Factors Affecting Staff Turnover Management Essay

The purpose of this study was to investigate the problem of staff turnover of humanitarian aid workers in Somalia and to make recommendations that would lead to the reduction of the problem.

The current social, economic and political issues facing Somalia, justifies the need for humanitarian aid and therefore humanitarian aid workers. However the conditions within Somalia are currently wanting, leading to a high staff turnover of humanitarian aid workers working on the ground.

The purpose of this chapter is to present an overview of the research study. This section will provide the reader with a high level understanding of the background of the research, present evidence of the research problem, detail the area of focus of the research through research objectives, scope the aim of the research, and justify the reasons for selecting this area of study.

Background of the Problem

Labour or worker or employee or staff turnover has it is often referred to, is the number of permanent employees leaving the company within the reported period versus the number of actual Active Permanent employees on the last day of the previous reported period (physical headcount). According to Business Dictionary (2011), the ratio of the number of employees that leave a company through attrition, dismissal, or resignation during a period to the number of employees on payroll during the same period makes up what is referred to as Labour Turnover. An employee leaving the organization either voluntarily or involuntarily is certain to have positive or negative effects on the organization. This as well would reflect on the productivity of the organization concerned.

In other words, high turnover can be harmful to a company’s productivity if skilled workers are often leaving and the worker population contains a high percentage of novice workers (Open Forum, 2011). This is especially the case if those leaving are either key to its success and continuity or do so because they think you have treated them unfairly, which could result in tribunal claims (Business Link, 2011). This means maintaining the satisfactory level of productivity might be threatened. Therefore curbing turnover to its optimal level for the organization is a major challenge.

However, the research on the consequences of labour turnover is inconclusive, and provides little guidance on how much turnover, if any, is optimal (Siebert, 2006). It hereby leaves us wondering what optimal number is needed for the organization’s best productivity. As turnover even poses to be a major and widely studied organizational behavior phenomenon, it fosters why researchers are becoming interested in it more. It is a phenomenon that not just affects a company, occupation or industry, but an issue tackled by organizations all around the world. This is because at one employee’s voluntary or involuntary time they would have to leave the organization (Abelson 1987; Campion 1991).

Since its foundation in 1971, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has grown from an informal assembly of French medical doctors and journalists to one of the most renowned international humanitarian organizations. Over the course of this 40 years history, MSF received both, outstanding praise, most notably in the form of the Nobel prize for peace in 1999. This study is geared towards understanding and establishing the factors influencing staff turnover of humanitarian agencies in Somalia with a focus on MSF.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

Medecins Sans Frontieres is an international medical and humanitarian organisation providing care to populations in distress, victims of natural and man-made disasters and victims of armed conflict, regardless of race, religion or political beliefs. It was founded in 1971 by two groups of doctors in France. One group had witnessed the genocide of the Ibo minority during the civil war in Biafra (Nigeria, 1968) and felt frustrated that the organization they worked for prevented them from speaking out about what they had seen. The second group of doctors had recently witnessed the severe lack of coordination and logistical efficiency of aid effort as they helped to treat victims of the 1970 floods in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The result of their combined discontent was Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Somalia is one of very few countries where MSF is not always able to work with international staff based permanently on the ground. Its projects are run by committed Somali staff. MSF projects in Somalia are run by country management teams based in Nairobi. These teams make any major decisions regarding MSF’s operations in Somalia and visit to provide assistance, training and support, whenever security allows. Recruitment of non-skilled workers in Somalia involves the community in order that the work force reflects the diversity of the particular location. Skilled staff are recruited through a system of tests and interviews, emphasising the need for the most competent staff so that the highest quality of medical service can be provided.

For relief organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), providing assistance to people in distress in Somalia remains a challenge. In the centre and south of the country, it is possible to identify at least three types of contexts, each posing significant constraints for humanitarian workers.

