Joining the United Nations as a staff member is certainly not the easiest task. It requires (endless) patience and resolve, often leads to frustration, confrontation with very personal and disruptive obstacles, or simply inner resignation. Those who do manage to get a contract in hand may rejoice at first, but may run into other frustrating experiences down the road.
Staff selection is not a one-off for actively serving staff members. It is a constant companion, our only way to have something resembling job security and upwards career progression. We have spent countless hours updating PHPs, writing cover letters, answering Job Fit Questionnaires and, if one is lucky, sitting through repetitive technical assessments and competency-based interviews. All this effort is supposed to determine our future within the UN System, but these are all just snapshots, one snapshot assessment after the next. What does any of this tell the organization about our ability to learn, grow and stay motivated? A cynical indicator for assessing the agility and resilience of applicants could be to check how many unsuccessful applications they have submitted, how far they have gotten and how often they have been turned down.
Are those not the people the UN would want to employ, the internal talent they would wish to nurture? The ones who show true persistence in the face of the seemingly impossible task of a promotion or new position?
There needs to be a fundamental change in the way the Organization approaches staff selection, not only for the sake of those already serving within, but also to not scare away the talent that would love to work for the UN, because they too are highly motivated and want to contribute towards its noble cause.
What are some of the pillars a new selection system would be built upon?
1. The UN has a responsibility to invest in its people to grow into their current and future functions. Under the headings of resilience and flexibility, the Organization needs to embrace motivational concepts, particularly autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The UN needs to narrow the gap in preferring ‘generalists’ on paper, yet selecting mostly external experts, in recognizing the motivation and ability to learn and grow. The focus should be on grooming and deploying the experts of the future in-house, rather than entertaining modern, agile and flexible ‘instant-use’ contracts.
2. The UN needs to rethink the picture it portrays to unsuccessful applicants. All applicants have expressed their interest to serve, yet in most unsuccessful cases, what they see are impersonal ‘we regret…’ emails and no opportunity to stay engaged or be considered for future selection. Every application process is a reset back to zero and this needs to change. Applicants should not have to sit the same technical assessments over and over, even after passing.
3. Internal learning efforts and job enrichment, as well as overperformance, also need to have an impact. It makes no sense to subject someone who has undergone an internal career transformation to a rigorous assessment process. Internal candidates who meet the eligibility criteria and who have already demonstrated their mastery of job-related skills, as documented in annual performance reviews, should be automatically shortlisted.
4. Hiring someone is a long-term and costly commitment, where the financial investment by the organization is only one part. Team members and peers need to have a say in a transparent selection process, as they will be the ones investing their time and energy into unlocking the full potential of the new recruits.
5. The organization has a responsibility to accommodate the life needs of successful candidates. Life realities, such as the need for flexibility, predictable periods of absence, pursuing educational goals, etc., need to be considered and form part of the contract. This approach would remove the discretionary power of supervisors in granting or denying flexible working arrangements. What is needed is a true work-life balance, recognising that life can be very unpredictable at times, but at least for the predictable parts, the employer should enable and empower.
There are multiple problems with the current staff selection system and we can only hope that the inclusive hire project, currently under construction by the Office of Human Resources, will introduce much needed changes. However, what seems to be forgotten is the clear absence of an internal promotion track, which should be brought back with urgency. Is the UN not under utilizing its internal talent by subjecting staff to selection process after selection process, implying that our gained experience as internal staff does (not) count?
A paradigm shift in the selection process is needed. We need genuine recognition of the organization’s biggest asset (its staff and colleagues holding precarious contracts), their motivations and aspirations, as well as a push to embrace the five pillars as outlined. The organization could once again become a true employer of choice by acting in a welcoming and socially responsible fashion, in the way it selects its people and empowers its staff, by presenting itself as a supportive (professional) life partner of choice.