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Around the World in HR Ways

February 27, 2000
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Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, Global Outlook, Featured Article
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It would be hard to conjure a more complex HR challenge: You have a worldwide organization with staff of 8,500 representing the interests of more than 5.7 billion people in 188 nations and you have employees from cultures that are openly hostile.

Yet that’s the everyday charge of HR at the United Nations, this year’s Optimas Award winner for Global Outlook. Founded on October 24, 1945, the New York City-headquartered UN has 188 member states that maintain international peace and security. Moreover, its mission is to develop friendly relations among member nations and promote social progress, better living standards, and human rights.

To help achieve this lofty goal, the United Nations Office of Human Resources Management (OHRM) has spearheaded a quiet revolution in its worldwide HR practices.

Says Kofi Annan, the seventh secretary-general of the United Nations: "Compared to private-sector enterprises, the United Nations doesn’t invest enough in staff development. We must do better."

In his ongoing effort to modernize the United Nations, Annan, of Ghana, has outlined a vision for a new management culture.

Fortunately, his appreciation for human resources stems from professional experience. Between 1987 and 1990 Annan served as the assistant secretary-general for OHRM, a position that’s now held by Rafiah Salim, a lawyer and former HR executive in Malaysia. Both Annan and Salim emphasize that human resources must generate empowerment, responsibility, and accountability--which is a radical departure from the UN’s past practice.

In fact, until a few years ago, the only training that was offered to UN employees was language and computer instruction in Word Perfect. And performance evaluations were notoriously subjective and perfunctory.

But under Salim’s current leadership, human resources reform is a UN imperative. OHRM has focused on three main areas: HR planning, staff development, and performance management.

"We’re not doing rocket science HR management," says Kevin St. Louis, special assistant to Salim. "But we’re trying to get up to the standard of the developed world." Given the UN’s political, cultural, and religious complexities, marketing HR is a big part of the challenge. It’s no wonder that OHRM spawns not only traditional HR experts but also unofficial global diplomats.

UN General Assembly adopts HR reform.

Even before Annan became secretary-general, he advocated human resources reform. Interestingly, he is the first secretary-general to come from the ranks of United Nations employees. His renewal proposals were built on the HR strategies first adopted by the General Assembly in 1994.

According to St. Louis, it was the first time HR issues were ever put in writing. "I hate to say this, but up on the 38th floor [office of the secretary-general], they’re dealing with world problems," says St. Louis. Meetings normally include topics such as Kosovo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, disarmament, human security, and humanitarian assistance. Employee recruitment and career development were lesser priorities--until recently, he says. "Today, OHRM is working with the highest-ranking official to push change."

In 1996, OHRM asked for--and received--three new full-time posts to embody its HR priorities: HR planning, career development, and performance management. When Annan became secretary-general in October 1997, he immediately set up an HR Task Force for Reform, composed of experts from public and private sectors around the world.

Annan asked corporate experts, such as General Electric, to make concrete recommendations for the overhaul of the personnel system of the UN Secretariat. Among the shortcomings he identified were the following:

• Inadequate human resources planning has impaired the UN’s ability to identify short- and longer-term staffing needs.

• Complicated rules and procedures have served to discourage the recruitment, advancement, and mobility of staff. This affects the UN’s capacity to move the right person into the right job at the right time, which is an essential requirement for a global organization.

• Insufficient investment has been made in building the organization’s managerial capacity.

• Managers have limited responsibility over their human and financial resources. This erodes accountability on all levels of the organization.

Within the last two years, he and Salim (appointed in October 1997) have forged an internal executive partnership that firmly establishes HR as a priority. "We have some ways to go yet," says Salim. "HR still comes after the fact of [pressing] UN business, but with Annan, things are moving. What we are building now are HR structures around new competencies."

HR planning ensures organizational initiative.

As of 1998, OHRM had predicted that 11 percent of the Secretariat staff would retire by 2003. Virtually everyone at the New York City headquarters and in related offices around the world has been asked to complete a detailed online survey of their skills and experience.

