So you want to work for the United Nations?
I never wanted to work for the United Nations. I didn’t understand exactly what they did or their value. I came across them while living and working in Rome, after having decided to stop off there for a while during a backpacking holiday in the early 90’s away from my home country of Australia.
There are three UN agencies based in Rome. One day I walked in with my CV, having recently worked for the Australian Public Service (APS) in a mid-level professional role. That immediately got me an interview, the APS had unbeknownst to me, been a founding model for some parts of the UN and carried a lot of prestige. Since then I have become a convert. I am so proud and consider myself so lucky to have been able to have contributed a little to what the UN does. In addition the highly autonomous, knowledge based, collegial and solution/outcome orientated working environment has suited me down to the ground.
Here is a little of my experience about what it’s like to work for an agency of the UN if the answer to the above question is ‘yes’ or ‘maybe’, and some advice for people regarding what mindset, skills and knowledge set to cultivate and prepare for such an adventure. Hopefully it weeds out the ‘maybe’s’ and helps you understand if such work is for you or not.
Firstly some scene setting. The UN is made up of 6 primary entities (Security Council, General Assembly etc.,) based in New York, and its specialised agencies based globally. The specialised agencies have their own budgets and mandates e.g. UNESCO, UNHCR, UNICEF, WHO but are all part of the UN system. I have worked only for the specialised agencies however the advice provided is relevant also for the 6 primary entities of the UN.
Here are my top three questions for you to answer:
Do you have a strong or any ability to manage ambiguity?
If the answer is no then working in the UN is not for you. Working with almost 200 countries each with their own goals, priorities and way of doing things means that there will always be more than one or two, or twelve, ways of interpreting a situation, viewing a problem or a solution. Agreements may need to be at a high ‘open to interpretation’ level in order to be able to move forward and get commitment to action. If you are a person who needs an exact roadmap for delivering or doing things or gets frustrated when plans change or are over ridden after much discussion and agreement, then you will not be flexible, adaptable or nimble enough to work for the UN. Being able to manage ambiguity means having a profound ability to understand and take another’s point of view and to be able to pivot 360 without feeling like you have failed/given in/been disrespected (which requires a high level of confidence in yourself but a low level of ego).
Do you have two or more of the six official UN Language skills (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish, Russian) at a level where you could attend, understand, and contribute in a meeting?
If the answer is no then you will need to learn them if you want to work in the UN, and be certified to a proficient level by a recognised national assessor of languages. The only exceptions are for contracts that are temporary (which are still professional and can be project related) where you will need to speak only 1 of these languages at a proficient level.
Do you have a lot of patience? Working with truly diverse stakeholders where power is equally shared means things take longer than operating in a command/control hierarchy, sometimes years longer. However the result is that EVERYONE is onboard and working towards the same goals. If you are the sort of person that enjoys quick results then you will be quickly frustrated. However the joy of getting a strategy or action agreed upon by everybody after months/years of work can’t be beaten and is a bonding experience you will have forever with your fellow stakeholders.
The above are some unique skills required to work in any UN environment. I want to ask one last question which is more about the Australian culture in relation to the UN working culture i.e. it’s a question just for us Australians (and those from similar countries).
How comfortable are you with formality?
Think about how you would act and what you would wear in a job interview at one of Australia’s top and most prestigious businesses (whether it be a law firm, bank, consulting agency, hotel), or if you were going to meet the most elderly and respected person in your family or community. Then take it up about 5 notches – you are getting close to what the working environment is like in the UN compared to Australia. If you already come from one of those cultures that are more formal than the dominant Australian one, then you will only have to take it up 3 notches.
Hierarchy and seniority are extremely respected within the UN system no matter what the gender or age of the person is (although generally those in senior positions are older by definition). Don’t be nervous, formality doesn’t mean unfriendly or cold it means more reserved, more diplomatic and less personal than we are used to (and definitely no swearing – faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarck).
People will (diplomatically) take you as you are but if as an individual in the work environment you are informally dressed and behaved, you won’t be seen as a lovable larrikin breaking the rules or crashing through prejudices (which is how we see it). You will be seen through the lens of how other countries view informality (commonly as the behaviour of children, or those who do not understand or appreciate the importance of others knowledge, or as not giving due credit to the achievements of others, not making an effort, not being experienced in diplomacy or international relations, disrespectful, unorganised), and whether it’s conscious or not this will result in you and your ideas being taken less seriously.
We can all put on a good show for an interview or a visit but to operate day in and day out in a level of formality that does not feel natural and is far more than has been imposed on you growing up in Australia, can be a strain. I myself have had a pencil throwing incident during a meeting (only one and it was in the air and not directed at anyone) which luckily afterwards I managed to pass off as a muscle spasm.
Working in an organisational culture whose premise is that there is no dominant national culture but one that is defined by ethical standards and a vision for a better world is a constantly inspiring experience. You may find affinity with genders, ages, backgrounds and nationalities vastly different from your own but whose mindset and values you identify closer with than anyone else you have ever known. But it is often not comfortable and it is not easy – and it is not for everyone.
Bronté Jackson is an HR strategy and change management specialist. As an independent consultant she has worked for 6 different UN agencies and networked with many more over the past 25 years. She has designed and delivered organisational culture change and efficiency initiatives at a global, regional and headquarters level. She is currently based in Rome, Italy and originally from Melbourne, Australia. She recommends the following links: Food and Agriculture Organisation; World Food Programme; World Health Organisation; Being a UN Staff Member.