Q&A: UNFPA's Michael Emery on the importance of HR to global development

Michael Emery, director of the human resources division at UNFPA. Photo by: Executive Master EMMIO 2016-2017 / SDA Bocconi School of Management, Milan, Italy

The United Nations Population Fund suffered a major setback earlier this year when the Trump administration cut all future funding to the agency. Having lost one of its biggest funders, the agency, which works to ensure the reproductive health and rights of women and children, now faces a period of uncertainty.

Devex spoke to Michael Emery, director of the human resources division at UNFPA, to learn how HR is playing a critical role in supporting the organization during these times and why innovative approaches to HR are so important in sourcing, engaging and retaining the right talent. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve worked in a variety of human resource roles across the United Nations system. Over the years and in your different positions, how have you seen the HR profession evolve?

That’s an interesting question and the answer is that it depends — it depends on the organization and depends on the people in the organization. In some parts of the U.N. system, I think it is becoming more strategic and less foundational. I see a lot more automation of HR processes than when I started. I think the nature of U.N. careers is fundamentally changing as well. When I first started, people joined the U.N. and expected to be there for life and the whole U.N. compensation apparatus was based on that assumption. And that’s not the case anymore. Gen X and millennials are not as interested in lifelong careers as such they are more interested in great experiences and will happily move in and out of U.N. jobs, which they see as part of a broader career path in development or in the multilaterals.

I also see a lot more litigation, a litigious mindset of staff, which is a little bit worrying. I think some of that is generational as well: the baby boomers are generally more stoic in that they understand that the organization can send you anywhere and they go, whereas now a lot of people will push back if they are sent to difficult duty stations or if it doesn’t suit them; if they don’t get their way they might become litigious. These are the kind of general trends, it’s not that everybody is taking you to court; it’s just that I think there is an increase in this mindset.  

You mentioned Gen X and millennials being much less interested in lifelong careers and I think there are increasingly discussions on how organizations can attract and retain this group in their workforce. What can organizations and HR do to better engage these generations and hold on to that talent?

I think it’s a two-way street. I think workplaces and work spaces need to meet the millennials and Gen X halfway, but I think Gen X and millennials also have to be a little bit more agile. One of the great things about millennials is they are very value-driven as a generation, so we should think: How do we make our workplaces and organizations more value rich, with a more attractive value proposition? I think that’s important.

I think staff — all staff, regardless of generation — need to feel as if they are part of a bigger picture and working toward the bigger mandate. Although I don’t know if it’s true or not, I often give the example of Kennedy when he visited the Space Center and he spoke to one of the janitors and asked “what’s your role here” and the janitor replied: “Mr. President, my role is to put the man on the moon.” So that clarity and vision and knowing where you fit into the bigger picture, I think we have to be better at doing that. I think we actually have to rethink our work space a little bit. It doesn’t really fit now with everyone being in offices and closed off and I think people like interaction, flexibility. We need a heavy investment in training and development.

What skills have you had to learn to adapt to these trends and the new ways of working in HR that you mentioned?

I think you are learning all the time and I am actually quite interested in the generational aspects of the workforce. One of the things I do is I organize an event every year that brings together the whole multilateral sector to talk about career development and talent management. I find that very interesting just even from a personal perspective to find out what’s happening in other organizations, what’s happening in the private sector — for example performance management moving from the once-a-year conversation to the continuous performance is something that we are very interested in. And a much stronger focus on recognition and the organizational advantages of a recognition culture I think is important.

I think particularly when working with field-based organizations, looking at the understanding and the importance of duty of care of staff and understanding of and support to mental health issues in the workplace are two important areas of work that I am learning about all the time. That’s one of the great things about human resources: it’s not an exact science that you can master and then relax. There is always something new or surprising or a different way to do it.

UNFPA recently experienced funding cuts and there are a lot of other organizations out there probably worried about this kind of thing happening to them. What role do you see HR playing in helping organizations navigate during these times of uncertainty and change?

HR will play a critical role and, even in the times of abundance, HR still plays a critical role in terms of change management — and that’s a skill that we need to get better at as a profession. I think for a long time, many HR folks have avoided tackling difficult change processes, but we are increasingly being called to do so. If you look at UNFPA, for example, we’ve had a significant funding cut by a large donor this year and that’s disappointing. But this has actually made us look at all of our business processes, inefficiencies and the clustering of functions, as well as a number of other efficiencies. So we are taking decisions that we would probably have needed to take anyway, and it can be healthy for organizations every few years to do that and to make sure you’ve got the right skillsets in place.

In the UNFPA context, we actually need a bit of a different skillset now than we needed five or 10 years ago to deliver on the SDGs. So even before our funding cut, we were looking at whether we were “fit for purpose” to deliver on the promises of the SDGs and how we needed to retool staff or to change staff out and bring in new blood and expertise. I am a big believer that flux creates opportunities and it’s an opportunity for organizations to really retool quickly and to become a lot more agile.

So what kind of skillsets and profiles are in demand now to allow the agency to deliver upon the SDGs?

Well in terms of a generic, fantastic profile: the divide between development and humanitarian is very blurred at the moment, so we are looking for people who basically have both sets of skills. We are looking certainly for people who can provide upstream policy advice and really high-quality knowledge products to governments. A lot of the governments we are dealing with are very, very capable and they are not looking for people who can deliver a bit of stuff; they are looking for people who can provide a value-added knowledge product. Certainly we are looking for people with strong resource mobilization skills, a strong understanding of partnership — and not just partnership for fundraising but partnership with a capital P that is to really advance the mandate. And even if there is no resources changing hands, you can still do a lot in terms of partnership.

