Personnel management and security
by Christine Williamson, People In Aid June 2010

 The safety and security of humanitarian aid workers is arguably in greater jeopardy today than at any time in the history of the humanitarian endeavour. The environment has changed and it takes more than a set of technical skills and a friendly manner to be a successful humanitarian worker. Staff are no longer immune from acts of violence, if indeed they ever truly were, and acceptance strategies, so often adopted, are not always effective in some contexts. Humanitarian workers are expected to negotiate their way through complex, insecure and unfamiliar situations in a foreign language and culture in an unstable and often corrupt environment. Simple processes – clearing a checkpoint or renewing a visa, for instance – can rapidly turn volatile. At the same time, international NGOs must comply with minimum legal requirements for a healthy and safe work environment, to ensure that they are not exposing their staff or the organisation to unnecessary and avoidable risk. Avoiding the potentially catastrophic consequences of being found negligent requires an integrated, risk-based approach to security management. This article highlights the main areas of concern and the key ways in which INGOs can mitigate the risks they face.

The nature of humanitarian work requires us to take risks – the challenge is making those risks affordable and acceptable. Many of those interviewed for this article used the term ‘acceptable risk’ when explaining how they handled their staff security. Of course, what constitutes ‘acceptable risk’ varies from organisation to organisation and is heavily dependent on the organisation’s culture and how critical staff are perceived to be to the organisation’s success. However, it is not at all certain that the term ‘acceptable risk’ would carry weight in a court of law. In a world where knowledge and information is readily and quickly accessible, a court is likely to take the view that most risks to staff safety are known. It is important therefore to use the same standards the courts use in deciding whether an organisation has taken all reasonable steps in its duty of care towards its staff. Particularly for those working in remote and insecure environments, organisations should ensure where possible that these are enhanced (or taken as minimum standards). Unless this perspective is brought to the decision-making process or risk management analysis, it is highly probable that an organisation is only measuring itself against its own standards. These may or may not be reasonable, and therefore may or may not be those used in a court of law. Organisations that do not examine these risks carefully and show clearly the steps they have taken to mitigate them are likely to be found to have acted irresponsibly and may be subject to legal action.

The role of Human Resources

In many ways, the Human Resources (HR) function is where security management and legislation ultimately converge. In almost every jurisdiction the organisation has a duty of care towards its staff and is expected to mitigate the risks staff face. The duty of care towards staff is the HR Department’s reason for being. If the safety of a staff member has been compromised, employment legislation provides a robust framework for investigation and tough sanctions if culpability is proven. For this reason, it is vital that HR professionals are involved in the design and implementation of risk management strategies and practices.


The employment cycle

The employment cycle has several stages, illustrated in Figure 1. At each stage of the cycle, decisions are made affecting security management. Organisations should seriously consider each stage of the cycle, particularly the planning stage, and understand how people management and security management decisions are integrated. The best solution integrates security management with all stages of the employment cycle.





Hazardous environments require staff with specific skills and experience; an organisation should never underestimate the importance of the recruitment process and the risks associated with hiring the wrong person.[1] Placing the wrong person in any overseas environment can be very costly and unproductive. Apart from the amount of time spent on recruitment and selection, which has been put at between three and five times an employee’s annual salary, according to the Harvard Business School, staff are likely to be unhappy and underperform, which will have a direct impact on programme implementation (and therefore a waste of donors’ money), their manager’s time, team morale and even security.

The recruitment process should enable organisations to determine whether prospective candidates are appropriate for the role. The job description, interviewers, recruitment assessments and references all play a part in helping managers decide whether the person before them has the essential requirements. The recruitment process is an opportunity to identify a candidate’s strengths and areas for development, and assess them against essential skills and competencies. This assessment process should inform the preparation given in the pre-deployment stage of the employment cycle.


Pre-deployment preparation

Preparing a staff member for their assignment is probably the single most important thing an organisation can do. Statistics show that nearly one-third of deaths of humanitarian workers occur in the first three months of duty.[2] It is surely not reasonable to send a staff member to a conflict zone without substantial preparation. Most organisations give briefings on the role and some give general security training; some even give specific contextual training in the field. However, the clear message from INGOs and security specialists alike is that they should be doing more. Two experts on security interviewed for this article spoke of their deep concern about the relatively small amount of time and money dedicated to equipping humanitarian workers for the contexts in which they would be working. If organisations are sending people on assignment without fully understanding the pre-deployment stage of the employment cycle then it is likely that these people, and the organisation as a whole, are ill-prepared. Leaving an ill-equipped staff member to make decisions that could jeopardise their personal security (and the security of others) is an abdication of responsibility and duty of care.

