If you only read one thing this week…

Staff turnover in humanitarian agencies by ifyouonlyreadonethingthisweek
July 15, 2006, 7:09 pm
Filed under: Articles, If you have 30 mins, Management

Those who have worked in humanitarian agencies over the past ten years may have noticed the emergence of “revolving door syndrome,” where colleagues leave or are reassigned at frequent intervals. Loss of staff continuity has become a major concern for most humanitarian organizations, and HR directors generally affirm that turnover rates are high in humanitarian organizations. A study published this month in the online journal Humanitarian Practice Network by David Loquercio, Mark Hammersley and Ben Emmens (download it here – you will need to register, but it is free) discusses these issues in detail. It points out that an accurate study of staff turnover really encompasses two issues: the proportion of staff leaving in a given time period, and the re-assignment or rotation of staff from one assignment to another. Read on for a summary of the article.

Unplanned turnover is costly and decreases an agency’s capacity to respond to new emergencies. At worst, it negatively affects existing programs. Yet according to the authors, there is a managerial temptation to accept high turnover rates as an inevitable part of the field. After all, security risks and difficult living situations are common for aid workers, and 40% of aid workers are at high risk for burnout (see page 6 for more details). But this study asserts that high staff turnover can be acknowledged and addressed with strong human resource management systems. This is particularly because workers attribute stress to several factors other than environmental factors. Other influential “push” factors (prompting individuals to look for another job) include agency policies, workload, under-investment in training, disillusionment, and the desire to start a family. [Their chart on page 6 is particularly useful for understanding factors behind staff turnover.]

At the same time, managers should not seek to eliminate staff turnover — turnover does have benefits for the agency, bringing fresh analysis and new development opportunities. “As long as mechanisms are in place to ensure that learning continues to take place within the organization,” these researchers argue, turnover can be beneficial. Even so, it is unwise to retain those who have lost motivation. The best strategy, they argue, targets retention of key staff and seeks to maintain motivation throughout the workforce.

The paper points to human resource departments and senior managers as those who have the most crucial role in maintaining healthy staff turnover rates. They must seek a systematic approach — one that will ensure competitive and equitable pay, minimize burnout and high workload, strengthen leadership to ensure visible values, and improve professional development opportunities. These elements must be supported by senior managers so that staff will not feel compelled to find a new organization with new managers.

Exit interviews are often cited as useful tools for organizational improvement, but when such interviews are conducted internally, employees tend to state less contentious reasons to their managers, who in turn are likely to accept such answers without further reflection (page 12).A better solution is to contract independent survey companies to survey departing employees. A more proactive way to pinpoint organizational areas to improve is to conduct periodic staff surveys.

Finally, though six-figure salaries may seem like a practical (though expensive) solution to recruitment problems, the study points out that there will always be other agencies offering higher salaries. The key, then, is not in attempting to out-do similar organizations, but to cooperate at HQ and field level. Besides streamlining salary tables, organizations can work together to create internship programs or to share training and staff development programs.

Clearly, organizations must be ready for some level of staff turnover, and this study argues that transparency is one key to managing the consequences. All managers must leave at some point, therefore deputy managers should be trained to fill their shoes. Rather than being disrespectful to the manager, this pattern ensures that organizational memory and knowledge is retained. Additionally, new hires should be provided with peer support so that their energy is not spent on re-inventing the wheel. Toolkits such as Mercy Corps’ Office in a Box concept can provide clear procedures and management strategies, enabling international staff to rotate into other country programs with less adjustment. An interesting end point is the comment that even the installation of a coffee machine or a water cooler can promote shared organizational learning.

Review by Michele Madore.

If you have problems downloading the article, please email Anna Young or Nick Macdonald.


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Appologies – when I posted this, I forgot to include the attribution – this review was kindly written by Michele Madore.


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