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A Day in the Life of Rafiah Salim HR Reform at the United Nations

June 1, 1999
Related Topics: Global Business Issues, The HR Profession, Featured Article
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Wednesday, April 7
New York City

There’s probably no organization whose mission is more noble—and complex—than the United Nations. I first learned of the UN in grammar school in the 1950s. After a class segment on World War II, our teacher ended the world history unit with the UN’s long-term vision of world peace. Today, the United Nations is a global entity of 185 sovereign States that voluntarily works for global peace, promotes friendship among all nations and supports economic and social progress.

The UN came into being on October 24, 1945. A forum for all nations of the world, it is a diverse meeting place that helps find solutions to disputes or problems, and acts on virtually any matter or concern to humanity: refugee protection in Kosovo, starvation in North Korea, illiteracy, eradicating landmines or fighting the AIDS epidemic, among other critical issues.

I had wanted to shadow the top human resources executive of the UN for a long time. But Rafiah Salim, assistant secretary-general for human resources management, was unavailable last year because she was flying back to her native land, Malaysia. Her e-mail then was quick and cordial, "I regret I cannot do the interview at this time. But please call me again next year." Perhaps she didn’t expect me to remember her offer, but I did.

As fate would have it, I set up my interview this year on the same day Rafiah was submitting a human resources statement to the General Assembly. In preparation for our meeting, her communications specialist, Samsiah Abdul-Majid, had sent me information regarding the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s (Ghana) efforts to modernize the United Nations.

In a recent report to the General Assembly on Human Resources Management Reform, Annan outlined a vision for a new management culture of empowerment, responsibility and accountability. The overarching goal, he says, "is to align our human resources with our global mission of peace, development and human rights around the world."

The Office of Human Resources Management (OHRM) is the personnel arm of the UN Secretariat. As such, it has begun to implement new measures to transform how the United Nations makes use of its staff and management of 8,500 core employees. This "quiet HR revolution" initially began in 1994, when the General Assembly adopted Annan’s reform strategy. In short, the strategy focuses on measures that will alter the delegation of authority, streamline procedures, improve HR planning, promote staff development and ensure long-term transformation.

8:30 a.m.
I arrive by taxi on the corner of 46th Street and First Avenue. In just one 360-degree turn, I can view a microcosm of the world: the UN General Assembly and Secretariat building, Raoul Wallenberg Walk, the National Bank of Pakistan, Allard Lowenstein Square and the formidable United States Mission —and employees of every hue passing the security gate with their ID badges. However, there are no colorful flags of the 185 member States flapping against the morning breeze. Only a UN flag flying at half-mast.

9:00 a.m.
My photographer and I arrive at the visitor’s desk to sign in and obtain our press passes for the day. In the cavernous lobby, we’re surrounded by beautiful works of art: a blue and gold mosaic entitled "Dove of Peace" presented by Pope John Paul II in 1979 and a mohair textile of a woman entitled "Hope" by Edite Pauls-Viguere from Latvia.

Soon we are greeted by Samsiah Abdul-Majid, also a Malaysian, who has worked for the United Nations for 25 years. On special assignment because of the mandate for HR reform, she serves as communications specialist for OHRM. I learn from her that the UN flag is at half mast in honor of the Prime Minister of Kyrgyz Republic, Jumabek Ibraimov, who recently passed away.

9:30 a.m.
We take the elevator up to the 25th floor of the Secretariat building—Room 2527A. The sign beside the door reads: Secretariat of Assistant Secretary-General. Abdul-Majid asks us to wait a few minutes before introducing us to Rafiah Salim, but I can see Rafiah through her open-door office, which overlooks a panorama of the East River.

"Hello, nice to meet you," says Rafiah, greeting us with a warm smile and a handshake. "Would you like something to drink? Some coffee or tea?"

We talk briefly about the day’s schedule. I’m surprised that she is so relaxed, open and trusting that I will use my best judgment not to publish any confidential matters that I am about to witness.