As a result of a massive military deployment, Mogadishu is currently experiencing a period of relative stability, not seen since 2006, when the Union of Islamic Courts took control. Restaurants have reopened, foreign traders are in business again, and scaffolding testifies to economic investment by the Somali diaspora. But the city is still not secure. Bombings and targeted assassinations are frequent, clashes between militias continue in some areas, and Al Shabaab fighters have intensified attacks against pro-government forces. In addition, living conditions for the majority are atrocious – in particular for the 300,000 to 400,000 people displaced, most of them as a result of the 2011 nutrition crisis. Many displaced still live amongst the rubble in makeshift shelters of plastic sheeting supported by pieces of wood. As land comes up for development, those living in these makeshift camps have to relocate; some have moved several times. Access to drinking water is insufficient and irregular – it is not uncommon for taps in the camps to remain dry for several weeks at a time – while the few hospitals in the capital struggle to cope with large numbers of patients from all over the country. Following the evacuation of its staff due to heavy fighting in April 2012, Daynile hospital – supported by MSF – reopened in September 2012.

The second context is in the main Somali cities, which have been ‘liberated’ from Al Shabaab administration over the past year by the joint military mission of the African Union in Somalia (AMISOM), Ethiopia and the Somali Transitional Federal Government. Yet today the security of these urban populations is probably more fragile than it was a year ago. Assassinations, attacks, robberies, extortion and intimidation are commonplace. Access to health facilities remains a problem, and few people brave the journey to hospital after dark.

Finally, in many south and central rural areas, Islamist fighters still hold sway. Most are opposed to the presence of foreign aid organisations and, after successive waves of bans and expulsions, only a few humanitarian organisations – including MSF – are just about able to continue working in these areas. Working in Somalia means, first of all, accepting to work in dangerous conditions. For MSF’s staff, it means assessing the risks linked to their mission, on an individual basis. As of December2012, two MSF staff are still being held in Somalia, more than one year after they were kidnapped from Dadaab, Kenya. And in December 2011, two members of the MSF team in Mogadishu- Philippe Havet and Dr Andrias Karel Keiluhu – died from their wounds after being shot by a Somali employee of the organisation.

The situation leads the organisation to reduce the activities that it would normally want to do given the needs, for two reasons: The first is a choice we have made to just prioritise medical emergencies and nutrition, until the release of our kidnapped colleagues who are being held in the country.

The second is the practical reaction to the risks the staff face; this has led the organisation to limit the scope of its projects and the number of international staff, who are particularly vulnerable to abductions. The choice to provide support mainly to hospitals and surgical centres, also reduces the movement of our teams, and therefore their exposure to risk.

Statement of the Problem

Employee turnover has detrimental effects on organizational performance and continuity, making the retention of skilled and experienced staff a key challenge for most organizations (Hilltrop, 1999; Staw, 1980; Ton and Huckman, 2008). In recent years, the humanitarian sector and other non-profit and philanthropic enterprises have started to focus on the necessity to retain qualified and experienced staff (Edwards and Hulme, 1996; Hwang and Powell, 2009; Kunreuther, 2003). Recent evaluations of humanitarian operations following the 2004 Indian ocean tsunami, emphasized the crucial relevance of qualified personnel for the efficient and effective provision of humanitarian assistance and emergency relief operations to populations in need (Telford and Cosgrave, 2006; Harvey, Stoddard, Harmer, and Taylor, 2010). This is coupled with the heightened realization that retaining experienced personnel within international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) is highly contentious (Loquercio, Hammersley, and Emmens, 2006). With demanding working conditions in disaster and conflict zones, long separation from family and friends, limited career prospects and employment security in the sector, many aid workers treat humanitarian employment as a one-time activity, resulting in high turnover rates within humanitarian INGOs (Henry, 2004). In an effort to address these excessive and potentially damaging turnover rates, humanitarian INGOs are keen to identify factors influencing aid workers’ job exits as a basis to develop potential retention strategies (Emmens and Parry, 2006).

Whether an employee opts to leave an organization is dependent upon the desirability of movement (employee’s perception of attractiveness of job) and the ease of movement (employment alternatives) (March and Simon 1958), applicable to employees across all organizations (Steel and Lounsbury, 2009). There is, however, considerable heterogeneity both between types of organizations, the context in which they operate and among employees (Lee and Mitchell, 1994). The context of humanitarian INGOs also differs substantially from most profit-driven and public organizations, which have been the primary focus of turnover research. First, they often operate based on altruistic values which guide both individual and organizational behavior (Hopgood, 2005; Vaux, 2001). Second, the need to react rapidly to sudden crises demands a high degree of flexibility from organizations and employees (Loquercio et al., 2006). Finally, operations tend to take place in exceptional and often even dangerous locations (Heyse, 2007; Stoddard, Harmer, and Haver, 2006). Since the generalizability of findings from for profit to non-profit and humanitarian organizations has been called into question (DiMaggio and Anheier, 1990; Lewis, 2003), it is essential to consider the distinct context of the humanitarian sector when examining employee retention.

