)].
State law also provides that the county social services director is the board’s “executive officer” and “secretary” [G.S. 108A-14(a)(1)]

What are some common problems involving the relationship between a governing board and its chief executive officer?
Answer: 

John Carver (Boards That Make a Difference) claims that many boards “unwittingly invite their chief executives to be either milquetoast or manipulator.” An agency is not well served by a CEO who exercises too much authority or has not been given sufficient authority, freedom, and independence to accomplish the agency’s purposes, goals, and objectives.
According to Carver, public and nonprofit agencies need strong boards and strong executives. Carver states: “A powerfully designed CEO position is the key to board excellence. It enables a board to avoid the intricacies and short-term focus of staff management and to work exclusively on the holistic, long-term focus of governance.” A board must empower its CEO without abdicating the board’s responsibility for establishing the overall direction and purpose of the agency, monitoring the agency’s performance in achieving its purpose, and remaining accountable to the agency’s “moral owners.”

What is the legal and organizational relationship between the social services board and the social services director?
Answer: 

The social services director is employed by the social services board as the board’s and agency’s chief executive officer. As such, the social services director is directly accountable to the social services board. Conversely, the social services board is the director’s employer and, as such, is responsible for supervising and evaluating the director’s performance.
While the social services board’s authority over the director is not absolute, the social services director has no direct authority over the board and works, primarily at least, for and under the direction of the board of social services (even though he or she may have other professional or legal obligations and responsibilities).

What constitutes a “healthy” relationship between the social services board and the social services director?
Answer: 

According to John Carver (Boards That Make a Difference), no single relationship in an organization is as important as that between the board and its chief executive officer. Although a board’s choice of a person to serve as its chief executive officer is extremely important, Carver suggests that the establishment and maintenance of a proper, healthy, and good relationship between the board and its CEO is even more important because good executives can be rendered ineffective as a result of poor relationships with their boards while poor executives are retained because of inadequately structured board-CEO relationships.
Establishing and maintaining the right relationship between a board and its CEO requires defining (a) the board’s job, (b) the executive’s job, and (c) the link between the board and the executive.
A “healthy” relationship between any governing board and the agency’s director requires, first and most importantly, that the board and the director have a clear understanding of their own, proper roles and responsibilities and respect the other’s roles and responsibilities. A social services board must accept both its own responsibility with respect to leadership and governance of the social services department, including its responsibility to provide effective oversight of the agency and the director’s performance, as well as the director’s responsibility for administering the agency, supervising the agency’s employees, achieving the agency goals established by the board within the executive limitations set by the board, and discharging the legal powers, duties, and responsibilities imposed on the director.
Some of the characteristics of a “healthy” relationship between the board and director include—

  • A board that is independent; the board values the director’s input and advice without allowing or relying on the director or staff to dictate the board’s agenda, work, or direction.
  • A board that encourages, empowers, and supports the director but does not blindly support the director or act as a mere cheerleader for the agency.
  • A board that provides effective monitoring and oversight of the agency without undercutting or intruding upon the director’s authority by meddling in administrative or management matters, micromanaging agency policy or work, “second-guessing” the director with respect to administrative matters, or going “over the director’s head” or “behind the director’s back” in dealing with agency staff.
  • Free, open, honest, two-way communication between the board and the director.
  • Mutual trust and respect between the board and the director.
  • How can the board and director ensure the establishment and maintenance of a healthy board-director relationship?
    Answer: 

    The best way to establish and maintain a healthy relationship between the social services board and the county social services director is for the board and director to reach a clear and mutual understanding of their respective roles and responsibilities and to respect the other’s role and responsibilities in their day-to-day activities.
    This task can best be accomplished by the board’s adoption, in consultation with the director, of governance policies (along the lines suggested by John Carver’s Boards That Make a Difference) that (a) describe the role of the social services board as a governing board; (b) describe the social services director’s role and responsibilities as the board’s chief executive officer; (c) establish the executive limitations that apply with respect to the director’s and staff’s work and empower the director and staff to exercise their professional judgment, discretion, and authority within those limitations without the necessity of further approval by the board; (d) define the way in which the board will relate to the director and staff and the means by which the board will hold the director accountable for the agency’s performance.
    Once established, these governance polices or mutual expectations should be made available to the director and all board members, provided to newly-appointed board members, discussed with applicants who are being interviewed for the director’s position, considered whenever the board is evaluating the director’s performance, and reviewed (and revised as necessary) by the board and director periodically.