I ask her about her professional background. A former lawyer, she was Assistant Governor at the Bank Negara Malaysia, responsible for human resources management and legal affairs before her current UN appointment. She obtained her college and law degrees from Queen’s University of Belfast in Ireland, and has written numerous articles on commercial law, evidence and the legal status of women. Rafiah is also married and has four children.

"I’m proud of the fact that I’m a woman," she says, "but my gender [at work] is irrelevant. Yes, I’m a role model as well as a practicing Muslim woman, which dispels stereotypes of Muslim women being backwards. But the biggest asset that I bring to my job is my global viewpoint."

10:00 a.m.
Every week, Rafiah conducts meetings with her three senior directors and another extended meeting with the other top directors of OHRM. Today, however, I observe an extended director’s meeting with nine individuals, including Rafiah. The meeting is conducted in English, which is the business language of the UN, but one thing is strikingly unusual. Each director and representative hails from a different country: Malaysia, United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Russian Federation, Germany and Uganda.

The meeting agenda includes seven topics: staff development, recruitment and manager accountability, status of exit interviews, family support, action items from a recent General Assembly resolution, Rafiah’s written statement to the General Assembly regarding staff promotions and home leave entitlements for UN staff and their families.

In one discussion, Rafiah and her directors discuss the dilemma of a female employee who’s having problems with her manager. (Yes, the UN faces the same HR issues as corporate entities.) With her left hand resting against her chin, Rafiah listens intently to her consultative team. "This is a complex issue—not just a national transfer."

Turning to Kevin St. Louis, her special assistant, an American, Rafiah asks, "Can we investigate all the options? Where are there vacancies in other agencies? This employee is a very capable woman, but she isn’t contributing under her current situation. We may have to move her out."

In another item, the group discusses the General Assembly meeting scheduled later at 3 p.m. The Fifth Committee (the body that handles administrative and budgetary issues), she reiterates, has demanded a new accountability procedure for all managers and staff to report on their activities. "It means the blood will flow!" she says with emphasis and humor. "Hopefully we can meet the desired requirement. If there is negligence, we must consider a letter of warning, demotion, no promotion. I’m just looking at some concepts now. Your role is to say how to legalize them."

Softly pounding her fist on the conference table, she adds, "Someone should’ve had the guts to say it’s a systemic problem. Right now, the UN only tracks fraud and dishonesty. Our paper has to introduce measures to identify non-criminal accountability performance behaviors."

12:00 noon
My photographer looks for a spot where Rafiah can be photographed. She poses next to "Non-violence," a sculpture of a large bronze replica of a .45-calibre revolver with its barrel tied into a knot. A signature landmark at the UN, it was created by Swedish artist Karl Fredrik Reutersward. This gift from Luxembourg is located on the apron of the General Assembly Building facing First Avenue at 45th Street.

Oops! Rafiah has forgotten her ID. The security guard stops her from entering the building. But as soon as she firmly announces her name and position and identifies her small entourage, we quickly pass clearance to reenter the building.

12:30 p.m.
Rafiah, Abdul-Majid, photographer Corky Lee and I are welcomed on the fourth floor dining room by a tall, well-suited maitre d’. In the course of our lunch, we talk about the incredible diversity at the United Nations.

"It’s a way of life for us at the UN," says Rafiah. "But for me, it’s essentially a matter of respecting all the beliefs. If you believe others’ values don’t conform to the United Nations’ goals, then you have to manage it somehow. And to do that, you try to get as many people on board to accomplish the central value we’d like to live with in the UN. These are our challenges. It’s not easy."

Abdul-Majid adds: "Generally, the people who come to work at the United Nations are inclined to accept diversity and an international outlook."

I then ask if the UN has established quotas for employees by country. Rafiah explains that according to the UN Charter, the number of personnel is based on the amount of money a country contributes.

"But the United States hasn’t paid its share for a long time," quips Lee.

