The challenges of hiring for hardship posts

An armed security personnel stands by in Somalia. Recruiters face challenges when seeking candidates for tough assignments. Photo by: Phillipe Royan / ECHO / CC BY-SA

A recruiter for a multilateral agency told me earlier this year that it took her nearly six months to fill a hardship post in Guinea Bissau. Her job was complicated by the fact that she needed a senior Portuguese speaker who was willing to accept a nonfamily duty station. Shortly thereafter, the recruiter faced similar challenges finding an experienced technical professional who is aware of the cultural challenges in Niger, also for a nonfamily post.

These examples illustrate some of the challenges human resource professionals face when seeking candidates for tough assignments around the globe.

Perhaps it’s little surprise, then, that organizations working in international development often source candidates from each other’s talent pool for difficult postings, whether in the case of a natural or man-made disaster, a politically volatile location or a remote part of a country.

At present, hardship countries include Mali, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, South Sudan, Sudan, Tajikistan, Yemen and Haiti. That said, recruitment specialists interviewed for this article also noted that even a stable country may have hard-to-fill posts in particularly remote locations. For example, aid jobs in remote parts of Ethiopia are sometimes hard to fill.

CARE has found positions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Sudan particularly challenging to fill. For Save the Children, meanwhile, a tough spot to recruit for has been Haiti.

“Once you have a specific language requirement, the candidate pool gets smaller and it becomes more difficult to fill positions,” says Melanie Myers, a former director of recruiting and staffing at Save the Children who still consults with the NGO.

And finding fluent French speakers who want to go to Haiti and have experience working in emergency or hardship situations makes a search even harder.

Tapping internal staff

Most organizations offer financial incentives to internal and external staffers who accept hardship posts.

The United Nations system, for instance, has what is called a mobility and hardship scheme. However, a recent reform in entitlements package reduced the hardship pay, making it difficult for the global body, in some instances, to hire people for difficult locations, particularly since staff are being asked to leave their families behind, according to a senior staff recruiter for one U.N. agency.

To address the challenge of hiring for hardship posts, recruiters at some organizations strongly encourage internal mobility, which is integrated into a broader career development program.

“The more we can tap into our own national staff to fill these positions, the better,” Myers says.

CARE uses a good mix of both internal and external staff for hardship posts. A rough estimate puts recruits for such positions at approximately 60 percent internal and 40 percent external staff.

Use of modern technology

Digital technology has helped tremendously to source candidates for hard-to-fill positions. Myers notes that she constantly uses Devex searches, and she also looks at LinkedIn. The Devex website hosts the largest online network of global development professionals and various search and tracking features targeted just toward recruiters.

As technology has improved, organizations also have gotten more access to information about their own local talent. One recruiter noted that technology has improved her ability to communicate with local staff and has allowed her to become more aware of career aspirations in each location. Myers notes that more and more agencies are using social media to identify candidates to build pipelines of talent to address future staffing needs.

Obviously, when there is a rapid onset emergency, and everyone is scrambling to recruit from the same group of people, technology becomes even more critical: Whoever can reach candidates quickly and effectively can maximize their chances for recruitment.

The gender challenge

Attempting gender equity adds another layer to the challenge of hiring for humanitarian and development hot spots, many of which are nonfamily locations.

The reality is that mobility and getting people to stay long enough in hardship locations often become more of a challenge as individuals get older and are raising families.

“We definitely have a lot of inequity because it is hard to find women willing to give up their [parental] responsibilities and see their kids only a few times a year,” says Tamara McKenzie, CARE’s global recruitment manager. “Until we can figure out how to better address this, it will always be the case.”

Even U.N. organizations that have higher numbers of women professionals compared to others note they still face challenges in getting women to take some of these difficult postings due to the issues around family and dual partners.

Proactive, strategic planning

According to McKenzie, monthly calls with peers in the industry make her job easier. These are designed to share information and resumes as well advice about challenging recruitment topics, including hiring for hard-to-fill openings.

Recruiters concede, however, that they have to and can do more to address the challenge.

“We need to spend more time anticipating where difficulties are in filling locations and do some creative planning,” Myers says, recalling that Save the Children created a strategy to develop a cadre of staff with strong technical skills in child protection after experiencing difficulty in sourcing people with such expertise.

About the author

  • Nina segal

    Nina Segal Kennedy

    Nina Segal occasionally blogs on career matters for both job seekers and HR employees for Devex. She works as an international career consultant with a broad range of nonprofit and international organizations, including UNICEF, UNFPA, the U.N. Secretariat, IFAD, FAO, Realizing Rights and the Ford Foundation, as well as individuals in the NGO community. Nina has a particular interest in building networks and improving access to career opportunities for underrepresented groups.