    Who determines the minimum qualifications (with respect to education, training, and experience) for the position of county social services director?
    Answer: 

    The State Personnel Commission is responsible for classification of the county social services director’s position and establishes minimum qualifications with respect to education, training, and experience for the hiring of county directors of social services. In hiring a director, the board must comply with the state rules relating to minimum qualifications for the position, but may establish additional qualifications or consider other factors as long as the additional qualifications or other factors are not inconsistent with federal and state laws prohibiting employment discrimination.

    What procedures should the social services board follow with respect to the recruitment and hiring of a social services director?
    Answer: 

    Hiring a social services director is one of the most important decisions a social services board will make. Boards should devote the time, attention, and effort necessary to develop and implement a hiring process that both ensures that the board will select and retain the best-qualified person to serve as the county’s social services director and will reduce the likelihood of legal challenges by unsuccessful applicants.
    When hiring a new social services director, the board must comply with the hiring procedures required by the State Personnel Commission as well as other applicable federal and state laws. Within those limitations, the board should follow procedures similar to those suggested in Kurt J. Jenne and Margaret Henderson, “Hiring a Director for a Nonprofit Agency: A Step-by-Step Guide” (included in this notebook).

    What assistance can the DHHS and county personnel offices provide to social services boards with respect to the recruitment and hiring of a social services director?
    Answer: 

    The state Department of Health and Human Services employs two regional personnel officers. Most North Carolina counties have a personnel or human resources office that administers the county’s personnel system.
    The very first thing a social services board should do when it is faced with the responsibility of recruiting and hiring a new social services director is to contact the DHHS regional personnel officer or the county’s personnel or human resources office to request advice and assistance.
    These offices can provide assistance to the board with respect to all phases of the recruitment and hiring process, including identifying minimum qualifications, establishing additional qualifications, planning the recruitment and hiring process, advertising the job opening, screening applications, interviewing applicants and checking references, avoiding discriminatory practices, selecting a final candidate, determining the proposed salary, and establishing probationary conditions of employment.

    Who sets the salary of the county social services director?
    Answer: 

    The county board of social services is responsible for determining the salary of the county social services director. However, the board’s decision regarding the director’s salary must be approved by the board of county commissioners. In addition, the director’s salary must be within the salary range for the position classification established under the county’s pay plan.

    Is a new county social services director required to serve a probationary period of employment?
    Answer: 

    The State Personnel Commission’s rules provide that any employee appointed to a permanent position must serve a probationary period of three to nine months. However, if the person hired by the board has been employed on a permanent, non-probationary basis as the director of social services director in another county, the board may, if it chooses to do so, employ the new director without requiring him or her to serve a probationary period. During the probationary period, the board may dismiss the director for unsatisfactory job performance or for personal conduct detrimental to the agency. A director who is serving a probationary period of employment must be given notice of the reasons for his or her dismissal, but does not have the right to a hearing or appeal regarding the dismissal (unless he or she alleges employment discrimination in violation of federal or state law).

    Can the board appoint a person to serve as the agency’s interim or acting director while the director's position is vacant?
    Answer: 

    Yes. If the county director of social services retires, dies, leaves, or is dismissed, the social services board may appoint a person to serve as interim or acting director until the board appoints a new director of social services. The acting or interim director has the same powers and duties as a permanent director of social services. A social services board member may not serve as the acting or interim county social services director.

    Can the county social services board dismiss (fire) the county social services director?
    Answer: 

    Yes. The county social services director, however, is not a political appointee and does not serve at the pleasure or will of the Board. Like other DSS employees, the county social services director is subject to the State Personnel Act and may not be dismissed without just cause. In order to terminate the director’s employment, the board must have just cause to discharge the director and must follow the procedures established by the State Personnel Act (or a “substantially equivalent” county personnel system approved by the State) for dismissal of SPA employees.

    What is just cause for the board’s dismissal of the county social services director?
    Answer: 

    The rules adopted by the State Personnel Commission define just cause as (1) unsatisfactory job performance (including grossly inefficient job performance), or (2) unacceptable personal conduct. The board’s dismissal of the county social services director may be based on either unsatisfactory job performance or unacceptable personal conduct. However, these categories are not mutually exclusive and some grounds for dismissal may constitute both unsatisfactory job performance and unacceptable personal conduct.

