Recruitment pitfalls in humanitarian aid organizations-An insider’s view

It's always great when readers contact me about a potential guest post!
So when Dipankar Datta, Country Director Somalia, Norwegian Church Aid, asked whether I would like to share his reflections on recruitment practices, pitfalls & how to navigate them in the humanitarian sector I was more than happy to do so!
His concluding thoughts are a timely reminder that there is definitely space to improve recruitment in the sector: "It is imperative for leaders in the humanitarian aid and development sector to critically reflect on the existing recruitment process and take corrective measures to address existing concerns. (...). Every candidate deserves to be respected throughout the recruitment process, but sadly, many organizations still do not treat candidates as well as they should."
A full cycle recruitment process involves many steps, such as preparing, sourcing, screening, selecting, hiring, etc.; and on several occasions the recruiters and applicants interact through various means as the process moves forwards. These interactions during the recruitment process not only reflect the culture of the organization to its own leaders but also provide an opportunity for the applicants to understand organizational culture as they go through the process.

The recruitment process in the humanitarian aid and development sector has undergone significant changes over the last three decades. These changes are fueled by many factors, such as growth of the sector, exponentially increased number of applicants for any job, organizations’ financial inability to afford the right structure for the Human Resource Department, increased demand for accountability and transparency in the recruitment process, use of technology in the recruitment process, and use of recruiting agents. While organizations are keen to hire the best candidates, it seems organizations are balancing many of these factors by using narrowly defined transparency and accountability principles and a power-centric approach, which in turn negatively affect the culture and staff retention ability of the organizations.

Based on my nearly three decades of professional experience in the humanitarian aid and development sector, I would like to argue that the concept of transparency and accountability in the recruitment process has now been reduced to an internal organizational system for a fair process through extensive documentation. The focus here is to shortlist applicants by using a series of exclusionary parameters, conduct many rounds of interviews through a set of structured and discrete questions, ensure participation of all powerful stakeholders in the recruitment process, focus on aggregated scoring and extensive documentation, etc. However, transparency and accountability in the recruitment process should be designed considering three key aspects: (a) internal organizational system for a fair process, (b) disclosure of all exclusion principles to all the applicants, and (c) constructive feedback to the shortlisted candidates who go through various steps of the interview process.

The Overseas Development Institute in the UK published a working paper in June 2006 in which the authors argued about major concerns centered around staff turnover in humanitarian agencies, which in turn reduces the effectiveness of the organizations in delivering the programs (Loquercio, et al., 2006). In recent years, many authors have argued that employee turnover in these organizations is now a perennial problem (Dubey, et al. 2015, Korff et al. 2015). In explaining excessive staff turnover, some have pointed to external factors such as donors’ insistence on low overhead, encouraging the use of short-term contracts through short funding cycles, etc., while others argue for work-related reasons and personal characteristics, including the absence of opportunities for staff development. While agreeing with these arguments, I would also like to add that culture linked with the power dynamics of the organization is also a key determinant of staff retention.

The power-centric approach of the recruiters is visible not only from the narrowly defined transparency and accountability framework but also from many other factors, such as the inclusion of all powerful actors in the interview process and the style of communications with the applicants. Job applicants experience this culture as they go through the recruitment process, and this first experience significantly influences them to speculate about key attributes of organizations’ culture and power structure, which in turn critically affects their mindset about short- or long-term commitments towards the organizations. Thus, a power-centric approach may not necessarily enable the organization to select a person with passion or to retain passionate persons even when they are hired.

There is no ‘magic bullet’ that will address all the abovementioned concerns in the recruitment process. However, leaders of humanitarian aid and development organizations should acknowledge that they have a responsibility for the current situation and could do much more to improve it. I would encourage conversations among leaders and Human Resource professionals by critically reflecting on a series of uncomfortable issues and questions, which I have outlined below based on my experiential learning.

Exclusion principles: Designing the recruitment process based on exclusion principles is very damaging for the organizational culture. The common exclusion parameters include but are not limited to age, gender, religious identity, nationality, etc. The use of exclusion parameters based on the pregnancy of female candidates is not uncommon, as recruiters do not want to accommodate the cost of maternity leave. The use of exclusion principles not only compromises the ethical and moral standing of the existing staff members in the organization but also facilitates a recruitment process that has the potential to fast-forwards the exclusion of passionate persons and/or persons from disadvantaged groups in an unfair way.

Job profile: It is not uncommon to see job profiles that contain all possible jargon and capacity areas with an aim to recruit superhumans. Job profiles often play a very important role in the exclusion process, as applicants are often shortlisted by finding matching jargon in job profiles and applicants’ bio data. Extensive use of jargon in any job profile may demonstrate the knowledge level and/or ideological position of the organization but may not always be helpful to identify the right person who needs to go beyond jargon to succeed in the given role. The most worrying part is when the job profile contains all possible tasks along with a declaration that the job holders need to perform in any other tasks as delegated by the line management.

Use of technology: Currently, it is very common to use technology as an interface between organizations and candidates. Everything is automated, ranging from application submission to regret letter for the candidates. Technology is also commonly used to shortlist candidates from a large pool of applicants. Many organizations have gone a step further by asking candidates to participate in automated time-bound video recording interviews as a first step of the interview process. The use of psychometric tests is also common in leadership positions, although comprehensive discussions with candidates based on test outcomes rarely happen. Use of technology is important, but where the line must be drawn to give human touch to the applicants as they go through the recruitment process? A good organizational culture in the recruitment process offers human touch much sooner than later.

