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Understanding and addressing staff turnover in humanitarian agencies

Working paper

Working paper

Over the past ten years, staff turnover has become a major concern for humanitarian agencies. It has sometimes been presented as a reality humanitarian agencies have to live with, but it has also been blamed for reducing the effectiveness of programmes as a result of discontinuity in staffing and loss of institutional memory. Yet, while much discussed, no one has attempted an in-depth study offering a detailed consideration of the causes and consequences of staff turnover in the humanitarian sector.  

This paper aims to fill this gap by providing support and ideas for further action at agency and sector level. It is based on research by People In Aid and the Emergency Capacity Building Project, and over 200 interviews with aid workers, humanitarian organisations, think-tanks and donor agencies. During this work, we found that most humanitarian agencies welcome a degree of staff turnover: it offers them more flexibility in relocating staff, brings in fresh analysis and can be used as an opportunity to develop staff through a series of more challenging assignments. However, there is also a consensus that unplanned staff turnover is problematic and expensive, affecting not only learning and efficiency, but also the capacity of agencies to respond to new emergencies, or even sometimes just to continue existing programmes.

In many respects, ‘staff turnover’ has become a generic term, but typically it can be taken to refer to two different issues. Traditionally, it relates to the proportion of staff leaving in a given time period, but prior to the anticipated end of their contract. It is also used to describe ‘staff rotation’ where staff move from one contract or assignment to another, whether on an open-ended or a fixed-term contract.

In explaining excessive staff turnover, some have pointed to donors’ insistence on low overheads, encouraging the use of short-term contracts through short funding cycles and discouraging staff development. Others appear resigned to the problem, seeing it as the result of factors outside of their control. There may be some truth in these positions. However, this paper argues that agencies should acknowledge that they have a responsibility for the current situation, and could do a lot more to improve it. For most agencies, the precursor to action is a realisation that the benefits of trying outweigh the costs of doing nothing. One of the first steps is to start consistently tracking key human resource (HR) indicators so that decisions and their outcomes can be based on, and evaluated against, evidence. Reflecting on initiatives in surveyed agencies, it is clear that success in addressing the issue is to a large extent based on an acknowledgement of problems by senior management, and a commitment to invest time, support and funding in understanding the causes, developing solutions and implementing them.

Let us be clear at the outset: there is no ‘magic bullet’ that will prevent or eliminate staff turnover. The best way to address it is through a coherent HR management system. But no matter how effective an agency is at reducing unwanted turnover, a certain level is inevitable and can be healthy – as long as mechanisms are in place to ensure that learning continues to take place within the organisation, and lessons are shared and used as a basis for continuous change and improvement.

David Loquercio, Mark Hammersley and Ben Emmens