HR ethics: Operating in areas of conflict

By Emma Campbell
Human Resources coordinator with Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Like any organisation, Medecins Sans Frontieres’ ability to function rests entirely on the strength of its team. But given our teams are made up of multiple nationalities, living together in extreme conditions, the importance of successful HR takes on a whole new dimension.

MSF field workers provide emergency medical aid to people affected by war, poverty and disease. Although it is often the international staff that attract attention, 90 per cent of our staff in project countries are actually national. As an HR field worker with MSF, you are responsible for recruiting these staff who go on to form the backbone of our projects. In this way, the organisation’s ability to deliver aid fast and effectively rests in your hands.

Some elements of this recruitment are much the same as anywhere in the world. As the HR officer it is essential you have a firm grasp of both national and international labour laws. You need to perform labour market analysis to ensure you are paying people a fair price for their skills. You need to ensure staff are offered development and training – an incredibly important part of MSF’s work. And you need to do all this within budget.

But there are other, ethical dimensions to HR in the field that require a whole additional set of skills and understanding.

MSF as an organisation is founded on the principles of independence, impartiality and neutrality. This essentially means that we provide care to whoever needs it, irrespective of race, creed or politics. Our aid is unconditional.

Having founding principles is nothing new in and of itself, but how they are applied by staff at MSF can be a matter of life or death. Our teams will not and cannot take sides: we will save the lives of those in need.

In practice, this means we at times have hospitals where those war wounded from both sides of a conflict may be treated at the same time.

To facilitate access to those most in need, we negotiate access with representatives from all sides in a conflict, be they war lords or government officials.

For the international staff who choose to come to work for MSF, it is often these very principles that draw them to us.  But many of our national staff come from the very communities we are trying to help. When we ask them to embrace these principles, it is not in the abstract sense. They may be required to provide life-saving aid to people who they have viewed with hostility.

As an HR professional with MSF, being aware of and showing sensitivity for the experiences – past and present – of your national staff is essential. Ensuring they are fully prepared for the reality of what MSF’s impartiality and neutrality means in action is even more so.

And this is what I have always found so humbling. Irrespective of the personal tragedies they have suffered, time and time again we have national staff who are able to overcome internal, ethical dilemmas and truly embrace, in a very real sense, what independence, impartiality and neutrality means when it comes
to saving lives.

To me, this shows the best in humanity. And as an HR professional, recruiting these individuals, and supporting them to function as a team with people from around the world can be frustrating, challenging, but overall, it’s incredibly rewarding.

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This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the November 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Ethical dilemma’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.

Credits: HRMonline

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