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The aim of this study is to explain how the unique features characterizing the context of humanitarian work (e.g., location, security) and the individual characteristics of aid workers (e.g., gender, occupation) impact staff turnover within one humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

Objectives of the Study

General Objective

The study will be guided by the following general objective:

To determine the factors influencing staff turnover of humanitarian aid workers in Somalia

Specific Objectives

In order to fulfil the general objective of the study, this study will seek to achieve the following research objectives:

To determine how the unique features characterizing the context of humanitarian work influence staff turnover in Somalia

To determine how individual characteristics of aid workers influence staff turnover in Somalia

To determine which factors, other than remuneration, lead to high staff turnover of aid workers in Somalia

To make recommendations on how to retain professional staff in humanitarian organisations in Somalia

Research Questions

In order to fulfil the studies objective the study will be guided by the following research questions:

How do the unique features characterizing the context of humanitarian work influence staff turnover in Somalia

How do individual characteristics of aid workers influence staff turnover in Somalia

Which factors, other than remuneration, lead to high staff turnover of aid workers in Somalia

The Significance of the Study

The findings from this study will benefit the organization and its stakeholders, humanitarian aid organisations, the government of Somali and other researchers in this field. The top management of MSF are likely to use the findings to understand the reasons behind staff turnover of staff in Somalia. It will also help the lead manager in Somalia to improve on their management and environmental techniques and conditions towards reducing staff turnover in their region.

The findings of the study will also be of immense benefit to the government of Somali who will use it to formulate policies that will improve retention of humanitarian aid workers in Somalia.

Researcher will also use this study as the basis for




This chapter summarises the information from other researchers who had carried out their research in the same sphere of study. The study specifically covers the theoretical discussions, factors influencing staff turnover, conceptual framework and research gap.

Theoretical Framework: Retaining Aid Workers

Humanitarian INGOs are non-profit organizations that have the primary aim to save lives and reduce human suffering (Barnett and Weiss, 2008). The rationale of these organizations is normative instead of profit oriented, as reflected by their often precarious financial situation (Smillie and Minear, 2003) and the altruistic attitudes and identity of their employees (Hilhorst and Schmiemann, 2002). In the following sections, we elaborate why these features are relevant for developing a model to understand retention and isolate possible antecedents of turnover in the distinct context of the humanitarian sector.

Turnover in Humanitarian Aid Organisations

Budgetary constraints arising from donor dependency and an ambiguous financial situation are the reality for most humanitarian INGOs (Simile and Minear, 2003). Short funding cycles circumvent long-term planning, making it difficult for organizations to offer reliable career prospects. At the same time, humanitarian INGOs need to maintain a high degree of flexibility, which some argue is facilitated by the regular influx of new staff (Loquercio et al., 2006). As a consequence, humanitarian INGOs tend to issue short term contracts, usually between six months to two years and even shorter in situations of spontaneous, large scale emergencies (Brooke and McConnan, 1997). Though reluctant to offer permanent contracts, humanitarian INGOs are nevertheless aware of the crucial relevance of experienced staff for operational effectiveness and efficiency (Telford and Cosgrave, 2006; Loquercio et al., 2006). To deal with these often opposing forces, they aspire to retain employees not only within one job, but for a succession of contracts within the same organization. Therefore, they operate in a similar manner to military deployment (Steel, 1996), flexible and subcontracted employment in the high-tech field (Carnoy, Castells, and Benner, 1997) and other forms of nonstandard work (Ashford, George, and Blatt, 2007). Due to this, for the purpose of this paper, we operationalize retention in the humanitarian field as the reenlistment for a second humanitarian mission.

