Katrina Campbell, Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer for the IRC © K Campbell

Understanding organizational ethics at the UN
Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer for the International Rescue Committee, Katrina Campbell, details her ethical mission
1 Apr 2024

Katrina Campbell currently serves as Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer for The International Rescue Committee (IRC), a recipient of UN funding. She is a former UN Secretariat Ethics Officer, Ethics Adviser for UNFPA, and consultant to several other UN organizations and other international development organizations. Katrina’s contributions reflect her own personal positions and should not be read as the beliefs or position of the IRC or any other organization.

Organizational Ethics has evolved over the years. How best would you define organizational ethics in the context of the UN?

The United Nations has always sought to represent itself as the ethical conscience for the world. Consider the very opening of the UN Charter, which speaks on behalf of ‘We the peoples of the United Nations.’ However, inside the UN, many seem to have assumed that UN staff would always operate with and reflect that ethical conscience. Scandals large and small have disabused us of the notion that due to the UN’s ethical mission, its staff and partners will always pursue that mission impartially. They assume that their actions will be in line with the Standards of Conduct for the International Civil Service. Unfortunately, we have seen instances when staff, partners, and others have not adhered to the Charter or the Standards of Conduct, and instead have engaged in fraud, sexual exploitation, harassment and other misconduct.

To define organizational ethics at the UN, I look to the Standards of Conduct. The document does not define ‘organizational ethics,’ but rather sets forth guiding principles and comprehensive expectations for how international civil servants should behave. In addition to the principles noted above, the Standards of Conduct speak of the importance of tolerance and understanding and the need to balance one’s personal political views and national perspective against an international outlook. Although the last iteration was in 2013, the Standards of Conduct still serve as an important guide for organizational ethics in the context of the United Nations.

What do you think the UN can do to adopt a ‘modern’ approach to ethics?

The UN took a good first step in the mid-2000s with the establishment of the UN Secretariat Ethics Office (and later, ethics offices of several funds and programmes and specialized agencies), and by promulgating and updating staff policies on outside activities, harassment, prevention of retaliation, and financial disclosure. While well-intentioned and instructive, these steps also had the unintended consequence of turning the focus away from ethical behavior and toward compliance and managing complaints. When I worked at the UN, more than half of my work involved advising staff on how to avoid and manage financial conflicts of interest, ethically engage in outside activities, and manage staff. Yet, so much of the internal and public discourse about ethics in the UN emphasizes negatives: misconduct and retaliation, toxic work environments, and the inability of the ethics offices and investigations teams to address these issues. These issues are valid, but the overall emphasis could be more balanced.

A modern approach to organizational ethics would start with the recognition that ethics are everyone’s responsibility, not just that of an ethics or investigations office. Ethics offices are valuable places to get help with managing ethical dilemmas. Ombudsman’s offices can be helpful as well. In a more modern and ethical UN, staff and management would regularly and proactively consult their ethics offices for advice. This is occurring now, but should be done even more. Further, ethics offices could be engaged to help analyze organizational ethical issues, including with regard to UN partnerships and grants, staffing structures, and internal organizational change management.

Ethical behavior is not just about addressing misconduct, and a modern UN should recognize that. However, misconduct certainly is a sign of an ethical failure, and must be addressed. In recent years, as noted above, much concern has been voiced about retaliation against staff who report misconduct or who assist in investigations. Ethics offices have improved their management of retaliation complaints (having conducted and managed many retaliation reviews for multiple UN organizations, I am not objective on this point). Surely, there is still room for improvement, which in my view should include having investigations offices handle these cases in the first instance.

In truth, retaliation is not very common, although the fears are real. I have found all too often that fear of retaliation is about fear of losing a job, or being given lesser responsibilities, if one reports misconduct. Of course, this is very serious, but true loyalty to the mission of the UN means that one’s interest in keeping a job is secondary to one’s obligation to do the right thing. This includes reporting alleged misconduct. I honor those who overcome their fears and report concerns anyway. Modern UN staff who witness misconduct would consider the alternative – should they look the other way and allow the misconduct to continue? This would lead to misuse of donor funds, an inability to serve vulnerable populations, and the poisoning of the UN’s culture. International civil servants in a modern ethical context should be brave, both in reporting concerns and in correcting misconduct when it occurs.

The concept of ethical leadership is key to disseminating a culture of ethics within an organization. What can the UN do to promote ethical leadership?

Just as I argue for staff to be brave in reporting misconduct, leaders must also be brave. Ethical leaders are brave leaders. Staff members want to see their leaders as humans, with strengths and vulnerabilities, who are willing to lead by example, not fiat. Especially in the UN, staff want leaders to recognize the value of diverse teams, of people who bring their whole selves to work. My work history, education, parenting, race, gender and age all inform who I am and affect my contributions to my organization. I should show this, and create space for my team members to do the same.

The UN can promote ethical leadership by carefully hiring people who are, or who can be taught to be, skilled and thoughtful managers. Like many organizations, the UN tends to hire for technical skills, but not for general good management skills. Organizations need both. Of course, we seek managers who have integrity, but the UN needs ethical role models. Research shows that it is not good enough for a leader to just be ethical; leaders must be visibly ethical to have an impact on their teams. Staff want conversation about ethical principles, and what it means to be international civil servants. To that end, leaders should actively foster conversations about ethics; an example of such a successful effort can be seen in the UN Secretariat’s annual, manager-led discussion about ethics issues called the ‘Leadership Dialogue.’

Ethical leadership is not just about talking, however. The UN must empower managers to reward staff who exhibit ethical behavior. They must also be empowered to correct or exit staff who do not uphold the Standards of Conduct, or who cannot capably perform their jobs. This likely requires reforms to the performance management and disciplinary systems. It is well known among the legal, investigation, and ethics offices that it is nearly impossible to seriously discipline or terminate a staff member who committed misconduct. It tends to be especially hard to terminate for poor performance as well. This allows bad actors to operate with a sense of impunity, and prevents new talent from offering their skills. Overall, this contributes to a toxic work culture.

UN organizations need more flexibility to build capable teams that are fully committed to the Standards of Conduct for the International Civil Service. As that wonderful document explains: …International civil servants have a special calling: to serve the ideals of peace, respect for fundamental rights, economic and social progress, and international cooperation. It is therefore incumbent on international civil servants to adhere to the highest standards of conduct; for, ultimately, it is the international civil service that will enable the United Nations system to bring about a just and peaceful world. 

* Prisca Chaoui is the Editor-in-chief of UN Today.
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