Just (don't) be yourself in the field

Tattooed workers on the streets. Aid workers must be adaptable to local contexts and norms, but the exact answer of how much of you or your personality you can bring to the field remains elusive. Photo by: MTSOfan / CC BY-NC-SA

Discrimination can be far-reaching, be it based on gender, religion, race, sexual orientation, age or disability. Aid work focuses largely on reducing these prejudices and providing equal access to things like healthcare, education and human rights and helping every individual – no matter where they are from or who they are – realize their full potential. 

Many aid workers come from countries where public policy, laws and general public opinion protect them – at least to some degree – from discrimination in the workplace and from society at large.

But many of these professionals then find themselves working in countries where such protections don’t exist. And in some cases, just being themselves can risk running into problems with the law. So how does one know where to strike the balance?

Last year I advised a member who was considering getting a tattoo, but wanted to know whether this could adversely affect him in a global development career.

The discussion sparked much debate about how much of you or your personality you can bring to the field when it clashes with local cultural norms, and it’s a debate that has provided more questions than answers.  

Many readers thought it would be disrespectful to the communities he was looking to serve and pointed out that a key skill for aid workers is being able to easily adapt to local contexts, including adapting one’s dress and appearance. However, some readers countered that it isn’t always that simple; and in some cases, a tattoo can be a symbol of someone’s religion or culture and just as central to who they are as another person’s gender, race or sexual orientation.

Last week, Devex Assistant Editor Kelli Rogers detailed the challenges LGBTI aid workers face when working in countries like Nigeria, where same-sex displays of public affection can land you in jail. She discussed how an employer can create all of the policies and programs they like to protect their employees from discrimination, but this will do little good when operating in countries where local laws and customs don’t adhere to the same level of tolerance.

It’s a delicate balance many aid workers must strike: respecting a different culture while staying true to themselves, their ideals and often a sense of duty to combat prejudice.

Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to find a balance they can be comfortable with. For some that may mean hiding parts of themselves while working in the field; for others it may mean taking extra risks in exchange for more freedom.

While employers can’t always protect their workers from prejudice outside of their country or headquarters, they can play an important role by creating an environment where professionals feel valued and supported regardless of their identity. Employees should feel like they can safely discuss these challenges with their employer, working on solutions together that will allow them to continue doing the work they love while being who they are.

How do you strike this balance between being true to yourself while remaining respectful of the laws or cultures of the country in which you work? And how can an employer better empower their employees to find this balance? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

About the author

  • Warren kate 1

    Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.