Hiring a Humanitarian

Drawing from her experience with Doctors Without Borders, the author, a former HR professional, builds a case for tapping a talent segment that's rich in skills and experience, yet is almost always overlooked.

By Catherine Carr

There they stand. A team of four, ready to take orders from their new project coordinator. Each one from a different part of the world: France, Sudan, the United States and Ivory Coast. They are contemplating the remains of a catastrophe before them. They've known one another for just a few days and yet they are united and clear on the work ahead. They've all done this before.

"You see that?" the project coordinator says in heavily accented English, pointing to the site of their assignment. Heads nod and cigarettes light up. Their words overlap as they respond in their mother tongues. "Ouais," "Tamam," "Yup" and a resounding "Vas-y Papa!"

"We need a 30-bed hospital, access to water, a secure compound, an office, housing for expats arriving next week, and qualified local staff members to support the activities," she says. In their silence, the team members are already well into their respective roles and have started working the details out in their minds.

The ends of their cigarettes begin to glow as the day darkens. The team's logistician is accounting for what was not mentioned: latrines, crowd control, space for vehicle maintenance, supply stores and a BBQ pit so expats can have some semblance of a social life. The administrator is calculating budgets, developing a recruitment strategy, converting expenses to local currency and fighting off anxiety about the predictable slow Internet speeds, once it's been restored to the region -- which may be a while. The medical coordinator is envisioning patient flow, assessing medical equipment needs, preparing the pharmaceutical order, calculating the likelihood of malaria and strategizing infection control measures.

The project coordinator respects the silence, understanding that the team is already making it happen. Taking advantage of what will be the last time things are quiet, she considers security concerns, upcoming negotiations with local officials, communication strategies to cross language barriers and how to manage team morale in such a remote setting.

More cigarettes are smoked.

This advance team of four asks more questions. Ideas are shared. And words intertwine again. "Pas de problème!" "Let's do it!" "Yallah!" and "Vas-y Papa!" They are committed to the outcome.

One final agenda item: The administrator hands out wads of local currency to purchase needed supplies. "Get receipts!"

In a remarkably short time, there is a functional hospital, living compound and an office, all in a secure environment and all out of nothing. Running water may be in the form of staff running buckets back and forth. Roofs might leak, expats might sleep on mattresses on the floor and Internet might be slow. Electricity might be limited to 12 hours a day, and receipts might be scrawled on the backs of empty cigarette packs. None of this matters though, because the BBQ pit works beautifully, an unbreakable bond between team members has been formed and patients are receiving treatment. 

This is how a start-up happens in the humanitarian world. It's not much different from any entrepreneurial start-up -- well, if you don't count intermittent issues with electricity, running water, language challenges and your occasional armed insurgent trying to get past security guards. You have your logistics, your infrastructure, your supply chain, your IT, your corporate communications, your legal, your fulfillment, your customer service.

And you have your HR. Not simply at a local level, but at a macro level where global forecasting must be balanced with needs in the most remote regions of the planet -- in the context of a business model where the only constant is "unforeseen."

WANTED: Creative thinkers, problem-solvers, motivated, adaptable, big-picture thinkers, and must be able to hit the ground running. Able to function under extremely stressful circumstances. All this and crazy skills working with multi-cultural teams.

What CHRO doesn't want those qualities in his or her organization? At least, that's what the talent plan says. But you can't find them. Your applicant tracking system doesn't understand how to find them. Humanitarians' experience doesn't exactly translate word for word. They can build hospitals out of thin air. They just can't do ATS keywords.

But it's still to your advantage to seek them out as candidates for your open positions. They have more than skills and stories to offer your organizations. They have an attitude of possibility and a solid work ethic. They are resilient and look at challenges with unique perspectives drawn from a wide variety of experiences, which they then reassemble to create solutions for your unique business challenges.

This is probably the first time you've been invited to consider the humanitarian population as a talent pool to draw from. When you think of these people, you probably imagine they look a lot like Angelina Jolie or Antonio Banderas and are in villages vaccinating babies and driving hard bargains with local chiefs. It's hard to imagine them stuck in commuter traffic, sipping Starbucks out of that tiny slit in the plastic lid. In fact, you've probably walked right by one while on a Costco run. But you wouldn't notice, because they don't look like Angelina Jolie or Antonio Banderas.

What Makes Them Ideal

They look like you and me. And when they're back in their home countries, they are highly talented professionals with transferrable skills. And they need work.

While you probably don't need a well dug, their professional skill sets, combined with their strengths and characteristics, make them ideal employees. Here's how:

Humanitarians make it happen. Whether it's building hospitals, keeping track of HIV patients in war-ravaged villages with no Internet or delivering food to malnourished populations, humanitarians get the job done. They are motivated by purpose and challenge. They thrive on problem-solving. They are forced to. They're used to it.