Attitudinal Models of Turnover

The humanitarian sector presents a theoretical puzzle that challenges existing models and findings of job turnover, largely conducted within for profit organizations. Attitudinal models of turnover demonstrate that higher job retention is associated with factors such as job satisfaction, organizational commitment and behavioral intentions (Hom and Kinicki, 2001; Jaros, 1997; Mobley, 1977). Studies commissioned by humanitarian INGOs and supporting agencies such as People in Aid, show that aid workers tend to be satisfied with their job and exhibit a strong affective attachment to their organization, with relatively few expressing exit intentions (Emmens and Parry, 2006). Yet, despite having strong commitment and exhibiting the intention to stay, many aid workers actually appear to leave the organization after one mission (Loquercio et al., 2006). While this seems contradictory at first, a study by Tziner and Vardi (1984) on the relation between social workers’ job satisfaction and retention shows that this disparity is common in occupations characterized by high altruistic values. Similar observations have been made for military personnel, which, although driven rather by patriotic than altruistic values, also have a pronounced normative motivation (Mehay, 1990). Thus, it appears that attitudinal models of turnover, while highly successful in other sectors (Steel and Lounsbury, 2009) have limited predictive strength in explaining aid workers’ reenlistments. A report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (in Loquercio et al., 2006) revealed that difficulties to balance private and professional life and lack of career opportunities are the primary factors determining aid workers’ decision to quit. This indicates that instead of depending on aid workers’ job attitudes, retention in the humanitarian sector is primarily influenced by the employment opportunities and constraints contingent on the particularities of aid work.

Opportunities and Constraints of Aid Workers

Employment opportunities and constraints influence retention in the sense that employees evaluate their employment situation based on the extent to which it allows the realization of preferences (Rosenfeld, 1992). If there are substantial constraints to the realization of preferences, or if more attractive employment alternatives are available elsewhere, employees are unlikely to remain with an organization. The decision is thereby not necessarily based on the immediate available employment opportunities, such as alternative job offers, and objectively existing constraints. In fact, precise and reliable information on these dimensions is not always readily available. Under such conditions, general employment prospects as well as anticipation based on previous experiences play an important role in employees’ retention decisions (March, 1994). Accordingly, prospective employment opportunities and experienced as well as anticipated constraints contingent on humanitarian work emerge as important factors influencing aid workers’ decisions to engage in a second mission. A variety of factors shape the specific realization of an aid worker’s employment opportunities and constraints, which can be subsumed under the two areas of individual characteristics and humanitarian context.

The Context of Humanitarian Missions

Humanitarian organizations transport aid workers to disaster sites and scenes of violent conflict, which generally differ substantially from the employees’ ordinary surroundings. Working in such emergency conditions entails challenges and stress factors not commonly considered in turnover research. The extensive literature on the psychological impact of working in emergencies (e.g. Cardozo, Holtz, Kaiser, Gotway, Ghitis, Toomey, and Salama; 2003; Eriksson, Van de Kemp, Gorsuch, Hoke, and Foy, 2001), however, indicates that stressful and traumatic experiences are a common occurrence in this field and can negatively impact aid workers’ well-being. Security concerns and challenges of cultural adjustment are particularly important sources of stress and can constitute severe constraints for aid workers (Curling and Simmons, 2010; Danieli, 2002). These negative experiences in turn influence aid workers’ reenlistment decisions, firstly, by reducing the motivation to do this type of work, and secondly, by shaping anticipations concerning constraints involved in future missions. In effect, the negative experience of severe constraints will likely affect aid workers’ decision to reenlist for a subsequent assignment.

The constraints related to the conditions in a humanitarian mission, particularly in terms of how security and cultural adjustment can impact on aid workers’ reenlistment decisions. Humanitarian operations are concentrated in the less developed regions of the world in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe, where local capacity to respond to disaster is low. Working in such circumstances entails challenges, particularly for foreign employees, so called “expatriates” (Birdseye and Hill, 1995). Considerable cultural differences between the home and the host country can be stressors that negatively affect expatriates’ satisfaction with their postings and general well-being (Lanier, 1979; Torbiron, 1982). Curling and Simmons (2010) observed that humanitarian expatriate staff tends to experience the political, economic and social situation of their work location as more stressful than their national counterparts. The separation from friends and family to confide in further enhances such emotional strain.