We are looking for people in managerial positions that have strong emotional intelligence. Much of being a representative is actually managing people — probably 80 percent of the role — so we need good strong leadership or management skills and strong EQ. We are looking at people who can very much take on a difficult audience and be very convincing, so strong communications and “‘influencing to action” skills. For our particular mandate —and I am talking about UNFPA specifically now — in a lot of countries where we work we are very controversial. We are talking about sexual health and reproductive rights; we are talking about youth empowerment; we are talking about comprehensive sexuality education. These are tricky subjects to broach. So we also need people who are courageous and that’s why one of the values or competencies that we are looking for are people who are really prepared to take on our issues and hit the ground with a passion — for leadership roles in country offices in particular.

HR often gets a bad rap. What advice to do you have to HR professionals in dealing with this and breaking this stereotype?

I often say that HR are individually liked but collectively lamented. I say to my staff, “don’t worry if you are not liked but it’s important to be respected” because the reality is that mostly HR staff are actually disappointing our clients and their aspirations.

One of the things we have to be better at in human resources is that whole client experience. For example, one of the initiatives I introduced here at UNFPA was a leadership pool, which is where we define projected competencies required and then assess against those. It’s a very popular process. And if you get into the pool it’s a very small pool and your career prospects are very good — so obviously a lot of people want to get in. To mitigate against disappointed staff, one of the things we do is that every single internal member of staff that applies and does not get selected is offered a one-hour coaching session afterwards. People think, “ok I didn’t get in but at least I understand why I didn’t get in and I understand what I need to work on for next time.” And that’s a very powerful thing because people are still disappointed but they think, “at least my application was taken seriously,” — that they were listened to and that the organization acknowledges them. We have to be better at that.

Why do you think the HR profession should still be considered such a critical component to an international organization's success?

Well a business can’t run without effective people, so in terms of supporting the business, HR is vital for that and its very essence is about getting the right people in the right place at the right time at the right cost — and that’s challenging. It sounds very easy but it’s actually challenging. I think if HR is a real trusted part of the business, as an enabler, and you can be a real enabler in HR, then that’s the argument for having a strong HR.

How do you keep HR “current” and encourage innovative and new ways of doing things when there may already be processes or systems in place?

You can still be very innovative. For example, on the soft HR side you have the bespoke client services, recognition, the way that we do assessment, the way that we do candidate feedback, looking at potential-based recruitment rather than sort of backward competency-based recruitment. Through technology, we do a lot of video interviews now where the candidate is videoed and given five questions and given 20 minutes to answer and basically they send it in. Innovations like that are important.

What HR innovations or programs do you feel particularly proud of or feel have been particularly successful?

There’s this leadership pool, which is an interesting one because before we had that we had what I would call a very reactive recruitment process: somebody would resign and we would advertise the job and wait a few weeks; and then do a long list and give it to the hiring manager; then wait for a few more weeks and get a short list; and then think about getting a panel together; and then eventually, maybe six months later, somebody might be in a post.

So it was very reactive and looking at recruiting against the existing skill set in the office. Now what the leadership pool does is that it’s forward looking, so we assess against competencies required in the future; we can look at the demand forecast. For example, I know next year I have to rotate the country representatives in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Haiti — so that’s a lot of humanitarian profiles to assess going forward. And so you stack the pool with people who have that humanitarian gravitas, so now what that has afforded us to do is to be more proactive and also to fill positions more quickly.

This model, where you have a pool of pre-vetted candidates, has become quite popular across different U.N. agencies. When was this approach adopted with the UNFPA?

About four years ago. A significant difference between our model and others is that we made a conscious decision to have an upfront investment of internal people in the pool to keep them up to date. Initially we put significant funds aside just for training and development of people in the pool; so that if you start a four-year assignment in country X, then we are already working with you and thinking with you about what you need for your next assignment in four years’ time. I think that is a very good model because one of the reasons people leave, including millennials and Gen X, is they feel that there is a lack of recognition and a lack of “professional currency,” — that they are losing currency — and by investing in learning and development you are addressing both of those issues.

What advice do you have for professionals starting out in HR. What do you wish you had known?

For young people starting out, the advice I would give is to get several disciplines of human resources under your belt as quickly as possible. We tend to talk about nine disciplines in HR: recruitment, administrative law, compensation, career development and performance management, etc. So get a couple of those under your belt and start building an all-rounder profile. I often go back to when I got the job as head of recruitment at UNDP; I had never actually worked in pure recruitment, but I was successful in getting that job because I could link what was required in that job to all the different disciplines I had worked in. I could say that I came with an understanding of how everything works together and how recruitment feeds into career development, feeds into performance management, feeds into a lot of other aspects of human resources.

Secondly, if you are wanting to work for a field-based organization, then getting some field context. I often say you need to know why you are coming to work and if you have only ever worked in New York or Geneva, and you are working for a global organization, you don’t necessarily understand the context — and that is important.

Thirdly, to look at your career not as a ladder but more as a web. Sometimes it’s important to take a lateral step, or even take a backward step, in order to get to where you ultimately want to be. And the last piece of advice I have is always pick a good boss over a good job; you’ll learn a lot more that way.

Over the next month, Devex, together with our partners the Career Development Roundtable and UNFPA, will take a look at how human resources can be a real driver for innovation, efficiency, and impact in global development. Join us as we share the people and ideas leading the next generation of HR by tagging #HRLeads.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.