Career growth isn’t always an easy path © PEXELS.COM - MONSTERA

How the promotion system in the UN can be improved
Promotion in the UN can be a challenging process, even for those who perform exceptionally well
1 Jul 2023

Promotion and career progression in the UN often has a number of barriers. This article looks closer at these challenges, and at the lack of connection between the current performance management system and individual career growth. The article will also provide insight into the potential benefits of a revised system. 

One of the challenges faced by many UN employees is the lack of a clear-cut career path. In the private sector, upon joining the company, the employees are usually presented with their career path and promotion opportunities. The company will offer a transparent career development plan and make it clear to the employee what is expected of them and how to get promoted. Promotion in the UN however can be a challenging process, even for those who perform exceptionally well. We are living in a world with an increased emphasis on mental health, and are thus placing employees’ expectations more and more in the center of attention. Regrettably, the UN still puts more emphasis on posts rather than on their own staff, which unfortunately has a negative impact on morale. At UNDP for instance, the rank-in-person policy has been replaced by a rank-in-post policy, which replaced the previous promotion policy based on personal promotion to a new system, where one gets promoted only if they go through a “rigorous competitive selection process”. This new system shifted the emphasis from the person to the post’s requirements.

Lack of individual career paths

Employees need to have their own individual career paths, and not only personal objectives. When career paths are clear, individuals tend to be more motivated, which can drive them to achieve the goals set in their annual performance appraisal. In the absence of a real promotional system in place, the entire performance appraisal process is a tick-in-the-box and a meaningless copy-paste exercise. The 2004 Joint Inspection Unit report confirmed this and mentioned that the UN common system has shown that goal setting is rarely properly undertaken at the individual level, and that descriptions of tasks and duties are often mistaken for objectives… Managers often see performance management as an administrative obligation to hold a yearly, often awkward, conversation with the staff they supervise about their achievements and possibly about their shortcomings, rather than a continuous dialogue on performance issues that should become the norm. The biennial within-grade salary increment, which is linked to satisfactory performance, cannot replace an actual promotion, and unfortunately doesn’t contribute to employee engagement, given that it’s received semi-automatically.

Feeling stuck © PEXELS.COM – Andrea Piacquadio

Missing link between performance management and promotion

During my 15 years of experience in the UN working in Human Resources, I have felt that the major shortcomings of the UN talent management system are the lack of reward for outstanding performance – and the lack of consequences for underperformance. Career growth seemingly has little to do with how well people perform in their work. The standard performance management system is not linked to promotion, which means that even if you perform extremely well, there will not be an automatic promotion to a higher level. You will have to wait for a position in said higher level to open; if you are lucky and have a supervisor who supports you, this can be sooner than later. During the interview you will have to convince a panel composed of people who may be unfamiliar with you and how you work, that you are indeed the best person for this higher level position. Now, if you struggle in interviews, this can already be a huge challenge. You may do an excellent job at work, but if you cannot convince the interview panel, you will not get the position. Unfortunately, your performance cannot be taken into consideration during this process. When this happens repeatedly, it can lead to a sense of stagnation and you may feel that your career path is limited.

Lack of transparency in career development

One of the challenges of promotion in the UN is the lack of transparency. Even where there is a promotion process in place, it is often not communicated clearly. Employees are often unaware of its existence, what the criteria for promotion are or how decisions are made. I conducted a poll among staff employed by different UN organizations, and the answer was always the same: they were not aware of a promotion policy. A few mentioned some form of internal competition for higher grade positions for those who completed a combination of deployments or a number of assignments as lateral moves, coupled with good performance. And for those who didn’t manage to do that? What about General Service staff who do not rotate? This lack of transparency can lead to frustration and demotivation among employees, particularly among those who feel that they have been unfairly overlooked for promotion, or simply cannot fulfil these pre-selection criteria. One of the UN organization’s HR policies explicitly mentions that “career development will not always involve promotion but may include opportunities for job enrichment, lateral progression within the organization and the wider United Nations system and progression into international positions”. Another challenge is that the promotion process in the UN common system can be affected by “political considerations”. While the UN is supposed to be a neutral, transparent and impartial organization, political considerations can sometimes come into play when making promotion decisions. This can lead to perceptions of favoritism or bias, and can undermine the credibility of a transparent promotion process aimed at supporting staff development.

Why implement a proper promotion policy?

The risk of not having a proper promotion policy in place, is a weakened employee morale. This does not simply mean an unhappy workforce taking more frequent coffee breaks. It will also reflect in the overall performance, in survey results, and in retention. With a proper promotion policy in place, employees will feel motivated to perform better. Employee engagement scores will increase and the performance appraisal process will be more meaningful for both parties. In addition, it will result in a better retention rate, as it will also mean better recognition for exceptional performance and increased likelihood of retaining an organization’s top talents.

Performance appraisal is hardly taken into account in selection decisions © PEXELS.COM – SORA SHIMAZAKI

How to improve performance and enable a high-performing culture in the UN?

To enable a high-performing culture, the UN needs to manage and develop its talent more effectively along with the process of culture change. New policies need to be made putting the employee experience front and center. Once new behaviors and processes are embedded within the system it will become the new norm for all employees to perform at the highest standard. This will also result in increased employee engagement and higher retention among staff, thanks to clearer opportunities and better employee recognition. As the 2004 JIU report mentions “Promotion, in particular, should not only be seen as a means of rewarding high-performing candidates but rather as a mechanism, based on assessed performance, to identify and advance those staff members who have proven their ability to contribute to the work of the organization at a higher level and to assume greater responsibilities. Many of the performance appraisal systems in place, however, still only measure individuals’ performance through the achievement of results in the short-term (normally annual cycles), and do not serve to identify the staff that possess the required competencies to develop long-term careers within the organization. Promotions to higher grades should still be competitive, considering that there may be multiple suitable candidates within the organization, but it should be transparent. It should be the result of an internal competition, and the final decision should be made by an independent committee, taking into consideration several elements including performance, skills, qualifications, and the result of an internal interview.

In conclusion, the challenges of promotion in the UN are significant, and may act as barriers to employee engagement, and can hinder an efficient performance management process. Addressing these challenges will require a concerted effort from the UN leadership. Improving transparency, creating more opportunities for career development, and ensuring that promotion decisions are made based on merit rather than politics will be key to ensuring a fair and effective promotion process within the UN common system. 

* Judit Toth is a UN Career Development Coach. She has extensive experience in the UN system working in the field of Human Resources.
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