Opinion: 10 ways to gain credibility as an HR professional in development

By Robin Uncapher 25 October 2016

Robin Uncapher, senior manager for international talent at Global Communities, offers advice on how to gain credibility and respect as an HR professional in development. Photo by: kev-shine / CC BY

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, in international development the nine scariest words in the English language can be, “I’m from human resources, and I’m here to help.”

While it may seem unfair, human resource professionals assigned for the first time to proposal or program teams should expect skepticism. I’ve been working with international managers for over 25 years. Though much has changed, the perception that HR professionals are only there to get in the way persists.

These days, many international NGOs and contractors place their international recruitment teams outside of human resources. Recruitment may report to business development, program units, technical services or a combination. For these professionals, becoming part of the team is critical. So how do you become part of the team when your colleagues start out by believing that you aren’t too bright?    

Here are 10 tips if you are in a human resources position based outside of HR:

1. Know the business well enough to provide your own insights.

If you are a proposal recruiter your work can be critical, but you have to know more than the job posting and more than what your own organization does, to be effective. Read the international news every day.

“Newspapers and current events provide clues to donor priorities,” Brett Sedgewick, director of development services at Global Communities said. “Wars, foreign policy initiatives, droughts, epidemics and natural disasters are just a few of the things that explain why a donor might shift funds from one area to another.”

2. Learn what qualifications your organization values. 

Do you prime to to the U.S. Agency for International Development? Have you checked the LinkedIn profiles on your organization’s org chart? Do senior people have field experience? Donor experience?  Experience with contractors? NGOs? Peace Corps? Write it down. Memorize it. Study job descriptions and compare them with what you see. That way you can advise managers on what qualifications are critical.  

3. Make everyone your client. 

Don’t worry about someone’s rank or level within your organization. It’s cool to sit down with the senior vice president or the CEO and talk about organizational development strategies, but don’t look down your nose at the rest of the staff. Senior VP’s don’t have time to teach you the business. Business development and the backstops can tell you how donor issues are affect staffing, benefits, allowances, etc.

4. Watch your language. 

HR jargon will distance you from your clients so fast that you may never recover. It will label you as a pretentious snob. Drop terms such as “buy-in,” “reach out,” “value-add” and replace them with standard English.

5. Put the basics first.

That means the boring stuff. Recruitment, training, basic employee services and compliance will be more important to most of your clients than partnering with senior management on culture change strategies. Your staffing files should be audit-ready. Procedures should be documented. If you just took over a mess, fix documentation and files.

6. Help people to comply with the law. 

Focus on teaching not accusing. International development professionals care about justice, diversity and all of the things our hiring laws were developed to ensure. Human resource jobs involve more ethics coaching than most jobs. Drop the phrase “for compliance reasons, “and comply with the spirit of the law, not just the letter. Nothing will lose you the respect of people faster than offering, however subtly, to lie.

7. Become internationally minded.

Never assume that conditions in your home country are the norm. If a chief of party in Mali has a problem, research local conditions that could be a factor before scheduling a discussion. Capacity in many countries can be explained with infant mortality rate, literacy rate and life expectancy.

8. Give up your dream of building an empire.

You should probably be thinly staffed. If you receive your funding from donors, yours is a cyclical business. Too much overhead can sink you in a bad year. And after all, shouldn’t the money be going to programs?

9. Live by a code of ethics.

A slip in confidentiality, no matter how small, may sink your reputation entirely. You will be considered a hypocrite if you take advantage of loopholes or gray areas in ethics rules. Recuse yourself from decisions that could be seen as a conflict of interest.

All of this will help you when you have to tell someone they cannot hire that former girlfriend “who was really good.”

10.  You are part of the team.

Work as hard as everybody else and focus on the outcome, not on the hours you put in. If you believe the stereotype of the sleepy nonprofit or the cushy contractor you will lose the respect of everyone working until 7 or 8 — or 2 in the morning. Help people get their jobs done and you will overcome that skeptical look, every time.

The best thing about this advice is that it make you a valued member of the team, and make your job fun.  And, people will be glad when you tell them you are from human resources, and here to help.

About the author

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Robin Uncapher

Robin Nixon Uncapher is senior manager, international talent management for Global Communities (formerly CHF International) in Silver Spring, MD. Robin manages Global Communities’ proposal, field recruitment and global talent management. With over 25 years of human resources experience, Robin has worked extensively with business operations in Europe, Africa, Asia, Middle East and the United States.


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