Not all aid workers, however, find themselves in a foreign environment. Humanitarian INGOs also recruit locally, employing persons from regions where the organization is active. Stressors related to cultural discrepancies and separation from supportive contacts is presumably less pronounced for those aid workers who are employed in settings culturally and geographically close to their home country. First of all, the culture shock upon entering the work location is less pronounced or even absent when an employee is familiar with basic cultural expectations and not immediately distinguishable from the local population (Oberg, 1960). Such similarity between home and host country, in turn is generally assumed to positively affect expatriates’ retention (Gregersen and Black, 1990). Speaking the local language is also advantageous, since it facilitates social integration, both in the workplace and privately (Naumann, 1992). Particularly in regions where certain languages are widely spoken, such as Spanish in Latin America or French in Africa, fluency in the local language is likely for aid workers from the region. Finally, the proximity to the home country facilitates more frequent contact with family and friends such as during holidays. Taken together, aid workers employed in a location close to their home country will have less culture shock, have higher likelihood to fit in with the local population, speak the language and due to closer proximity, be able to maintain personal and family ties.

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Beyond the challenge of cultural adjustment, the security situation in humanitarian projects often constitutes a major stressor for employees (Danieli, 2002). In 2008, 260 aid workers were killed, abducted or seriously injured in the field (Stoddard, Harmer, and DiDomenico, 2009). Main threats to the safety of aid workers relate to politically-motivated violence, crime and unsafe physical conditions in terms of hygiene, medical facilities, transportation and land mines. Substantial differences exist between locations: the vast majority of incidents occurred in Afghanistan, Somalia and Darfur, where aid workers increasingly found themselves as the deliberately chosen targets of violent attacks (Stoddard and Harmer, 2010). Other high risk settings include Sri Lanka, Chad, Iraq and Pakistan. Together, these seven countries account for three quarters of all attacks on aid workers between 2006 and 2008, indicating that numerous other settings are considerably less dangerous (Stoddard et al., 2009). If the security of aid workers cannot be guaranteed, many INGOs require employees to remain within the confines of the project compound, diminishing personal freedom and opportunities to socialize (Curling and Simmons, 2010). In effect, working in a high-risk setting involves substantial constraints in terms of physical safety and mental well-being as well as the realization of personal preferences such as leisure time activities or interactions with the local population.

Aid workers do not always remain on a humanitarian mission until the scheduled end of contract. Sometimes organizational policies exogenous to the employees, like downscaling, evacuation or project closure result in the premature termination of a humanitarian assignment. Yet, organizational restructuring is not the only reason for premature conclusion. Occasionally, stressors resulting from difficulties with cultural adjustment, separation from family or a constant sense of threat can cumulate to the extent that continuation of the mission becomes difficult (Blanchetière, 2006; Curling and Simons, 2010). In some of these cases, the return to the home country prior to the scheduled end of contract is a sensible or even necessary option. A premature departure for personal reasons, rather than organizational restructuring, can therefore be interpreted as indicative of an aid worker experiencing severe constraints in their work. Learning from such negative experiences, an aid worker will likely develop apprehension concerning future missions.

Individual Characteristics of Aid Workers

Individual characteristics of aid workers are also likely to influence employment opportunities and constraints, hence affecting reenlistment decisions. Turnover research has demonstrated that factors like age, gender, marital status, and access to different labor markets depending on occupation and nationality are important antecedents of job exit (Koenigsberg, Garet and Rosenbaum, 1994; Mobley, Griffeth, Hand, and Meglino, 1979; Moynihan and Landuyt, 2008; Muchinsky and Morrow, 1980; Rosin and Korabik, 1995).

Older employees show stronger attachment to their employer and generally exhibit lower rates of job mobility (Ng and Feldman, 2009). The limited availability of better employment alternatives and the reduced focus on career advancement are potential reasons. Younger employees are not only more driven to pursue a career, but also face more attractive employment opportunities (Krecker, 1994). This situation is particularly pronounced in the humanitarian sector. Among younger aid workers, many enter the field to gain experience that is advantageous for a later career outside the sector, for example with the United Nations or as an expert in public health (Hudson and Inkson, 2006; Loquercio et al., 2006). In contrast, older employees often take up humanitarian work after having successfully pursued a career in another field, for example as a medical doctor, thus being less intent on career advancement and more stable workers.

