Talking about turnover – Part II: solutions

In my previous post I introduced the issue of turnover in humanitarian organizations, trying to explain, based on the available literature, why it presents challenges and what are the possible reasons that lead employees to leave organizations. In this post I will deal with some of the solutions that have been suggested and/or implemented to counter the issue. At the end of the post I will discuss what are in my humble opinion possible directions for further research.

For the sake of clarity and of space, I will not enter a general discussion on turnover and retention, which is dealt with by a large literature. Some of the works cited below (in particular the dissertation of Miranda Visser) offer a proper review of the literature, and I refer to them.

It’s about building loyalty

In the general summary on turnover for People in Aid, David Loquercio (p. 12) points out how, as each organization might be facing different challenges, a first step in solving a problem with retention should be the identification of the main drivers of turnover (for example by means of regular staff surveys). He then identifies on the basis of the People in Aid Code of Good Practice of 2003 (the Code of Good Practice has since been incorporated and superseded by the CHS) seven principles that can be considered critical areas of intervention, and for each of them some criticalities that often fail to be addressed. I sum these up in the following table:

Principle Critical aspect
1.  Human Resources Strategy: Human resources are an integral part of our strategic and operational plans Investment in HR departments
2.  Staff Policies and Practices: Our human resources policies aim to be effective, fair and transparent Building a relationship of trust and loyalty by the agency (and line managers)
3.  Managing People: Good support, management and leadership of our staff is key to our effectiveness Building people and management skills of line managers
4.   Consultation and Communication: Dialogue with staff on matters likely to affect their
employment enhances the quality and effectiveness of our policies and practices
Improvement of internal communication
5.  Recruitment and Selection: Our policies and practices aim to attract and select a diverse workforce with the skills and capabilities to fulfil our requirement –  Avoidance of excessive expectations

–  Identification of adequate benefits other than pay

–   Enlargement of the pool of candidates (e.g., people from corporate sector)

6.  Learning, Training and Development: Learning, training and staff development are promoted throughout the organisation –    Opportunities for development

–    Provision of job stability

–    Alternatives to project-based funding

7.   Health, Safety and Security: The security, good health and safety of our staff are a
prime responsibility of our organisation
Consideration for quality of life of the employees

Loquercio further develops this framework in the paper written together with Mark Hammersley and Ben Emmens, with an even stronger emphasis on the identification of metrics and the setup of a proper monitoring system as a starting point for the development of a retention strategy. In terms of practical steps, the suggestion is to clearly plan in advance the needs of the organization in terms of human resources, anticipating the staff needs for the following year and relying more on longer-term contracts to cover the projected needs, while at the same time strengthening emergency rosters to cover unexpected needs (for example by means of temporary duty assignments and with a stronger involvement of local and non-expat staff).

The authors hence suggest a framework based on the construction of longer-term commitments, with a central role of the psychological contract between the employee and the employer, in the perspective of building loyalty and mutual trust. In such a framework, great importance is devoted on one side to good sourcing – ensuring that the employee is a “good fit” for the organization (through, also, the development and use of competency frameworks) and on the other side to proper care of staff wellbeing and development, through the development of a people management framework by means of which to assess staff performance, provide strategic leadership, growth opportunities and ensure vertical and lateral mobility (see figure below).

Screenshot 2018-04-16 17.56.36
From Loquercio, Hammersley, Emmens, Understanding and addressing staff turnover in humanitarian agencies, HPN Network Paper n. 55, June 2006, p. 16

Does it work?

The authors do not provide an analysis of measures that have been taken (although they mention some examples of good practices), but rather suggests a framework for action. These contributions were produced more than ten years ago, but there are only few systematic assessments on the factual implementation of the measures suggested, and on their effectiveness.

A partial exception are the case studies collected in by Ian Vale in the final report of the People In Aid and ECB Horn of Africa Consortium ‘Addressing Retention In The Horn of Africa Project’, a project explicitly based on the recommendations of Loquercio et al. and on the 2003 PiA Code of Good practice. The final part of the report contains a few case studies of application of some of the measures suggested: based on the impressions of the parts involved, it emerges that the measures seem to have a positive impact on the morale of the organizations, although the impact on retention remains difficult to estimate, and the evidence is purely anecdotical.

The most comprehensive attempt in understanding what works in terms of retention in the humanitarian sector is probably the PhD dissertation of Miranda Visser, based on an extensive survey carried on MSF-OCA workers. The research is focused on the correlation between a number of good practices (like devolution of responsibilities, provision of trainings,  involvement of the workforce) and general well-being, organizational commitment, trust in management and turnover intentions, as summarized in the table below (select for zoom):


From Visser, Loyalty in humanity : turnover among expatriate humanitarian aid workers. [S.l.] : [S.n.], 2015.
As the author remarks, the study has the limit of focusing on only one organization (which has a unique culture and business model) and hence generalizations of the conclusions should be avoided. However, in this specific case it emerges that good HRM practices do have an impact in turnover intentions, which is not totally dissimilar to what the literature suggests happens in other sectors. As the author concludes:


[the] findings suggest that: humanitarian aid workers respond to HRM practices much like employees in other sectors. Hence, the use of HRM and job design may indeed be a feasible, effective way to influence turnover-related attitudes and eventually reduce turnover in the humanitarian sector as well.
Second, our social-embeddedness approach highlights the importance of
creating a working environment in which employees perceive their work relations as of good quality and their management to be trustworthy.

