Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva with the staff selection committee at FAO headquarters. Photo by: Giuseppe Carotenuto / FAO

Standoffs between staff unions and management have become a regular occurrence at the Food and Agriculture Organization headquarters in Rome, which saw a four-day strike of its general service staff last week.

Professional staff also showed solidarity with the strike, held Monday through Thursday, to protest the recently announced policy to put a 55-month cap on short-term contract renewability.

The mobilization was a reaction to a “lack of real dialogue with management, its autocratic approach and lack of respect for the staff,” according to a post published on the Union of the General Service Staff's Facebook page. Representatives of the general staff declined Devex’s request for comment at the time of writing.

Unrest at the FAO is nothing new. Shortly after Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva's appointment in 2012, staff began to voice concern about the lack of transparency in the human resources reform process driven by Denis Aitken, assistant director-general for corporate services, human resources and finance.

In an exclusive interview at the FAO’s headquarters on Monday, Aitken told Devex that a timetable for negotiations has been agreed upon and the next meeting has been scheduled for the week after Easter to bring both management and union representatives to the table.

Staff hope to discuss the recent — and negatively received — push to open general service vacancies to external candidates, and the postponement of a new system for performance evaluation, the latter of which management is open to discussing, Aitken said.

The performance management system is, however, just one element of a reform process that is reshaping the FAO's HR policy and will continue to spark debate — and internal division.      

Deteriorating working environment

The imposition of unilateral changes and “an attempt to intimidate [staff] through a written reprimand” are among the reasons for current discontent, according to UGSS, which pointed to fear and the possibility of recriminations as the reason that more staff members didn’t participate in the strike.

But reprimands were issued for safety and security reasons, Aitken explained, asking unions to protest outside the building and to provide a two-day notice before the strike.

So where is the middle ground?  

“My perspective [is that] in the past at the FAO there has been ... more an impression of co-management for some issues,” he said. “Co-management meaning that basically the staff had very strong say, sometimes even a decisive say, in some aspects of staff welfare and benefits.”

The situation has led to a reluctance to embrace certain types of change or compromise, instead protecting jobs above all else, although “the best way to ensure job security is a successful organization,” Aitken told Devex.  

Short-term contracts

The FAO has imposed the 55-month short-term contract limit in an effort to reduce “the number of staff that are working in the organization who have not gone through a full competition process for the position,” Aitken said. “They go through a process, but they don’t compete as the other staff [do], they do not go through a selection committee of the same type.”

Having temporary staff for eight or 10 years “is not a good management practice,” he added. 

But the limit, which will apply to both general service staff and professionals, could cause “the immediate separation of a number of excellent workers and progressively further separations in the future,” according to UGSS.

About 35 staff members with short-term general service contracts and “less than 10” staff members with short-term professional contracts have already passed the allotted 55 months. According to new rules under the reform, these contracts cannot be extended or reissued.

However, in recent weeks management have decided to grant a “grace period,” extending some temporary contracts by a few months so that affected staff members can apply for other positions, or make the necessary arrangements for life beyond the FAO.

Despite this concession, staff members worry the decision could negatively impact the agency’s current delivery capacity.

Aitken, however, does not envision any such impact. “We are not banning the concept of temporary,” he said. “We can create positions that people can compete for.”  

A ‘closed shop’

Aside from contract issues, staff representatives are pushing for the suspension of the decision to open general service vacancies to external candidates.  

“We need dialogue on the implications of opening to external recruitment at a time when quite a number of staff are likely to lose their jobs now and in the future,” staff representatives wrote in an online post.

The fact that FAO will cut $3 million in costs over the next two years — if the annual conference approves last week’s FAO Council budget in June, as expected — will not necessarily mean a reduction of staff, said Aitken. 

According to the assistant director-general, the proposed cutbacks are in any case not an argument for supporting a “closed shop,” which would be a recipe for a “lack of credibility” among donors and contributors.

“Just to say ‘no’ to the possibility that outside staff can apply? My experience elsewhere has been that, for many positions, if you have the courage to accept [competition], mostly internal staff quite often win, because they have better knowledge of the organization, they have the experience,” Aitken said.

In the past, only current FAO staff could apply for higher general-service positions, but Aitken asserted that in a merit-based organization, performance evaluation is also key. The FAO therefore intends to establish a new system since the current practice, according to Aitken, is no longer fit for purpose.

Performance management

The reluctance of managers to undertake a critical evaluation of staff performance — which might entail complaints and appeals if employees don’t like what they hear — has led to a culture of staff members routinely receiving “high marks” in assessments. Some 95 percent of staff members in the past three years have seen their performance classified “exceptional” or “full,” Devex has learned.

“We are not the only [organization] in the U.N. system [with this problem], but we are now considering how to address it,” Aitken said.

The reform of the evaluation procedure, while still at an early stage, is expected to be finalized in the next two months. Among the changes to be discussed is the replacement of the current system, which is rooted in four marks — exceptional, full, underachieved and not achieved — with a new grading system providing an increased amount options.

The UGSS fears the new tool could be reduced “to a punitive system, without having established both a merit-based policy as well as an improvement action plan to address underperformance,” according to a recent Facebook post.  

Management is re-opening the discussion with staff representatives.

According to Aitken, however, solving the set of problems posed by the evaluation system first requires managers to have the confidence to evaluate openly and for staff members to accept the result, while still being able to address allegations of genuine prejudice.  

This will require “building confidence on both sides,” Aitken said. “Managers are going to be fair and staff are going to react positively to a more realistic assessment.”

An accelerated recruitment process

Making the recruitment process more effective also means making it speedier. In 2013, Aitken expressed the intention to reduce recruitment time and has achieved the goal of cutting it from the previous nine to 10 months to five, “which for an international organization is not too bad,” he said.

In further efforts to improve the recruitment process, the organization has also adopted an interactive managerial assessment tool for senior-level candidates. This tests assesses personnel management, interviewing skills, languages, writing and other abilities. 

The assessment has already been successful in improving managerial skills of country representatives, Aitken noted, adding that the FAO now needs to bolster its implementation skills as well.

“Implementation means the ability to get things done, rather than to think about how things should be done,” he said. “Implementation skills mean how you interact with governments to implement our programs [and] how you get our outputs and outcomes actually delivered.”

What is your take on the ongoing FAO staff reforms and last week’s staff walkout? Have your say by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

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    Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.