    What is the meaning of unsatisfactory job performance?
    Answer: 

    Unsatisfactory job performance is work-related performance that fails to satisfactorily meet job requirements specified in the employee’s job description or work plan or as directed by the employee’s supervisor.
    Dismissals based on unsatisfactory job performance often rely heavily on prior evaluations of the employee’s job performance. In order to rely on a performance evaluation as the basis for disciplinary action based on unsatisfactory job performance, the performance evaluation should be based on the employee’s job description and objective, written standards for judging the employee’s performance rather than vague or subjective descriptions of the quality or character of the employee’s work.
    In the case of a county social services director, unsatisfactory job performance might include the failure to effectively manage the agency staff, failure to comply with policies or standards established by DHHS, or failure to adequately plan or administer the agency’s budget. It also might include the director’s failure to ensure that the agency meets the agency goals and objectives established by the board. However, mere disagreement or differences of opinion between the director and the board regarding the director’s administration of the agency does not constitute unsatisfactory job performance.
    “Grossly inefficient job performance” is a type of unsatisfactory job performance. Grossly inefficient job performance is unsatisfactory job performance that results in
    (a) the creation of the potential for death or serious harm to a client, an employee, a member of the public, or a person for whom the employee has responsibility, or
    (b) loss of or damage to agency property or funds that has a serious impact on the agency or its work.

    Can the board dismiss the director for unsatisfactory job performance without having given the director any prior warnings regarding the director’s performance or conduct?
    Answer: 

    Generally, no.
    If the dismissal is based on “grossly inefficient job performance,” the board may dismiss the director without having given the director any prior warnings regarding the director’s performance or conduct. However, the board still must follow the State Personnel Commission rules requiring a pre-dismissal conference and written notice of dismissal.
    The board may not dismiss the director for an incident involving unsatisfactory job performance (other than grossly inefficient job performance) unless the board has given the director two prior written warnings regarding the director’s performance or conduct.

    What procedure is the board required to follow in dismissing the director for unsatisfactory job performance (other than grossly inefficient job performance)?
    Answer: 

    In order to dismiss the director based on unsatisfactory job performance (other than grossly inefficient job performance), the board must have given the director two, prior written warnings regarding the director’s conduct or performance.
    The purpose of these warnings is to allow the director an opportunity to correct the unacceptable conduct or improve his or her job performance. The prior written warnings do not have to involve the same type of unsatisfactory job performance that is the basis for the proposed dismissal action.
    Both of the prior warnings must be in writing. A copy of the written warning should be given to the director; a second copy of the written warning should be retained in the director’s personnel file. Each written warning should inform the director that it is a disciplinary warning (not merely friendly advice or counseling), identify the specific deficiencies in the director’s conduct or performance, indicate the type of improvement that is needed to correct the unsatisfactory job performance, specify a time period during which the necessary correction or improvement must be made, and inform the director of the consequences of failing to make the required improvements or corrections. The second (final) written warning must also notify the director that his or her failure to make the required corrections or improvements may result in dismissal. Unless otherwise specified in the warning, an employee is expected to correct his or her unsatisfactory job performance within 60 days.
    Warnings for unsatisfactory job performance are considered “inactive” if the employee’s unsatisfactory job performance has been satisfactorily corrected or if the warning is at least 18 months old and the employee has not received a subsequent warning regarding unsatisfactory job performance during that period.
    If there is not a permanent improvement in the director’s job performance following the second (final) warning, or if other types of unsatisfactory job performance occur after the director receives a second (final) warning, the board may dismiss the director for unsatisfactory job performance. Before the board decides to dismiss the director for unsatisfactory job performance, the board must conduct a pre-dismissal conference with the director. After the pre-dismissal conference, the board should meet in closed session to decide whether to dismiss the director. If the board votes to dismiss the director, the board must give the director a written notice of dismissal stating the specific reasons for the dismissal and providing notice of the director’s right to appeal the board’s decision. A dismissal for unsatisfactory job performance may take effect at any time within 14 days from the date of the written notice of dismissal.

    What procedure is the board required to follow in dismissing the director for unacceptable personal conduct?
    Answer: 

    The board may, but is not required to, issue a written warning to the director based on an incident involving unacceptable personal conduct, or may impose disciplinary action (such as suspension without pay) rather than dismissing the director. However, there is no requirement that the board have issued a prior warning to the director regarding the director’s conduct or performance before the board decides to dismiss the director for unacceptable personal conduct.
    If the board believes that the director’s conduct constitutes unacceptable personal conduct and may warrant his or her dismissal, the board must conduct a pre-dismissal conference with the director.
    After the pre-dismissal conference, the board should meet in closed session to decide whether to dismiss the director. In deciding whether to dismiss the director for unacceptable personal conduct, the board should consider a number of factors, including (a) whether there is sufficient proof that the director actually committed the alleged misconduct; (b) the connection between the alleged misconduct and the director’s duties, role, or position as the county social services director; (c) the nature and seriousness of the alleged misconduct; (d) the director’s past employment record and job performance; (e) the presence or absence of any mitigating circumstances; and (f) the appropriateness of disciplinary actions (such as a warning or suspension) other than dismissal.
    If the board votes to dismiss the director, the board must give the director a written notice of dismissal stating the specific reasons for the dismissal and providing notice of the director’s right to appeal the board’s decision. (See Question 16). Dismissal for unacceptable personal conduct may take effect immediately after the board gives the director written notice of the dismissal.