Another key predictor for job turnover is gender, with women shown to be more prone to exit jobs than men (Royalty, 1998). Researchers such as Hakim (1991; 2002) argue that women and men have different lifestyle preferences, which in turn result in the divergent labor market patterns that we observe between the sexes. Crompton and Harris (1997), conversely, maintain that structural constraints in employment opportunities for women are the main cause of gender differences in employment patterns. In line with this reasoning, Stroh, Brett, and Reilly (1996) identify limited career advancement opportunities within the employing organization as the main reason for female managers’ voluntary job exit. In comparison to for profit organizations, gender wage differences are lower in the non-profit sector and female involvement overall is relatively high (Leete, 2006), although a “glass ceiling” nevertheless remains. Gibelman (2000) observes that women’s overrepresentation in direct service provision is contrasted by a striking underrepresentation in management positions, indicating that even in the relatively egalitarian non-profit sector women face fewer advancement opportunities than men. Humanitarian INGOs are no exception. Leadership positions are predominantly held by men and gender awareness pertains mainly to the operational, rather than the organizational domain (Lewis, 2003; Wallace, 1998). Facing limited advancement opportunities within the employing organizations, female aid workers may have fewer incentives to remain.

Beyond limited career opportunities, additional mechanisms explaining gender-specific job exit are women’s family obligations, the higher likelihood of women to withdraw from the labour market due to parenthood, and the extreme work-family reconciliation difficulties of humanitarian aid work. Previous research has identified various characteristics of “good” jobs, that allow paid employment to become more compatible with family responsibilities, such as flexibility in timing and organization of work and a higher degree of autonomy (Allen, Herst, Bruck, and Sutton, 2000; Begall and Mills, 2011; Eby, Casper, Lockwood, Bordeaux, and Brinley, 2005; Perry-Jenkins, Repetti, and Crouter, 2000). Although work in humanitarian organizations often offers relatively high autonomy and flexibility, the distant location of the workplace and high security concerns likely influence women’s decisions to reenlist, particularly if they are considering starting a family. Although young fathers or males who are considering children may also be influenced, previous research has demonstrated that women are often the primary caregivers of children and are more likely to withdraw from the labor force for family-related reasons in comparison to men (Adema and Whiteford, 2007; Allen et al. 2000; Blossfeld and Hakim, 2007; Mennino and Brayfield, 2002).

Being in a permanent relationship has been found to positively affect retention (Huang, Lin, and a stable cohabitating union are more likely to remain employed and avoid unemployment, which is particularly the case for men (Mills and Blossfeld, 2006). This is often attributed to their need to support a partner or family and the higher likelihood of home ownership, which in turn fosters stability (Mulder and Wagner, 2001). We anticipate, however, that this standard relationship might be challenged in the context of humanitarian work. Aid workers’ deployments constitute extended sojourns abroad and only very few (often higher) positions allow individuals to bring a partner or children. Such extended separation from partner and family is perceived as a high constraint by many aid workers and listed among the primary reasons for job exit (Emmens and Parry, 2006; Loquercio et al., 2006).

Humanitarian INGOs employ a diversity of occupations, making the term “aid worker” a broad concept that can be applied to medical doctors, technicians, administrative personnel and humanitarian affairs officers (Brooke and McConnan, 1997). Since MSF, the organization we study, focuses on the provision of medical aid, it is useful to make a distinction according to occupations that might be more or less likely to reenlist for a second mission. In MSF it is logical to distinguish between: medical employees (doctors and surgeons), paramedical personnel (nurses, laboratory technicians and mid-wives), non-medical staff (logisticians and administrators), and coordinators (project coordinators and head of missions).

The occupational labour markets, employment opportunities and professional requirements differ between these occupations (Lorence, 1987; McBrier, 2003; Smith, 1983). In most countries, medical doctors need to obtain a formal verification of their qualification that officially allows them to practice medicine. This accreditation is usually temporary, with revalidation requiring proof of continuous practice for example in the form of a minimum number of hours a medical doctor needs to have spent doing professional work. Humanitarian work – even in a medical position – does not in all circumstances fit the eligibility for accreditation. For this reason, many medical employees may fear the possibility of losing their practitioners’ license as a consequence of extended aid work (Crawford, 2009). Such fundamental constraints in combining humanitarian work with a career in their home country’s national health system may deter medical employees from reenlisting for a second humanitarian mission.