The findings of this quantitative research seem to confirm the effectiveness of factors like construction of loyalty and investment in the development of employees, consistently with what suggested by Loquercio, as well as by other surveys based on interviews and qualitative evidence (see the works by Tirfe p. 40, Dadié p. 58, Sciberas p. 38, also this is consistent with the findings of Dubey et al., according to whom internal factors like employment perception and job satisfaction are central in predicting turnover intentions).

However, the research doesn’t take into account the potential role of a longer-term commitments based on longer or open-end contracts, as the author excluded these factors by design (see p. 49), possibly by reason of MSF particular structure and business model (MSF has only a very limited number of open end contracts and has a strong volunteer mentality and compared to other organizations they rely on purpose on even shorter-term assignments). The findings of another quantitative study focusing on MSF staff, by Korff et al., seem to confirm indirectly that this is a factor affecting turnover, although the authors are more interested in the triggers of turnover, rather than on solutions (you can see the previous post for more details). Still, the authors suggest measures aimed to make career options more appealing and structured, like devising approaches that make easier to alternate fieldwork and headquarters assignments, design specific career paths and investing on the involvement of staff from developing countries.

Although some NGOs have done some work in this direction (most notably Oxfam GB, see the notes in the report by de Calan, p. 11), I wasn’t able to find comprehensive studies on the issue, which remains to be properly assessed. Its importance seems to be confirmed by the workers interviewed by Tirfe and Sciberas, and there is probably a wide, if not confirmed, consensus among workers in identifying it as a relevant aspect in shaping career decisions.

It can also be noted that longer or open-end contracts might positively affect retention inasmuch they introduce an “inertial” component that minimizes “push” factors (in other words, it is probably more difficult for an employee to quit an organization, rather than not renewing a contract). If is however debatable if such a dynamic can lead to positive effects in terms of overall job satisfaction.

Conclusions. A technical or a political issue?

Although the evidence available is still scant, a picture of measures that can potentially work in terms of reduction of turnover and improvement of retention is available, if still blurred. There is a body of best practices that can be implemented, depending on the needs and values of the organizations (what works for MSF doesn’t necessarily work well for Oxfam, and vice versa). Most of the measures rely on building a stronger bound between employer and employee, by means of a stronger psychological contract between the two parts, if not by legally committing to a working relationship longer than the one normally offered to aid workers.

Interestingly, salary doesn’t emerge clearly as a core factor of decision. This might be due to the fact that the same nature of the work put in second order considerations of financial nature. On the other hand, financial reasons might be also an uneasy factor to discuss openly in the context of an interview, exactly because a humanitarian worker is supposed to be moved by other reasons. The quantitative surveys based on MSF are also blind in this regard, for the same reasons I noted above about MSF (which tends to pay salaries below the average of the sector). However, an internal review of the MSF internal remuneration system identified how remuneration had a negative impact on attracting and motivating staff (which was considered positive, as the organization seeks staff motivated purely by humanitarian reasons) and in retaining staff (which is considered a negative effect), suggesting that remuneration has in fact an impact.

Any research of this kind should take into account the wide disparities of salaries between (and in some cases within) INGOs, which can easily be three-fold (and in some extreme cases eight/nine-fold) for positions of similar responsibility. It would be interesting to understand if there is a correlation between higher and lower salaries and turnover, or if this variable is in fact not affecting employees’ choices.

It finally remains to understand if organizations that are facing issues with turnover and failure to retain employees are in fact implementing some of the measures suggested, and should this not be the case, for which reasons.

Lack of resources is often mentioned as the main culprit. This is a point noted by many of the authors mentioned, as the measures suggested, especially those in terms of longer term contracts, do require resources (financial but also human) that many organizations do not have (often by reasons of a business model whereby most of the HR costs are covered with project money).

It is clear that donors have an important role, and it can be argued that more flexibility with regard to overhead costs could have a positive impact on retention and the quality of humanitarian work at large – this is however part of a wider debate that would be too long to deal with here.

It would be however interesting to understand if there are other constraints alongside lack of resources, in particular if organizations consider failure to retain an issue worth to be tackled. In other words, possible technical solutions to the problem have been identified, it is still to be understood if there is a strong political will to tackle the problem. Bearing in mind what we mentioned about costs, in many instances the final choice might be a matter of trade-offs between competing necessities.

Given the impact that failure to retain staff has on the quality of humanitarian aid, understanding the impact of these trade-offs and finding an adequate solution to the problem could result in dramatic improvements for aid workers and most importantly for aid recipients.


Dadyé Synzi, Staff retention strategies in a humanitarian context: The challenge of the Generation Y, MBA Dissertation, Dublin Business School, 2015

de Calan Cécile, Recruter et fidéliser le personnel humanitaire. Bilan et enseignements des pratiques actuelles, People in Aid, 2008

Loquercio David, Turnover and retention: General summary prepared by David Loquercio for People in Aid, January 2006

Loquercio David, Hammersley Mark and Emmens Ben, Understanding and addressing staff turnover in humanitarian agencies, HPN Network Paper n. 55, June 2006 (mentioned as Loquercio et al.)

Sciberras Dimitri, Why is staff turnover an issue for Humanitarian Organisations and what are the strategies to this matter?, Bachelor Project submitted for the Bachelor of Science HES in Business Administration, Haute école de gestion de Genève, 2015

Tirfe Lensa Kuma, Staff turnover in Humanitarian Organizations: From NOHA Program Graduates Perspective, 2007

Vale Ian, Addressing Staff Retention in the Horn of Africa, People in Aid, 2010

Visser Miranda, Loyalty in humanity : turnover among expatriate humanitarian aid workers. [S.l.] : [S.n.], 2015

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