    Can the director appeal the board's decision regarding dismissal?
    Answer: 

    If the board dismisses the county social services director (other than a director who has not completed a required probationary period of employment), the director has the right to appeal the board’s decision to the State Personnel Commission.
    The appeal must be filed as a contested case with the Office of Administrative Hearings within 30 days of the written notice of dismissal. After an administrative hearing, the administrative law judge makes a recommended decision to the State Personnel Commission.
    In cases involving allegations of employment discrimination, the State Personnel Commission issues a final decision upholding or reversing the social services board’s decision to dismiss the county social services director. If the Commission rules that the board’s dismissal of the director was due to illegal discrimination, the board may file an action in the superior court seeking judicial review of the Commission’s decision. The director also may appeal the Commission’s decision if the Commission’s decision upholds the board’s decision to dismiss the director.
    In cases that do not involve alleged employment discrimination, the State Personnel Commission issues an advisory decision to the social services board with respect to the board’s dismissal of the director. The board is not required to accept or follow an advisory decision issued by the State Personnel Commission. However, if the Commission decides that the board’s dismissal of the director was illegal or improper and the board refuses to reinstate the director (or if the State Personnel Commission’s decision upholds the board’s dismissal of the director), the director may file an action in superior court seeking judicial review of his or her dismissal by the board. After reviewing the record in the case, a superior court judge may reverse or modify the board’s decision to dismiss the director if the court finds that the board did not follow the required procedures in dismissing the director, if the evidence does not support the board’s decision, or if the grounds for the director’s dismissal were not valid. In cases involving employment discrimination based on race, gender, disability, or other legally-protected classes, the director also may file a civil action in state or federal court claiming that the board illegally discriminated against him or her.

    Can the board discipline or suspend the county social services director rather than dismissing him or her?
    Answer: 

    Yes. In order to take any disciplinary action (such as issuing a written warning or suspending the director without pay), however, the board must have just cause and must follow the procedures required by the State Personnel Commission.
    In order to suspend the director without pay based on unsatisfactory job performance, the board must have given the director at least one prior written warning regarding the director’s performance or conduct. Before suspending the director without pay, the board must conduct a pre-suspension conference with the director and provide the director with written notice of the specific acts or omissions that are the reasons for the suspension. Disciplinary suspension of a county social services director without pay must be for a period of at least one full work week and may not exceed two full work weeks.

    Can the county director of social services be disciplined or dismissed by the county manager, the board of county commissioners, or the state Department of Health and Human Services?
    Answer: 

    No. Only the social services board, as the “appointing authority” for the county social services director, has the legal authority to dismiss or take disciplinary action against the county social services director.

    What role or responsibility does the social services board have with respect to providing advice to the county social services director?
    Answer: 

    State law [G.S. 108A-9(2)] requires the social services board to “consult with the director of social services about problems relating to his [or her] office.”

    What does it mean to “consult with” the director about problems of his or her office?
    Answer: 

    The social services board’s responsibility to “consult with” the director about problems of his or her office means that the board exercises an advisory role with respect to the director and a general oversight responsibility with respect to the county social services department.

    When and how should the board provide advice to the social services director?
    Answer: 

    Different board members (and different directors) have different views regarding the board’s role with respect to advising the social services director.
    Some believe that the board should provide advice to the director only in cases in which the director expressly asks for the board’s advice.
    Others think that the board can and should provide advice to the director whenever the board feels that advice should be given and regardless of whether the director has asked for the board’s advice with respect to a particular matter.

    Are there limits on the board’s advisory role with respect to the director?
    Answer: 

    Yes. First, in many cases a social services board lacks the technical, fiscal, administrative, or professional knowledge, expertise, or information that is necessary to provide competent and useful advice to the social services director with respect to issues involving the administration or financing of social services programs.
    Second, even if the board has the information necessary to provide good advice, the board should not, under the guise of providing “advice” to the director, dictate the director’s actions with respect to matters that fall within the director’s area of responsibility. For example, the board should not “advise” the director to hire (or fire) a particular employee.
    Third, even if the director seeks the board’s advice with respect to a particular matter, the board should avoid giving advice when doing so may blur the director’s accountability with respect to a particular issue. When the director follows the board’s advice with respect to a matter that falls within the director’s responsibility but with respect to which the director has sought the board’s advice, the board has, at least to some extent, assumed responsibility with respect to the matter and thereby diminished the director’s responsibility and accountability.

    Public Officials - Local and State Government Roles
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