Working in resource-poor settings requires creativity. Put more constraints around a problem and their level of creativity rises. They walk around problems looking at all the angles, identifying the resources that exist and engaging local experts. They vision cast; they paint compelling, shared pictures of compounds, fully functioning hospitals, thousands of customers served. And then they dive in.

Humanitarians roll with it. It is bound to happen. The plans go off the rails. A flight is cancelled. The supply truck is blocked at the rebel checkpoint. A flash flood threatens to float the children's ward. Hundreds of resumes come in for a handful of local positions, all written on torn pieces of paper. And then there's that mob at the gate wanting to know when they will start. And why one village family is getting more jobs than another village family.

In other words, they keep their cool in chaos. They take it in stride and then adapt work plans, processes and expectations to match the changing environment. They can look at any problem and know immediately if it is smoke or fire. And they can pivot at an instant's notice, leaving behind the old plan to take up the new plan with a snort and a shrug.

Humanitarians can make instant high-performing teams. They make friends fast. They build relationships and coalesce teams on the fly. Put any four humanitarians in the same room and within moments they can identify either a mutual colleague, country or catastrophe. It's said that armies move on their stomachs. Humanitarians move on relationships. And they know that the faster they build their bonds, the faster the mission is accomplished.

Further, they count on the fact that the bonding will occur while on the run and this is enough to start. It is why they can hit the ground running and get the job done. All that typical team-building stuff can wait until the day is over and they can relax for a few hours over beers and BBQ.

Humanitarians never stop communicating. There is nothing easy about sharing ideas, having difficult conversations, creating strategies and giving life to vision. Communication is tough. Things gets misheard, misunderstood, misinterpreted or mistaken, even among teams sharing culture and first language.

In a humanitarian environment, teams are made up of those who have nothing in common. Other than the fact that they're there. No common culture (with behavioral norms that smooth the way when words fail). No common language. Relying on their second and even third languages, they then go into communities where language gaps grow even wider. The teams have to solve problems fast -- one misunderstood message could cause a catastrophic failure. So while problems must be solved fast, the communication must be meticulous, intentional, careful, repetitive, even slow.

Nobody wants to be the one to explain why the whole village can't be hired, but it has to be said. Nobody wants to explain to the soldier why they have to leave their weapon with the guard before paying a visit to their friend in the hospital. But it has to be done. 

These people, these humanitarians, have the qualities you want. They are out there. And they have the skills and experience you need. They are coordinators, project managers, HR experts, trainers, finance wizards, logisticians, even sales reps. They are security managers, fleet managers, supply specialists, warehouse managers, constructors and architects, sanitation geniuses, IT specialists, electricity experts and bridge makers in more ways than one.

So How Do You Find Them?

You want them. They want you. So how do you find one another?

Go beyond the ATS: Be open to talking with people whose resumes include digging wells, designing refugee camps, instantly responding to disasters halfway around the world. Search for those with field experience, international experience and the ability to work across cultures. Look for those who list their work history by project, rather than by profession. Look for those who speak odd (for you) second languages: Swahili, Arabic or Creole.

Be the pioneer. This idea of intentionally seeking out humanitarian talent is a new concept. Be the one to lead the way. Contact the HR departments of humanitarian organizations. Let them know you would like to actively partner with them to develop and hire humanitarians who are between assignments. Let a humanitarian find a "home" away from the field with your organization. Then leverage your experience, raising your own profile as an employer with a creative and effective recruitment strategy and inspire others to do the same.

Offer project-based employment. We're still in the habit of expecting long-term availability of the talent we hire. And you might be thinking, "Yeah, great, but aren't these people going to ship out again on another humanitarian assignment? What's the point of hiring them, when they're just going to take off again?" Granted, that's an issue. But short-term relationships with employees has become a fact of life. And at least in this case, you can plan for this contingency.

According to Gallup, of the 10 million new jobs created between 2000 and 2015, 94 percent can be described as "alternative jobs." The "gig economy" is part of our lexicon and humanitarians get it. Their lives are lived from project to project. Take advantage of their comfort levels with project-based employment. How many of your openings can be reengineered to be either project-based contracts or short-term employment for up to, say, one or two years?

Humanitarians return to their home country between assignments. And they can come back to you to take on new projects. Once they've caught up on their sleep, they are grateful for the opportunity to do what they do best for a company they know and where they have relationships established. Like yours.

After a career in HR in the U.S., Catherine Carr, joined Doctors Without Borders in 2009. She has since worked in 10 projects in Africa, the Middle East, the Philippines and Haiti, where she is assigned until 2018. For more information on sourcing humanitarians as candidates, contact Catherine at cc@catherinecarr.global.

Oct 16, 2017
Copyright 2017© LRP Publications