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Want Performance? Fire a few of ‘em.

In 1989 my boss fired me.

A couple of posts ago I bantered on about UN Peacekeeping and its $7 billion dollar budget for 2010-2011.  I was making some points about how its a budget which is relatively unexamined by the international media, civil society and policy wonks. As a result its impact is very likely weak, in the wrong direction, or right off the mark.

Recently my fellow PDT blogger Scott Gilmore, engaged in a blogging debate with Till Bruckner at Aidwatch, and the Transparency Extremist in which they had a short, sharp and interesting exchange about about the merits, and de-merits, of transparency and accountability in aid budgets. It got me thinking.

Frankly, alot of the argument was a bit semantic and it seemed to get me ending up back at the same thought – so what?  That’s being a bit unfair but it still rang loud and clear in my little pea brain.  But it did make me think, and that is what I guess all of this is about.

What I was thinking about was, getting fired.

No one ever seems to get fired in the aid and peacekeeping business.  It would be exceedingly interesting to apply a zero tolerance policy in a pilot mission area and summarily fire people who just don’t come up to scratch.  Kind of like, throw out the rule book of bogus performance reviews, professional back handers and snide office politics and just impose a Benign Dictator as SRSG with a mandate to sack – just like the below mentioned “Big Ed”.  I would wager that performance goes a little “bionic” as a result.

I was 19 at the time that I got fired, and it had a lasting effect on me.  I was a general handyman at some flash little country club in Canada where I learned to sail.  I had a fortunate upbringing.  But I was still made to work. “Big Ed”, was my boss.

One day I was cleaning the pool, and “Big Ed”, sidled up to me.

  • Big Ed:  ”Ed, I have decided that we’re gonna have to give you the sack.”
  • Me: “Ed, huh?  Why?”
  • Big Ed: “Its just not working out Ed.”
  • Me: “What do you mean Ed – its not working out? When are you going to sack me?
  • Big Ed: “Its just not working out Ed, your gone, as of this minute, your last pay cheque is in the office.”

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of me getting the sack, there was a clear and direct correlation between performance (real or perceived) and being employed. Later on, my father looked at me as if I was the biggest idiot around, and I was laid low.  I made sure I got a new job pronto.

Being fired was a powerful incentive to make sure performance is up to scratch.

In the decade or more that I have been working in the development / peacekeeping business I have never seen anyone fired.  I have seen people steal money, commit other acts which would land them in jail at home, let alone ordinary stuff like not show up for work weeks at a time – and they never get fired.    Moved up, moved over, very occasionally moved down – but never shown the door.  Well that’s not entirely true – I remember one person being escorted out of her office down to the main doors at the UN Secretariat building in 2005.  But that was over politics – not performance.

Just a few days ago I received an email from a friend of mine who works in a major peacekeeping operation. The email told me that a certain unit in the mission (along with UNDP) is just about on the cusp of receiving another multi-million dollar tranche of funding. This unit has been roundly criticized for non-performance by its own staff members, its mission, policy wonks the world over, and the host Government.  But rather than giving unit the axe the powers that be look like they want to give it a big cash injection. The boss of this unit likes to tell people how “concerned” he is about the future institutional development of his target sector – but is likely breathing easy now that he possibly has many more idle years of being “concerned” fully funded.

I wanted to do this when I read the email – but it would get me fired.YouTube Preview Image

I bet the boss of the unit in question would get some stuff done if he thought he might be fired.  Then again, when he thought he was going to get the axe last year – he angled his way into a semi-job offer in Somalia. However, in the end he was not fired, imagine that!

Geez – and some people get fired just because their wife is a porn star.  The issue was not his job performance!

YouTube Preview Image

Then again now that I put my mind to it, an old boss of mine got the “can in Afghanistan” (fired from UNAMA) not so long ago for picking a political fight. Then again he was playing politics – so it was not really that much about performance, although I guess at his level politics is performance.

Another boss I had in UN HQ in New York once mused how impossible it was to contemplate his under performing colleague ever being removed from office.  He noted that it would only happen if the 37th Floor office window in the UN Secretariat was opened (yes they actually open), and he were to agree to “walking the plank”.

One UN boss told a mate that “that the reason why no UN  ’chief’ ever tried to discipliine their staff/pull them up on being useless was  because the grievance procedure was so long and bureaucratic that it was too  much work to do.”  Certainly the UNPOL in this video were never disciplined for watching their “students” give a hiding to an unarmed and non-violent protestor.

Wouldn’t it be fun to pilot a SRSG with a Hatchet Mandate?  But some SRSG’s need the hatchet themselves, unless of course they get the “ratchet” and a move up the ladder.

For those of you inclined to report bad performance in the UN here is how you do it.  Although the boss recently quit in frustration that the rules were being undermined by her boss himself.

Ok my rant is over, thank goodness.  Had I not written this, my computer might have been smashed up, and Scott might have had to fire me.

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14 Comments

  1. [...] WANT PERFORMANCE? FIRE A FEW OF ‘EM I had alot of fun writing this one: [...]

  2. Edward Rees says:

    I was just told by a guy who works for a major International NGO that he has fired a few people not so long ago. he is right, I knew it but had forgotten. So what. Its an aberration. But he is a king for it.

    I think I might be jinxing myself. All this talk of getting fired, I might be laying my head on the chopping block. Certainly I have a Sudan thingy that needs completion – pronto.

  3. John says:

    I know what you are saying about the difficulties of sacking someone in any big organisation or government department, and I completely agree that non-performing individuals or units should be removed, but arbitrary sacking isn’t the way. The fact you “bounced back” after yours is wonderful, but the UN is hardly going to be a model of democracy and justice if this style of personnel management was allowed in that organisation.

    And although you might not believe it, the UN DOES discipline individuals, they DO have people with skills and commitment and there ARE many successfully delivered programs.

    Besides, nobody else has come up with a better multilateral organisation that represents the interests of so many nations.

  4. Edward Rees says:

    Dear John,

    Thanks for the comment. Hyperbole man, hyperbole.

    The UN a model of democracy and justice? Hmmm, well, I will let reader’s make up their mind on that one. Frankly, I think its unlikley we can ever expect the UN to be a model of democracy and justice. Although I would concur with you that for those of us who think that multi-lateralism is generally a good thing, I agree the UN is the best we have so far. However, the EU, ASEAN, NATO, AU, etc etc may think otherwise.

    As for the UN and discipline. Its weak. It would be inaccurate to suggest that the UN never disciplines staff, but equally inaccurate to state its disciplines as and when it should more often than not. Additionally, I agree their are people with skill and commitment in the UN – and I think most of them would agree, a few sackings are in order. As for successfully delivered programs. A few to be sure, but a few nonetheless.

    Keep it coming, and thanks for joining in to round off a edges in my rant.

    Edward

  5. Jesse Wright says:

    It is also conceivable that performance could be increased by tying raises to job performances. Of course this process it itself could fall victim to incompetence and nepotism, but then so has the current misconduct policy. Could some of the problem with the UN be its hiring practices? I certainly understand the problems with the deadwood (and worse) in the organization and, I suspect, those folks probably could have been weeded out before they were even hired but so why weren’t they? In all, a reconfiguration on that end might be an easier solution.

    Anyway, this is a hilarious post. Poor porn-star-marrying city manager!

  6. Edward Rees says:

    Dear Jesse – very very good point. Better hiring is far better than more firing. However, the hiring practices are even more arcane than the inner workings of some Byzantine Emperor’s harem.

  7. Megan Gleason says:

    Very interesting post and one that resonates with some research that I conducted last year on recruiting and deploying civilians to peace operations. A number of the senior managers that we interviewed noted that firing under-performing, and non-performing staff members was not only a very difficult process – but that they felt that the focus of the process was actually more on the manager than on the staff member in question. I would guess that your thoughts here would be welcomed by a number of the people that we had a chance to meet with.

