No organisational resilience without inclusive staff security – Coffee with Adelicia Fairbanks, European Interagency Security Forum (EISF)

24 November 2017

HHR Asia is starting on Monday in Bangkok: 50 human resources (HR) professionals will get together to discuss how to build resilient organizations in a changing humanitarian sector. We had a quick virtual coffee with Adelicia Fairbanks, Research Adviser at the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF), to chat about the safety and security of humanitarian staff

At HHR Asia you will be addressing an audience composed of HR professionals? What is your main message to them?

At EISF our aim is to support organisations when it comes to improving the safety and security of their employees in order to ultimately help organisations obtain sustainable access to populations in need. One of my main messages to the HR professionals who will be present in Bangkok will be to work more closely with their colleagues who are in charge of security. They must create an enabling environment for their security colleagues to take the diverse profiles of aid workers into account.

What kinds of profiles are we talking about – and how can HR professionals practically contribute to the safety of aid workers?

I’m thinking of staff members with disabilities. I’m also thinking about LGBTI staff members. Do aid organisations provide specific security guidance and support when deploying them to countries where their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression (SOGIE) is not legal or culturally accepted? Do they consider the race or ethnicity of their staff members before deploying them to certain conflict areas? It is essential that HR professionals help their colleagues who are in charge of security to understand and address the needs of aid workers with different profiles.

At the moment, particularly in relation to LGBTI staff, lots of organisations seem to still be adopting a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach, and this represents a risk for their staff members’ resilience, and hence for their overall organizational resilience. LGBTI aid workers still report that their difference can sometimes represent an additional strain on them while operating in a crisis area where they cannot be open about their SOGIE with the wider community or even with their colleagues. Without targeted security guidance and support in these contexts, some LGBTI colleagues may live in a state of tension which can have bad implications for their mental health. How can they take care of their aid programme if they cannot take care of themselves? In other words, how can you deal with a crisis if you may yourself be struggling with an internal crisis situation?

It is important that HR and people management professionals realize that security really touches on everything and that it is essential that their security colleagues sit at the table when discussing programming and recruitment.

How can HR and security professionals collect information about the diversity of their aid workers while respecting individuals’ rights to privacy, equality, diversity and inclusion?

There are ways of asking information that are not discriminatory. Data protection and confidentiality matters must always be taken into account. Good practice in security risk management suggests risk assessing roles prior to recruiting a new staff member and then again upon identifying the most qualified candidate. This helps better understand the context in which the new staff member would be operating in and what risks given identity profiles might be exposed to. This helps the organisation put in place the necessary measures to meet the security needs of the new staff member’s particular profile.

What if on the basis of this information you decide not to recruit a particular candidate even though they may have the exact competences and skills for which you were looking? Wouldn’t that be deemed discriminatory and even contrary to the law?

It can be very sensitive, indeed. This is why, again, it is important to have HR and security colleagues working closely together to ensure their decision is justified and in the best interests of staff security, while at the same time ensuring that it is not in contradiction with the law. It is important to set clear eligibility criteria at the earliest stages of the recruitment process. You can be specific about the profile that you are looking for provided you can justify your choice. Women shelters may decide to recruit female social workers exclusively, for instance. This could be considered discriminatory towards male candidates, but the choice to recruit only female candidates can be justified.

How do people usually react when you raise their awareness about the security of aid workers with diverse profiles?

I made a presentation at HHR Europe in Helsinki in September this year and most participants expressed a lot of interest. I have to admit, though, that I usually get very mixed feedback. Some people are uncomfortable with the topic or consider that we are creating unnecessary complications, but feedback from aid workers with diverse profiles has shown us that this is an issue that has been left unaddressed for too long. EISF had the same reaction when discussing sexual violence against aid workers only a few years ago, and it is evident from the news today how important it is to keep raising an issue even if initially not everyone is on board. There is a lot that HR professionals and security colleagues can do together to improve the safety, security and overall well-being of aid workers with diverse profiles.

Adelicia Fairbanks is Research Adviser at the European Interagency Security Forum (EISF), where she is responsible for producing original research papers, articles, blogs and guides that help share and promote best practices in security risk management within the humanitarian sector, with the aim of building the capacity of security practitioners. She is currently managing a research project on the security of staff with diverse profiles.

She has over five years’ experience working in key international non-governmental organisations and research institutions supporting their humanitarian, human rights, and development work in countries across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean.