You’re Fired! Not a phrase heard often in the sector
“Ha ha. I work for the UN. Nobody gets fired.”
“I have worked with too many colleagues – senior managers included – who were not qualified for the jobs they were hired to do. I wish the development and aid industry would take on a more private sector approach when staff clearly are not performing in their jobs – despite coaching, training, investment etc. It makes me angry that public funds from taxpayers or donors are wasted.”
–36+yo female local aid worker
“Fired? Really? Does this happen? I wish more would be fired, the incompetence in this sector is one of the reasons I will probably lose confidence in the system.”
–36+yo female HQ worker
“My position does allow me a line of sight to the HR processes in some of the terminations at my org. All of those reasons explain why people I know of were fired: those that were promoted too high too fast and aren’t competent in their current roles are often “downsized”, those who chronically bump heads with their superiors are often “downsized” (whether personality clashes or different of philosophy), and I’ve seen an (otherwise) good employee drive drunk once using the company vehicle (and then lie about it!) “resign” in the middle of the investigation. In my org, at least, many more employees are “downsized” or during a “restructure” their job description changes, and they’re asked to reapply and don’t get it. Not too many are outright fired (due to legal liability that would open us up to). Others simply don’t have their contracts renewed when they expire.”
Where we’re headed
Below I both present more data -mostly qualitative- and also offer some analysis, comment and opinion regarding gettin’ fired in the aid worker world.
The big picture?
Gross generalization: this sector’s work-force profile is the way it is because of the nature of the work and the unique -and recent- exponential growth in the number of aid entities in the last 20 years.
For present purposes we can go with the most basic taxonomy: there for-profit and not-for-profit organizational entities. In general, in the for-profit sector there is very little patience for incompetence and, given chronically high under and unemployment factors, -that is, it is a buyers market- it is understood that lack of performance will get you fired; the bottom line is the bottom line. A related factor is that measuring output/performance is, at base, very simple in the for-profit world; again, the bottom line is the bottom line. In direct relation to the difficulty of quantifying performance the nature of the firing process gets more complicated. Hence in the non-profit world the deliverables may be inherently more nuanced and non-quantifiable. Yes, some tasks are easier than others onto which attach metrics, but there are so many tasks the outcome of which is (1) long term/beyond the contract period of the worker, (2) interconnected with myriad other factors that make it difficult to discern clear linear impact, and (3) are part of a team effort that make individual contribution hard to parse out.
The not-for-profit world includes many organizations such as in the humanitarian aid world but also, for example, higher education. As an academic I am keenly aware of the promotion and tenure process and know well the battles that are fought over what “counts” toward same. Indeed, in my world, unfortunately, not being able to make that which is real measurable we tend to make that which is measurable real. Translation: publish or perish because you can’t measure service and “good teaching.”
The nature of the humanitarian aid world
There will always be those who feel they belong in the humanitarian aid world in whatever role because they feel compelled to “help”. I stand by my assertion that this is a basic human need; we are wired to feel empathy (mirror neurons, anyone?). As one respondent put it, “There will always be disasters, there will always be poverty and there will always be some people who feel impelled to try and make a difference.”
Given the questions we asked there is no way to tell if our respondents associated with at any specific aid organization -with the major exception knowing that 6.5% of our respondents work “somewhere in the UN System”- but my guess is that very few if any were with MSF. Their reputation in the aid world was clearly elevated -and affirmed?- in 1999 when they received the Nobel Peace Prize, and my sense is that though they “play well with others” on important matters there is a clear demarcation between “us” and other aid organizations. On a smaller scale, in Haiti Partners in Health can be seen in a similar light.
The reason I am pointing this out is that I believe that what these two organizations have established is what the rest of the industry appears to lack, namely very high entry and renewal standards for all associates.
There is a non-existent -or at the very best, weak culture of firing in the sector in many organizations. As evidenced by our respondents comments, that this should change is without question. But how do you create and sustain a “culture of firing?”
That is, how do you close the wide gap between what we say standards are and actual behavior?
Reasons why people do not get fired
A reading of all the narrative responses yields the following observations. People do not get fired because (1) a warm body that can function minimally is better than an empty desk; something is better than nothing (“Lots of people think their very presence is valuable, because poor people need all the help they can get or something.”, (2) metrics for performance are unclear and hard to measure, (3) it is much easier to just let a contract run out and not renew, i.e., passive firing (said one respondent, “Honestly, it can be hard to be fired. Many people simply don’t have their contracts renewed.”), and (4) the hiring process can be time consuming and, ultimately, more trouble than it is worth for the supervisor.
Q48 asked “Some humanitarian aid workers leave because they are fired. Which below do you think is the most common reason humanitarian aid workers are fired?” Here are the responses:
A robust number of respondents -341- chose to complete the open-ended question Q49: “Please use the space below to elaborate on the question above concerning what you think is the most common reason humanitarian aid workers are fired?” Here are some of their responses.
