Working for HR in the voluntary sector can often seem a humdrum existence. But when Katherine Galliano was sent to manage the personnel situation in the Sudan, she found out what working at the sharp end really means
Faced with a large group of employees openly brandishing weapons at work, most HR professionals would call the police. At the very least, they would threaten disciplinary action.
Unfortunately for Katherine Galliano, neither of these options were available to her when faced with exactly that scenario earlier this summer.
As head of HR for charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in the UK, Galliano has just returned from a six-week trip to Darfur in western Sudan - which has the biggest humanitarian medical emergency facing the world today. In helping to manage the flow of MSF's Sudanese national staff, she faced a number of unexpected situations - not least trying to overcome the Darfur tradition of males strapping a tribal knife on their upper arm.
"I can laugh about it now, but facing a group of 50 men carrying knives is pretty daunting," she explained.
"It wasn't easy telling the staff that they weren't allowed to bring their knives with them. It had to be discussed with them sensitively to get them to understand and agree with our policy."
Galliano, a qualified nurse and midwife who has been at MSF for eight years, two as head of HR of its UK branch, admitted that the negotiations involved give and take on both sides. "To ask, for example, guards not to carry knives is very hard and you have to accept that some will. We just had to ask them not to use them," she said.
"Of course, there are other issues you have to consider, like not letting the locals know that our guards are not actually carrying knives either."
The incident highlights the challenges Galliano faces as one of 18 HR directors across the globe. They are charged with organising the HR elements of MSF's foreign operations.
"Emergencies just happen - there is no time to plan," she said. "The challenge for me is keeping up with the rapid pace of hiring national staff. Often potential candidates don't have official documents such as birth certificates, certificates of education or professional diplomas because they lost all their belongings when they were forced to flee their burning villages.
"We have had to adapt our policies to the current situation."
Formulating employment policies and drawing up contracts might not seem important when lives are at stake, but they help all parties," Galliano said.
"It is never a priority for someone to have a job title so we do it in reverse - get them working and sort the details out afterwards," she said. "If we know people are going to be working for us we want to make sure they have the right benefits. Establishing trust is key and cash is important - people don't worry about bonuses."
MSF does its best to ensure national staff are not placed in situations that might compromise them. "For example, if someone was to see a tub of malaria pills you would expect them to grab a handful, purely to help family and friends out," said Galliano. "You wouldn't send a national into a situation where they may face pressure from others. That's where the 'expats' come in."
Recruiting expatriates is a key part of Galliano's role and one that throws up many challenges. "Retention is probably our biggest problem," she said. "We don't have a problem with people doing short periods overseas, but longer term is more of an issue, due to family commitments and NHS career paths."
To help overcome this, MSF provides training and development so people can progress, and ensures positions are flexible and not all field-based. The charity also provides a peer support network and, if necessary, counselling, for expats returning home from foreign aid operations.
As well as running the HR operation for vital foreign aid missions, Galliano also has the more humdrum task of looking after personnel issues at MSF's London office - which has its drawbacks. "Health and safety is the biggest pain in the neck," she said. "Remembering to sanitise the shower head in the office every month can be hard, when there are bigger things to think about on the other side of the world."
Galliano will hope to forget about knife policies and showerheads when she leaves her Barnes home for a diving holiday in Australia this week. "After six weeks working in Darfur without a day off, I think it's time for some relaxation," she said.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF)
MSF is an international humanitarian aid organisation that provides emergency medical assistance to populations in danger in more than 80 countries. In countries where health structures are insufficient or even non-existent, MSF collaborates with authorities such as the Ministry of Health to provide assistance. MSF works in rehabilitation of hospitals and dispensaries, vaccination programmes and water and sanitation projects. MSF also works in remote healthcare centres, slum areas and provides training of local personnel. The objective is to rebuild health structures to acceptable levels.
Katherine Galliano's CV
Background to Darfur crisis
July 2002 Head of HR, Medecins Sans Frontieres UK
Dec 1996-June 2002 HR Officer, Medecins Sans Frontieres UK
Sept 1994-Oct 1996 Recruitment consultant and branch manager, LPNS Ltd/Manpower
March 1994-Sept 1994 Midwife, Hammersmith Hospital
Jan 1991-May 1992 Kingston
Hospital NHS Trust
The crisis in Sudan
's western region of Darfur
is the world's worst humanitarian emergency, the United Nations says.
Around one million people have fled their homes and up to 50,000 people have been killed.
Pro-government Arab militias are accused of ethnic cleansing and even genocide against the region's black African population.