Humanitarian INGOs are also international organizations with a highly diverse workforce often consisting of multiple nationalities (Brooke and McConnan, 1997). In relation to employment opportunities and constraints, nationality often defines access to different labor markets, which vary substantially in terms of structure of employment, labor market participation, unemployment rates, general working conditions, and pay levels (Betcherman, 2002). Such differences affect the “decency of work” in a given country (i.e., the extent to which productive, secure and dignified employment opportunities are available) (ILO, 1999; Osberg and Sharpe, 2004). The working conditions and employment opportunities in an individual’s home country will in turn influence an employee’s perception of the attractiveness of the current job. In general, employment opportunities, conditions and protection legislation tend to be more favorable and attractive in developed countries, compared to countries with medium or low levels of development (Bescond, Châtaignier, and Mehran, 2003; Gregory, 1980). Such “decency of working conditions” is often closely associated with human development, more so than with economic development as measured by the GDP (Ahmed, 2003). Taken together, for aid workers from countries with a low human development level, the working conditions offered by humanitarian INGOs, which tend to be held accountable to relatively strict Western employment regulations, are presumably more attractive than the employment alternatives available elsewhere in their national labor market. The opposite can be expected for nationals from highly developed countries. For these individuals, there are often more attractive employment opportunities available in their home country, making the option to remain employed by MSF less appealing.

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Other Factors Influencing Staff Turnover

The most stressful events in humanitarian work have to do with the organisational culture, management style or operational objectives of an NGO or agency, rather than external security risks or poor environmental factors (Fawcett, 2003). Aid workers, basically have a pretty shrewd idea of what they are getting into when they enter this career, and dirty clothes, gun shots at night and lack of electricity do not surprise them. Inter and intra-agency politics, inconsistent management styles, lack of team work and unclear or conflicting organisational objectives, however combine to create a background of chronic stress and pressure that over time wears people down and can lead to burnout or even physical collapse (Fawcett, 2003).

To better understand what causes staff turnover, it is helpful to describe ‘push’ factors, which cause individuals to look for another job (for example, dissatisfaction with working conditions) and ‘pull’ factors, which draw employees towards another organisation (for example, higher salary or better benefits). Within this, it is possible to identify environmental factors, programme factors, organisational factors and personal factors (Fawcett, 2003).

Environmental factors

The nature and context of emergency work give rise to a wide range of potentially stressful environmental factors. Of course, the situation can be drastically different from one country to another; countries affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami, for instance, have proved a more congenial destination for international aid workers than Darfur (EPN 2007). All the same, security issues and difficult living conditions are common stress factors for aid workers. Research suggests that 5% to 10% of aid workers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Between 30% and 50% suffer from moderate to severe levels of emotional distress, and 40% are at high risk of burnout (Salama, 1999; Lisa, Cripe and Forrence, 2005; McCall, 1999). Even if facilities for agency staff are better than those enjoyed by the local population, comfort is generally limited. In a survey for the ICRC in 2004, two-thirds of respondents reported that quality of life had a strong or moderate influence on their decision to leave the organisation (ICRC, 2005). Overall, the ICRC concluded that, while stress did not appear to be the main reason for staff leaving, it had an influence on the decisions of a significant number of employees. These findings are supported by a survey by People In Aid of staff retention among the seven members of the Inter-Agency Working Group (IWG) within the framework of the Emergency Capacity Building Project. This found that 29% of respondents believed stress to be a key reason for people leaving their jobs (ECB Staff Capacity Initiative, 2006)

Programme Factors

Ian Smillie (2003) has criticised the policy of short-term funding cycles, little donor investment in building the capacities of international NGOs and low overheads (Smillie, 1999). Smillie argues that this does not reflect the ‘cost of doing business’. Thus, the view that training, evaluation, research and publications are luxuries is reinforced, while under-investment in staff development encourages higher turnover. This is seen in the apparent contradiction between donors’ increased demands for reporting and accountability, and their reluctance to accept the increased overheads that this implies.