Internal candidates: Two key staff retention strategies include ensuring career progression and preferential treatment for internal candidates. However, there are often situations when recruiters ask internal candidates to go through the interview process to balance power relations despite having a predetermined decision to not hire internal candidates. In this kind of situation, when internal candidates are not hired, they may feel betrayed and may end up with hostile relationships with other colleagues. In contrast, there is a situation when a recruiter knows that they will hire internal candidates but wants to go through a formal recruitment process as a part of the compliance and/or other reasons. Any recruitment is a time-consuming process for both the recruiter and the applicants, and it is unfair to ask external candidates to go through the recruitment process without declaring to them that organizations have internal candidates who may receive preferential treatment. The absence of a transparent approach to dealing with both internal and external candidates significantly contributes to deteriorating organizational culture and reputational damage in multidimensional ways.

Written tests: It is understandable why written tests are required for many vital positions in organizations. However, my concern is the use of written tests as a process of exclusion while recruiting for the leadership positions, which many candidates argue as a disrespectful practice. Is it a good practice for the recruiters to arrange written tests for senior leadership positions despite having proven experience of the candidates to hold similar positions in comparable organizations for many years? The culture of the organization is also reflected by observing the allocation of such limited time for the written test, which would make it impossible for the candidate to complete the paper on time.

Interview panel: Is the organization forming the panels and setting the number of rounds of interviews to ensure that every powerful person and all possible stakeholders of the organization is a part of the interview process? Is the organization setting inflexible interview time for the candidates in short notice to accommodate busy schedule of powerful members of the organization? Sadly, I have even seen many cases where people received less than a day inflexible notice period from very reputed organizations to appear for a test. Thus, the abovementioned questions could be used as a self-reflection by any organization.

Style of interview: The common pattern in organizations is to form a panel consisting of many powerful members where every member has a series of structured questions to ask by rotation instead of having a true conversation with the candidates to understand their passion and relevant knowledge/experience. This structured question-answer system often leads to interrupting too often to remind the candidates for brief answers while expecting that candidates must elaborate answers by giving relevant examples. Structured questions are often prepared in a way that only internal candidates are best positioned to answer them as they know organizational jargon, ideology, systems, etc. In the case of notional questions, instead of having conversations, panel members often expect right or wrong answers from the candidates. Sadly, panel members often do not bother to prepare comprehensive notes at the end of the interview, which limits the organization’s ability to send a personalized note to the candidates with constructive feedback when they are not selected for the position. The recruitment process can be referred to as a platform for both recruiters and applicants to know each other through respectful conversations, but often there is no institutional mechanism to ensure that panel members are trained enough to take the interview by showing due respect to the candidates.

Other unwanted practices: Many organizations ask the last employer during a reference check about the number of sick leave days that the candidate took in the last number of years. The offer of a discriminatory pay package considering the identity of the selected candidate is also not uncommon. Many organizations do not revert to the candidates with any form of communication once the interview process is over and the persons are not hired. There are many other undesirable practices that dominate the recruitment process.

It is imperative for leaders in the humanitarian aid and development sector to critically reflect on the existing recruitment process and take corrective measures to address existing concerns. Conscious or unconscious use of any exclusion principle simply does not correspond well with the ethical standard of humanitarian aid and development organizations. Every candidate deserves to be respected throughout the recruitment process, but sadly, many organizations still do not treat candidates as well as they should. Feedback loops and honest dialogue are often missing within organizations, but practically, they should be the essential aspects of a culture of transparency and accountability in the recruitment process. I would like to end this paper by arguing that it is time for leaders in the humanitarian aid and development sector to formalize a code of conduct that establishes how organizations will treat candidates. William Clarke (2017) has given very clear guidance to that effect, and some of his suggestions include the following:

1. We will honour your time. 
2. We will treat you with respect. 
3. We will always be forthright and transparent.

A clear statement of values also shows what matters to organizations beyond just talent acquisition, which is a huge part of recruiters’ value proposition. Both candidates and the existing workforce will appreciate it resulting in improving the culture of the organizations and maintaining the motivation levels among the entire workforce. A recruitment process that rewards transparency and accountability creates a virtuous cycle that supports and replenishes organizational culture.

Dipankar Datta, Ph.D., offers nearly three decades professional experience in Asia, Africa and Europe; about half of which in senior leadership position. He is also Governing Member of International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP). 
He has first-hand experience of leading complex humanitarian crisis response as well as development programs. He is passionate to push the red lines for policy advocacy purpose with an aim to enhance wellbeing and protect the most vulnerable people including refuges and IDPs. He has published widely in international journals using field results so as to place peoples’ issues in the wider discourse of academic and policy environments. 

Clarke, W. (2017). Why Accountability is Key to Effective Recruiting. Entelo Blog. February 27, 2017. 

Dubey, R., Gunasekaran, A., Altay, N., and Childe, S. J. (2015). Understanding employee turnover in humanitarian organizations. Industrial and Commercial Training, 48(4): 1-1

Korff, V.P., Balbo, N., Mills, M., Heyse, L. and Wittek, R. (2015). The impact of humanitarian context conditions and individual characteristics on aid worker retention. Disasters, 39(3): 522-545.

Loquercio, D., Hammersley, M., and Emmens, B. (2006). Understanding and addressing staff turnover in humanitarian agencies. Working Paper. No. 55, June 2006, Humanitarian Practice Network, Overseas Development Institute (ODI).
The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent his present or former employers or any of their country programs and partner organizations.


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