- “I don’t think nearly enough aid workers get fired for chronic incompetence. If it was up to me there’d be more of it. The problem with people on 3, 6, 12 month contracts is people are too busy / not good enough at management to performance appraise, and tend to just let people’s contracts lapse, or let them move on – noone reference checks properly, or does informal checks, and it means genuinely dreadful aid workers get employed again and again. This does real damage to the NGO sector. The UN is probably worse by the experience I have had of those agencies – so well paid, and benefits so good that complacent, disenfranchised people stay in jobs otherwise their kids would have to come out of boarding school/they’d have to give up that holiday house and the enormous DSRs. It’s dispiriting. I’m sorry if that doesnt quite answer your question, but I have not really seen many people fired. The only was was , a bad judgement on security brought on by incompetence and inexperience. Sometimes also people are promoted way too quickly and
lack any depth of knowledge on a context which can lead to some very naive decision making.” female 31yo+ expat aid worker
- “Incompetence generally doesn’t get people fired on its own (not unless it results in some really major fuck up), but incompetence coupled with interpersonal issues with a superior is definitely going to put someone at real risk of losing their job. Interpersonal issues really come to prominence in shared housing.” female 26yo+ expat aid worker
- “Unfortunately, incompetence is more rarely the cause of losing your job as a humanitarian worker, than politics around principles, opinions or personality differences within the team (not necessarily a superior).” female 26+ expat aid worker
- Chronic incompetence is the least likely reason….” 36yo+ male HQ aid worker
- “I think it’s incredibly difficult to fire people in this field and most who are fired are for issues to do with supervisors. Not incompetence. That’s usually encouraged or promoted (seriously..).” 31yo+ female working in the UN system
- “Man, if people got fired from humanitarian aid jobs because of chronic incompetence, the industry would be a better place. I think most people get fired out of a combination of interpersonal issues with superiors or funders, combined with a sense that they’re not quite what the organization needs.” 36yo+ male in regional office
- “It really has to be chronic, chronic incompetence as the sector seems to recycle poorly performing workers all the time.” non-white female 26yo+ expat aid worker
- “Unfortunately, it is not for reasons for which firing should occur (eg. sexual misconduct, abuse of minors, fraud) but for failing to successfully navigate relationships with a boss. I have never been fired, by the way, but seen many occasions where it unjustly occurred, or unjustly did not occur.” 41+yo female expat aid worker
- “I would guess that the most common reasons would be interpersonal issues and a difference of opinion. Aid workers have strong personalities and strong opinions…and sometimes superiors have plenty of pride. A moment of bad judgement could also lead to being fired.” female 26yo+ expat aid worker
- “Incompetence plagues this sector. Many people get jobs through personal connections with little or no relevant experience. Training is generally poor and opportunities to learn come from other people with academic and developing world experience only. We need more people transitioning from senior private sector roles ideally to up-skill the development labour force.” 31+ female expat aid worker
The data indicate that people do, rarely, get fired because of gross inappropriate behavior, to be sure, but it appears that personality clashes, especially with superiors, is a more common reason.
I was a bit surprised how strong the “incompetence does not get you fired” thread was throughout the 341 respondents, but there you go. Having said that, as I look at other sectors both for-profit and not-for-profit one can find similar dynamics at play. Despite Donald Trump’s popularization of the phrase, “You’re fired!” in many sectors it is just not that common. In the US at least, people are forced out, leave as they see the writing on the wall, get transferred, downsized, “made redundant” in all manner of creative ways, etc. -all the reasons permutations mentioned above in our aid worker data- in lieu of getting the proverbial “pink slip.”
Is the aid sector really all that different? Certainly we do not have the data for any conclusion along that line but I offer the conjecture that any exceptionality is a matter of degree, not of kind.
Human Resource officers take note
Aid workers are frustrated by many aspects of their employment, especially when it comes to working with and dealing with the consequent actions of incompetent co-workers. This is certainly evidenced in the data from Q’s 48 and 49 and, of course, cannot come as a huge surprise to anyone in the sector. For me the take home from a HR perspective from the above includes at least action points:
- do more and better background screening of any new hires, especially those who are making lateral moves
- have more extensive exit interviewing of all employees (make it a condition of final pay if necessary) and use those data effectively to make hiring and care-and-feeding policy decisions
- do not promote beyond credentialed expertise; sometimes nothing is better than an incompetent something
- consider more extensive psychological/personality testing of potential hires
- make more public and obvious rubrics/expectations for performance
- use every new hire, lateral move or promotion as an opportunity to move your organization in a positive direction, especially regarding weeding out the marginal and those who fail to grasp and hold true to the core missions of the aid sector
- network with your HR counterparts across the sector to work toward more standardization of hiring criterion and
- perhaps most importantly, start in the interview process creating a more demonstrative “culture of firing” (as mentioned above) and reinforce this rhetoric with action
A warning of a coming demographic change
The work force in the US and in much of the rest of the Western world is aging, and this demographic shift will have an impact on the aid sector in the not too distant future. This can be seen as good news. Organizational cultures with low staff turnover are slow to change, but those with rapid turnover can use this dynamic to bring about desired cultural change. Another post will have to be devoted to that topic, but, in short, this can be seen as a moment of crisis for the aid sector. We have all heard the trope that the Chinese character for crisis is the combination of danger and opportunity, and perhaps now is a time for the entire sector to devote some time looking into the future and planning for how to be more robust, effective and, at the very least, find a way to weed out the incompetent.