The skills inventory, organized by OHRM, will assist in HR planning throughout the Secretariat, providing a clear analysis of what skills are being lost and helping to guide future recruitment. Even now, some key appointments, such as leading an overseas peacekeeping mission, are handed over to available employees who respond to the vacancy postings. Down the road, though, OHRM hopes to expand its recruitment efforts to reach the most qualified candidates, including those from the outside.

In order to align the competency data, OHRM also has developed an HR forecasting and modeling system that will further integrate human resources planning with program, organizational, and financial planning.

Ensuring such comprehensive practices is quite a political high-wire act, says Samsiah Abdul-Majid, communications specialist for OHRM. "There are many stakeholders in our organization," she says. They include general staff, staff managers, staff representatives, senior managers, and lower- and middle-level managers--not to mention the fact that OHRM works closely with executives on the 38th floor. "We have quite a mixed bag of people."

In some cases, instituting a particular HR practice is a matter of diplomacy, respecting a staff member’s culture and knowing the employee’s personality. One of the office’s goals, she says, is to have representatives from each member state employed somewhere in the UN Secretariat.

Member states are the most important stakeholders, equivalent to a corporation’s board of directors. One day, a representative might be an administrative officer at his embassy, the next year, the cultural attaché.

"Most of them are not HR gurus," adds St. Louis. "But the longer they’re here, the stronger HR allies they can become." Therefore, building short- and long-term relationships is standard fare for OHRM.

Develop competencies for the UN’s future.

According to Abdul-Majid, the HR tool "UN Competencies for the Future" has garnered the most staff feedback. Today, OHRM champions eight core competencies: communication, planning and organization, teamwork, accountability, creativity, client orientation, commitment to continuous learning, and technological awareness.

The six managerial competencies are leadership, vision, empowering others, building trust, managing performance, and judgment/decision making. Since 1996, over 95 percent of all UN senior-level managers and the majority of middle-level professionals with managerial responsibilities have participated in a People Management Program.

Particular attention has been given to junior professional staff because two-thirds of resignations in recent years have come from this group. One of OHRM’s goals is to provide them with the experience of at least two assignments during their first five years with the organization.

Although it may sound like fundamental HR for most American corporations, it’s revolutionary at the UN. When you consider that each of the 188 member states represents different values, cultures and religions, buy-in isn’t a done deal. Even such core values as "integrity" can raise certain eyebrows, says St. Louis. If you’re coming from an underdeveloped country, it may not be as important to you as basic survival.

Indeed, the United Nations has transformed from an organization that didn’t do training to one that prides itself on its competency policy. Staff development has become a shared responsibility among the OHRM, the managers, and the staff.

Another important means of assessing needs and establishing accountability is the performance appraisal system, also known as PAS. Staff are required to meet with their managers to establish performance goals to improve their skills sets.

To lead by example, St. Louis is planning to study French. Abdul-Majid is planning to upgrade her technological skills, and Salim will continue her study of Arabic.

Or if an employee simply wants to be transferred from one post to another, the PAS will allow human resources to better assess the viability.

Performance management will ensure transformation.

The new organizational culture that is envisioned by OHRM is expected to especially empower UN managers. In turn, they will be held accountable for areas that the hadn’t been before.

In the past, UN employees underwent periodic evaluation records. It was a very traditional quantitative assessment. Most everybody was rated with either an A or B, across the board in the Secretariat. Favored employees were identifiable by accompanying narratives. Seldom were employees demoted or fired, much less rewarded.

Today, major performance reviews are discussed by top-level managers on the 38th floor. Some departments have even been reprimanded for overrating their staff. Moreover, some warning letters have emanated directly from the secretary-general’s office. "This is a total cultural change," says St. Louis.

In addition, Salim and her directors form what is called the Management Review Committee, which looks at how the various offices in OHRM are implementing the planning and performance system. In terms of a reward system, this is an area still being explored. Something as simple as awarding a coffee mug for "a great job" could be considered an insult by some. There are no prevailing assumptions here at the United Nations.

Clearly, human resources reform is a process of continuous communication throughout the global organization. Many of the changes are far-reaching and will take years to achieve. But the greatest challenge right now is to get all the managers to carry them out. "We can’t stop developing. This is just the beginning," says Salim.

Workforce, March 2000, Vol. 79, No. 3, pp. 54-58.

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