We don’t go into that glaring contradiction because it’s time to head to the OHRM staff meeting. There, Rafiah is expected to conduct an open forum and discussion about OHRM’s latest views on HR recruitment and accountability measures.

1:45 p.m.
A room full of OHRM staff—approximately 100 individuals—already are seated in Conference Room 5 of the General Assembly building. For one hour, the OHRM staff listen to a couple of presentations—with flow charts projected on a screen—about proposed recommendations for greater efficiency and accountability.

Rafiah reassures the staff, "These are just concepts, not the finished product." Among the goals articulated for an improved recruitment process:

  • Positions filled within 90 days.
  • Empower managers.
  • Match managers’ response for recruiting with the organization’s strategic HR goals.
  • Eliminate self-imposed hurdles and contractual constraints.

The Secretary-General, I also learn, is considering the possibility of setting up a management review panel that will examine specific cases of non-compliance with delegated responsibilities, and recommend appropriate action.

As I sit through this meeting, I’m struck by this thought: If managing change in a company takes time, of course it’s going to take even longer for a global entity like the United Nations to move such a diverse workforce.

"Our core of employees is 8,500. But our workforce can expand and contract at any moment," says Rafiah, referring to crises such as Kosovo that require physicians, nurses, peacekeeping forces and other humanitarian contingents as needed. "It can change anytime."

3:00 p.m.
My photographer and I are escorted to the pressroom for journalists. Situated above the General Assembly, we can see Rafiah seated below in the staff section, to the right of the speaker’s podium. The General Assembly meets every year from September to December, with a special session in between.

The blue, green and gold GA Hall accommodates all 185 delegations. Each delegation has six seats—three at the table for senior delegates and three behind them for others. All 1,898 seats inside the Hall are equipped with earphones, allowing listeners to "tune in" either to the language being spoken on the floor or to interpretations into any of the UN’s six official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.

For a few seconds, I tune into French. But since I never studied French, I change stations to English.

One of the main HR issues at the UN is staff development. As mentioned earlier, Rafiah has submitted a statement to the United Nations General Assembly. It was excerpted from her statement to the Fifth Committee of the GA, which oversees administrative and budgetary issues for the UN Secretariat.

The statement basically advocates that employees in the General Service category be allowed to move to the Professional category without any discrimination. Excerpts of the statement that seek clarification said:

"Hundreds of staff compete each year for a very small number of posts. Hundreds more each year, at their own expense, continue their education to acquire a university degree with the hope that, one day, they may get the opportunity to sit for the General Service to Professional exams.

"The wording of paragraph 22 [in another recruiting exam called the National Competitive Examination] would mean that some who serve General Service staff would be denied any opportunity for possible promotion because of and by reason of their nationality, which, Mr. Chairman, has never been a criteria for promotion, or a ground to deny promotion. This will be extremely damaging for staff morale since staff in all categories should be afforded opportunities for career growth in the Organization."

Results of the GA discussion: OHRM was asked to prepare a report that would further elaborate any negative implications of the current wording in the requirement in question.

4:30 p.m.
Rafiah and I end our day discussing the HR challenges she faces at the United Nations. She has been in her position for only one and half years. Her two-year term will most likely be extended. "I’m sure the UN will allow me to stay on and contribute."

As I leave her office, the phone rings. Behind her desk is a screen of unread e-mails. "When I’m out of the office for a few days, I come back to at least 100 messages. Most of them I pass on, but the important ones I answer right away."

5:00 p.m.
As I walk toward the exit of the Secretariat building, I’m joined by hundreds of other employees headed for the subway and streets. Most are walking out with the ID badges still pinned to their coats. I should’ve followed them out the door. But the formality of the UN has tempered my bravado. I obediently ask the security guard, "Do I need to hand in my badge?"

He looks at me with baffled eyes. "You can keep it or give it to me," he says as he extends his hand. With reluctance, I hand it over and angrily stomp my feet on the ground outside. "Darn, there goes my souvenir of the UN."

Workforce, June 1999, Vol. 78, No. 6, pp. 54-58.

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