During the pre-deployment period, general information should always be given to staff on personal conduct, staff rights and responsibilities, the organisation’s values and mandate, personal objectives and reporting lines. Two areas in particular warrant more attention: personal security awareness and stress. Staff must be aware of the risks to their own personal security. They should know what is expected of them during and outside normal working hours and should behave accordingly. They should fully understand the context in which they are working (how the society around them functions and communicates), and how their own behaviour can affect their vulnerability. Staff should also be aware of how stress affects their personal behaviour – people can often release stress in damaging ways, such as excessive drinking and promiscuity. Organisations must consistently enforce sanctions against staff who put themselves and others at risk.


Case study

Staff should always feel that they can be open and honest about their concerns. One organisation interviewed for this article uses a monthly questionnaire which the Programme Director sends to all staff in Afghanistan. Questions asked include: How vulnerable do you feel, and why? Has anything changed in the last month? Are family members concerned about your safety?

The questionnaire not only allows staff the opportunity to express their feelings and concerns, but also gives managers an insight into the value a staff member places on their own security. They also provide clues to what is happening in the community, through feedback from local staff. The answers to these questions then underpin risk management planning within the programme. For example, if a local staff member highlights some uncertainty in the community as to what the organisation is really doing there, managers can take measures to ensure that the right messages about the organisation’s mandate and mission are communicated to the right people in the community. Managers should also look for evidence that this communication has taken place.


Staff care

The extent to which organisations see staff as central to their mission is often reflected in the policies and practices that relate to staff care. Pre-deployment preparation including security training and information on how to take care of oneself go a long way towards keeping staff fit and healthy. Training is often overlooked or not afforded a priority by humanitarian organisations. However, the insecure nature of the environment means that serious incidents do happen. Staff can find themselves in very difficult situations or may be involved in critical incidents such as a robbery, violent attack, kidnap, serious sickness or injury. Organisations must have policies and practices that clearly state what happens during and after such critical incidents. How an organisation handles sensitive information and protects the people involved is also important. Any critical incident is susceptible to media attention, so how an incident is dealt with is crucial not only for the staff member and team on site, but also for the organisation’s reputation.



Principle 7 of The People In Aid Code of Good Practice – the Human Resource Code for the relief and development sector – states: ‘The security, good health and safety of our staff are a prime responsibility of our organisation.’ It is recognised that the work of relief and development organisations often places great demands on staff in conditions of complexity and risk. Organisations therefore have a duty of care to ensure the physical and emotional well-being of staff before, during and on completion of their period of work with the organisation.

Health, safety and security are dynamic themes that should permeate every part of an organisation. If staff are central to the achievement of the mission, how central are they in planning risk management strategies? If organisations are going to continue to work in highly complex and insecure environments they must place a high level of importance upon the care of staff, so that it becomes part of the culture across the whole organisation – from the Board down to the operational level.

Stressful and risky situations are inevitable in both humanitarian and development work. Yet there is much that can and must be done to mitigate the risks of illness, injury, stress, burnout and critical incidents, for staff and their dependants. Employing organisations should ensure that the security, health and safety of all staff is appropriately protected as far as is possible, and that measures are in place to safeguard their well-being. This will require significant thought and planning on the part of managers, and a recognition that improving staff security may add to project costs. Maintaining the safety of staff is paramount. Cost must be considered, but the primary objective is ensuring that staff are able to deliver the services organisations require in the most challenging environments.

Christine Williamson is HR Services Manager at People In Aid. Her email address is Thanks in particular to Anthony Collins Solicitors LLP, Barney Mayhew, Ben Emmens, David Bainbridge, Jon Kennedy, Katherine Kelland, Mark Screeton, Rupert Reid and Sarah Newnham.


References and further reading

People In Aid Code of Good Practice 2003, People In Aid, 2003.

‘Humanitarian Aid Workers’ Security: An Increasing Challenge’, NGO Voice, December 2009.

‘Basic Training for NGO Workers’, Information Note, People In Aid, June 2007.

‘Developing Behavioural Competences’, Information Note, People In Aid, June 2007.

David Loquercio, Mark Hammersley and Ben Emmens, Understanding and Addressing Staff Turnover in Humanitarian Agencies, Network Paper 55, June 2006.

Policy Guide and Template: Safety and Security, People In Aid, June 2008.


[1] A hazardous environment includes situations arising from a natural disaster, conflict and post-conflict events.

[2] M. Sjeik et al., ‘Deaths Among Humanitarian Workers’, British Medical Journal, vol. 321, 2000, pp. 166–68.