A reliance on short-term contracts linked to funding has meant that employees need to find a new position every year or so, possibly with a new employer, and the level of job insecurity implied can be discouraging. While it is true that short-term funding cycles tend to push agencies into offering short-term contracts, it does not oblige them to do so, and some agencies still manage to offer longer-term contracts (Smillie, 1999). The issue of funding should not be used as an excuse by agencies; in many instances, the quality and effectiveness of HR management and practices could be improved without significant additional expenditure (Smillie, 1999).

Organisational Factors

A number of factors related to the way an organisation is structured and managed can increase turnover levels. Some of these issues can be traced back to people management, others to organisational culture, workforce planning and recruitment practices (Smillie, 1999).

HR management is critical. Weak or non-existent structures, systems and processes appear to significantly increase ‘dysfunctional’ turnover. Specific aspects of employment, such as a reward strategy, also play their part. Reviewing pay and terms and conditions to ensure that they are competitive and equitable, and that the reward system is transparent, is important. As well as systems and processes, organisations need to think about how their staff are managed on a personal, day-to-day level; people are more likely to want to move on when they feel that they are not properly managed, respected, supported or developed by their manager. The ICRC survey cited above found that over half of respondents were dissatisfied with management (with 11.5% ‘not satisfied at all’, and 45.9% ‘quite unsatisfied’). Almost three-quarters of respondents (70%) said that management had been a moderate or strong influence on their decision to leave the organisation (James Henry and People In Aid, 2004).

Complaints about managers are often related to a perceived lack of support. On-the-job training, support and capacity-building do not always clearly appear as a responsibility of field managers, and many often have a technical background, in medicine or engineering for example, rather than managerial experience. People are given managerial responsibilities, but without the training necessary to cope with the additional tasks involved. In many cases, programme managers already have so much to do that mentoring or providing support is barely a possibility, let alone a priority (James Henry and People In Aid, 2004)..

The culture of an organisation can also play a role in determining whether people stay or leave. Work by People In Aid and the IWG shows that people respond particularly well to an organisational culture that is learning or innovative, and are more likely to stay and perform well. An organisation’s responsiveness and adaptability to change will have a significant bearing on morale and levels of engagement; conversely, organisations that fail to learn from their experiences, and those that adapt poorly to change, will suffer higher levels of dysfunctional turnover (James Henry and People In Aid, 2004).

Other organisational factors include size and recruitment practices. Size-wise, smaller agencies often find it harder to retain their staff because career prospects are more limited and there is less chance of finding a match between one’s wishes and available positions. Smaller agencies typically have fewer unrestricted funds, meaning that they have fewer resources at hand to build staff loyalty (James Henry and People In Aid, 2004). In terms of recruitment, it is important that the selection process identifies potential employees that ‘fit’ with the organisation’s outlook and values. While all humanitarian agencies seek to ‘alleviate suffering’, different agencies approach this objective in very different ways: levels of professionalism may not be the same between agencies, and different agencies may have different attitudes towards issues such as participation, working with local partners, political sensitivity or religious commitment. Failure to check that a candidate’s own outlook and values fit with those of the organisation can result in the contract ending prematurely. Even though agencies are aware of this, in practice they are often forced to compromise, especially when under pressure to fill a position quickly.

Personal Factors

Among the most important personal factors influencing people’s work decisions are a desire to start a family, or existing family commitments. For expatriates, family responsibilities are generally incompatible with being a humanitarian worker. These issues appear to affect staff in their 30s in particular. The ICRC survey shows that close to 75% of respondents felt that a relationship and/or family ties exerted a strong or moderate influence on their decision to resign. More broadly, one in four of the ICRC respondents said that social life (or the lack Zthereof) was a strong influence on their decision to leave the organisation, and the balance between private and professional life was cited by a majority (just under 55%).

For many first-time international staff, particularly people at the outset of their working lives, involvement with a humanitarian agency is seen as a short-term move, rather than a career choice. Going overseas can be a way to discover another culture, while doing something useful and meaningful, or it can be an opportunity to gain professional experience. On the other hand, for people with previous work experience, especially those involved with professions that require constant training and upgrading of skills, staying abroad for too long can be seen as a handicap to further employment back home. In the ICRC survey, 60% of respondents reported that a concern for professional development and career management had a strong influence on their decision to leave. Career prospects can also encourage local/ national staff to move between agencies, or to decamp to the private sector.




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