HR challenges in a war zone
By Duff McCutcheon
Amid all the warplanes, guns and Canadian soldiers battling the Taliban in Afghanistan, there’s an important HR component that’s just as crucial to winning the war. While not HR professionals per se, Canadian civilian contractors are busy recruiting and managing Afghans to perform the day-to-day tasks—cooking, cleaning, construction, translation—necessary to rebuilding the embattled country. And as part of NATO’s Afghan First policy, which is based on the fundamentals of Afghan leadership and ownership, it’s crucial to winning local hearts and minds as well as developing Afghan skills, supporting the local economy and currency, while reducing support for the insurgency.
HR Professional talked to the Canadian Department of Defence’s Luc Maillet on the HR challenges involved in the war in Afghanistan.
HRP: Tell us about your work and what kinds of roles you’re recruiting for in Afghanistan.
LM: In Canada, I was procurement officer. The job I will go back to [in Canada] is Chartered Airlift with Department of National Defence. I’m a civilian employee. I’m here because I have a background in contracting.
In Afghanistan, I’m with the Canadian Department of Defense’ Joint Contracts Cells. We are subject matter experts and oversee contracting activities in theatre [where Canadian Forces are active around the world]. We contract for goods, services and construction, and personnel are included in this. Our training is strictly in contracting and contract management.
“Locally engaged personnel” are often instrumental for successful Canadian Forces missions abroad because they can address shortfalls by providing invaluable labour and other services that cannot be found within the task force. We recruit for unskilled contractors such as general labourers, kitchen helpers, cleaners; then more skilled personnel, such as barbers, tailors or plumbers, carpenters; up to high-skill contractors including logistics and language assistance.
As of the end of October 2010, we had approximately 272 active locally engaged personnel contracts.
HRP: Is it Canadian Forces policy to recruit locals while in theatre?
LM: Yes, this is standard for us to contract locally—especially in Afghanistan where we want to engage the local population. It’s a goodwill gesture—we’re here to win hearts and minds and it’s all part of the broader “Afghan First” policy.
HRP: How have your recruiting policies and procedures evolved to reflect the realities in Afghanistan?
LM: We do have policies, procedures and guidelines that we use for contracting for services; and like most policies and procedures, they evolve over time. Afghanistan is no exception. We learn about their culture and practices and they learn about ours; and as we move along we adapt as required.
Customs are a good example. Whereas we’ll be at the office Monday to Friday, Friday is their holy day and we’ve adapted for that. They won’t come in Fridays, but they normally work six days a week, whereas we take the weekends off.
Another example is punctuality. That’s not something that’s valued as highly by Afghans. However, as they work with us, they’ve been adapting. Plus, it falls under contract management: They understand that when they sign a contract, there are terms and conditions and their contract can be terminated if those are breached. It’s made clear at the beginning that you have to show up and if you don’t, then you don’t get paid.
HRP: What kinds of background checks do you have to perform to ensure you’re not recruiting an enemy?
LM: All contractors go through robust background checks. We have our own security section in Afghanistan that administers this and we only contract with personnel that have been screened and cleared—that’s our main method of ensuring that we don’t contract with the wrong people.
In addition, we have procedures for dealing with Afghan contractors, including controlled access. We give them access to certain areas and we know when they come and leave.
HRP: What have been your biggest HR challenges in recruiting and managing contractors in Afghanistan?
LM: The biggest challenge is that we lack the mechanism to post contract opportunities. In Canada we advertise on the online government tendering system (Merx.ca). We don’t have that option here, but we do have people coming to us looking for work. Also, now that we’ve been here for awhile, we have people who have done work for us spread the word so others come seeking work as well. It’s been a gradual thing.
Another challenge is navigating the various clan and tribal affiliations that are so important to local life in Afghanistan. For example, if you’re building a road and you have to cross tribal boundaries, some tribes don’t want a contractor from a rival tribe building on their turf, so we’ll end up contracting with several different tribes so they each build a section of the road.
Our process is open and transparent and we invite people to come and bid. We try to spread the wealth as much as possible, but we don’t intentionally award contracts to various tribes or ethnic groups. We don’t go looking for contractors, we ask them to come to us.
Don’t know how much history Afghans have with bidding process, but some are very good at it and some need help.
There have been no other significant challenges. We have very few terminations— Afghans are providing the services that are spelled out in their contracts. Why does it run so smoothly? I think we have a pretty good system in place. In Canada, you have to deal with bureaucracy and paperwork that can often cause difficulties. Here, if someone shows up at the gate with a resumé, we have our policies and procedures, the wheels start turning and we have them fill out some paperwork, screen them, have them sign a comprehensive contract and they’re working. The procedure is very simple. Many of the Afghans we deal with are not overly educated, especially the unskilled contractors. We pay them a fair wage and it just works.
HRP: What’s life like for you personally living and working in Afghanistan?
LM: The Kanadahar base is like living in a small city. There are a whole lot of people confined in a very small area. You work in close quarters, live in close quarters with a roommate; eat in crowded dining facilities. There’s not a lot of privacy. And your living conditions depend on what nation you come from: some have good accommodations, others less so. Canada has one of the better accommodations.
There are inconveniences: extreme heat in summer, lots of dust, lots of traffic.
Post script: In arranging this story, the writer asked the Canadian Force’s Task Force Kandahar Public Affairs Officer for photos of local Afghan contractors working alongside Canadians. Her response illustrates the fact that Canada’s work in Afghanistan can be deadly: “For security reasons, we do not release imagery of some of the Afghans who provide a wide range of services to Canadians deployed in Afghanistan or to NATO Forces in general. LEP [Locally Engaged Personnel] take some risks by providing services to the international community. As such, we do our best to protect them, and one example consists of not releasing their picture.”
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