    We also encountered a great deal of frustration with hiring systems, as Jesse notes above, with some interviewees noting that hiring staff was one of, if not the greatest challenges they faced.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post,
    Megan

  8. Edward Rees says:

    Dear Megan, Thanks for the comment. Interesting to read that it seems as though UN discipline processes focus more on the role of the manager than the staff member and his/her performance. Oddly enough, it rings true with me. Cheers, Edward

  9. MJ says:

    I absolutely agree. Management that does not have the power to hire or fire easily is management emasculated to the point of uselessness. How can you put together a strong team all pulling together in the same direction if you cannot weed out those who constantly swim against the stream, let others down, or just never pull their weight? Such situations can easily lead to massive loss of morale. See my take on the UN at http://bottomupthinking.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/why-does-the-undp-exist/.

  10. John says:

    Ok, the UN might not be a model of democracy and justice yet (I am an optimist), but it will never get there if it doesn’t at least purport to follow the rules of natural justice.

    I have seen this in other organisation: By protecting workers rights you also end up shielding the poor-performers, especially the cunning ones (shame the cunning isn’t used to do their job better). Even going through the full process of clearly describing their job, performance reviews, counselling, written warnings, probationary periods, etc etc, sacking poor-performers is very very hard, almost impossible, unless they roll-over and leave under their own steam. This is the case even in structured, homogeneous and “disciplined” organisations like the military.

    It’s like welfare: If you have a caring and sharing society you can’t help but end up perverting Darwin’s Law of Natural Selection (survival of the fittest). If you ‘knock the weak on the head’, you have an organisation or society that no sane, human, person would want for themselves or their children.

    Finally, rules are always hard in big organisations and, I think, VERY hard in a multinational organisations that depend on contributing countries’ good will and tolerance. Creating “legislation” that everyone agrees, abides by and enforces must be a nightmare. Hell, even individual States can’t get it right for all of the people all of the time.

  11. Kerry Brogan says:

    Hi Edward,

    Thanks for your rant. The UN certainly struggles with developing effective systems for managing performance at all levels. It’s more challenging at the senior level. I think having a large essentially temporary work force – with frequent turn-over also doesn’t help in managing performance. Accountability and disciplinary processes? In my experience it varied. In some cases there was effective disciplinary action taken – but I know of one senior manager who breached his contract and there was significant pressure on the mission for him to be fired – but he wasn’t. He was removed from his post – but then made a special adviser to the head of the mission.

  12. Hek says:

    Ed,
    I think you are still sore that one of our colleague didn’t return the money he owed you before he got sacked for gross misconduct by the aussie boss we had… (names deliberatly left out)…
    Anyway, jokes aside… I left UNDP for similar reasons… Non-performance was rewarded quite well and there were a lot of backhanders that went ‘unnoticed’ and ignored by RR’s even just to get that extra funding… and some managers stole your (read: ‘my’) work and passed it as their own and then blamed you (read: ‘me’) for not performing… that sucks big time!
    That is why I now work in the private sector – (insurance even – bloodsucking industry!) where performance is rewarded and non-performance results in sacking! As it happens one was let go last week… another to follow and this time it will be up to me to deliver the bad news… advise please? from your previous experience? Oh, there isn’t any… bah humbug!!!

  13. Edward Rees says:

    Hek: Long time since Kosova yes?

  14. Dear John,

    Thanks for the comment. Hyperbole man, hyperbole.

    The UN a model of democracy and justice? Hmmm, well, I will let reader’s make up their mind on that one. Frankly, I think its unlikley we can ever expect the UN to be a model of democracy and justice. Although I would concur with you that for those of us who think that multi-lateralism is generally a good thing, I agree the UN is the best we have so far. However, the EU, ASEAN, NATO, AU, etc etc may think otherwise.

    As for the UN and discipline. Its weak. It would be inaccurate to suggest that the UN never disciplines staff, but equally inaccurate to state its disciplines as and when it should more often than not. Additionally, I agree their are people with skill and commitment in the UN – and I think most of them would agree, a few sackings are in order. As for successfully delivered programs. A few to be sure, but a few nonetheless.

    Keep it coming, and thanks for joining in to round off a edges in my rant.

    Edward


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