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Misleading Results From the United Nations Staff Satisfaction Survey

Tom Devine Posted by Tom Devine.

Tom Devine is legal director of the Government Accountability Project, where he has worked to assist thousands of whistleblowers to come forward and has been involved in the all of the campaigns to pass or defend major whistleblower laws over the last two decades.

In February, approximately 4,000 United Nations staff members completed the Global Staff Satisfaction Survey (click here for the survey results), and the tabulated results we....

In February, approximately 4,000 United Nations staff members completed the Global Staff Satisfaction Survey (click here for the survey results), and the tabulated results were released internally in March. At the Government Accountability Project (GAP), where we work with whistleblowers from the United Nations (UN), we were particularly interested in the scores published for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) where a number of whistleblowers in recent years have worked. Because their disclosures alleged crimes and misconduct involving troops and civilians in the UN peacekeeping missions, we also examined the scores published for the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), and the peacekeeping missions in Haiti and the Central African Republic, where problems of sexual abuse and exploitation had allegedly occurred.

The scores from the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), which investigates both retaliation complaints and allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation, also are of interest to GAP, and will be discussed in a subsequent blog. 

The Global Staff Satisfaction Survey included both quantitative and qualitative information. Each Department was assigned a numerical score based on staff agreement/disagreement with positive and optimistic declarative statements addressing the following topics:

  • job satisfaction
  • career development;
  • ​quality of supervision;
  • leadership;
  • ethics and organizational culture;
  • empowerment;
  • internal communication;
  • work-life balance; and
  • overall impressions of the UN.

The numerical scores for each category of responses were then displayed on indices based on the relationship of the Department’s total to the Organization’s average score; departments either exceeded the average or fell short. While this scoring gives a detailed ranking of each Department’s score relative to other UN Departments, it does not reveal a baseline for any of the attitudes measured. 

Nonetheless, it seems that, on all of these measures, OHCHR did very well. Its staff members’ responses were well above the Organization’s average score on all of the measures covered.

The positive ranking for OHCHR on measures of staff members’ satisfaction seemed unusual, given the deepening and spreading scandals over the High Commissioner’s apparent tendency to ignore allegations of human rights violations involving UN staff and peacekeeping troops. Further, the organizational culture OHCHR whistleblowers described was not consistent with the scores released for OHCHR in the Global Survey. And finally, the whistleblowers’ account of a punitive and intimidating workplace was corroborated by the way in which they were ultimately treated by OHCHR management.

To triangulate the scores posted for OHCHR in the Global Survey, GAP therefore referenced an internal survey of staff members at OHCHR, and relied on Peter Gallo, a former UN investigator, who prepared a side-by-side analysis (click here for the analysis) of the two. Gallo provided these comparisons, for example:

  • The Global Survey rated OHCHR better than any other UN department for ‘Internal Communication,’ while the OHCHR survey findings for ‘internal communication’ found: only 45% of staff said they were kept informed of developments in OHCHR or in the UN in general, and only 18% reported having reasons behind decisions being explained to them. 
  • The Global Satisfaction survey rated OHCHR second highest in the Organization for supervisors being open to new ideas and suggestions. The OHCHR survey found: only 22% believed that management was in touch with their views and opinions as staff members, and only 24% believed senior management to be responsive to the views and opinions of staff. 
  • In terms of staff communicating with management, 53% of respondents were “not afraid to openly express their views and opinions.” Therefore 47% must be afraid to do so. [Forty] 40% of respondents even indicated they “experienced, or fear[ed] reprisals for speaking out”…
  • The Global survey rated OHCHR highest in the Organization for communication in the department being “open and honest”, and for people communicating respectfully. This has to be compared to the findings of the OHCHR Survey that found only 25% of respondents considered OHCHR to be “open and honest” in their communications…
  • More significantly, the Global Survey rated OHCHR highest in the Organization for being free from harassment or abuse of authority, but at the same time, the OHCHR survey reported that 25% of respondents experienced “harassment, discrimination or abuse of authority at work.” Given the sample size, that would imply at least 85 instances of violations of ST/SGB/2008/5 (The internal regulation that prohibits abuse of authority) in that one department alone (emphasis added).
  • Responsibility for initiating investigations under ST/SGB/2008/5 lies with the ‘Program Manager’ - which in the case of OHCHR is the High Commissioner, and given that 40% of the respondents (i.e. at least 136 OHCHR staff members) expressed a fear of reprisal for speaking out - these figures indicate a serious problem with misconduct and retaliation by management.

The OHCHR Survey indicates that 75% of respondents did not believe the UN Regulations and Rules in the area of human resources were effectively implemented at OHCHR. This supports the anonymous comments made by staff members referring to the culture of impunity in that workplace.

In brief, Gallo’s comparison shows that although OHCHR scores well on the staff attitudes indices relative to other UN offices and departments, in a stand-alone survey OHCHR’s scores are abysmal.

The qualitative information published in the Global Survey report was similarly critical and supports the negative conclusions to be drawn from the internal OHCHR survey. Staff members were given the latitude to comment on their attitudes toward their work, their supervisors, and the organizational culture in their workplace. For every department surveyed, these comments were overwhelmingly negative. For OHCHR, the comments were particularly numerous and devastating.

Other departments – especially DPKO – were similarly criticized by staff in the comments released. For both departments, the comments published were around 80 percent negative.







































As a cautionary note, the information about how the comments were solicited is not available. It is possible that staff members were asked their opinions about how the UN or their departments could be improved, which would tend to elicit critical (or negative) responses. Moreover, the respondents are self-selected and are therefore not representative of all staff members in any given department. In surveys like this, respondents with the most intense attitudes tend to write comments, while those who are less concerned either do not respond at all or do not add commentary to their quantitative responses.

Nonetheless, many of the comments are shockingly vitriolic, and patterns of dissatisfaction are evident.

Of concern to GAP are the comments about fear of retaliation, some of which were cited by Gallo in his essay about OHCHR. There were many of these:

  • I wanted to protect the best interest of the UN by refusing to support corruption in my organization. I did report and asked for protection against retaliation but got no help from the mission leadership (DPKO).
  • Harassment, threats and retaliation have become a normal way of treating and managing people. Leadership is not accountable but on the contrary blaming staff constantly and irrationally (Economic Commission for Europe).
  • At my current post I feel trapped in an environment where the management style is very authoritative and not open to the staff opinions or needs. It has been very challenging to work for an organization that promotes respect while feeling that I am not being respected. This is not only my perception but common feeling around the staff; however everyone feels that our Director won't take criticism in a constructive way and fears of retaliation which has created a terrible atmosphere (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean).
  • Abuses continue to be underreported due to fear for retaliation (Multidimensional Integration and Stabilization Mission in Mali).
  • Favoritism and retaliation need to be addressed (United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq).

Because of its implications, any one of these observations would be disturbing, but a series of such comments from different departments at the United Nations is alarming. Retaliation tends to be a subject that staff members mention only under duress because of fear. When several staff members explicitly refer to it, the phenomenon may be widespread.                  

In our next blog, we will examine the Staff Survey results for OIOS, which, like OHCHR, has produced numerous whistleblowers in recent years. It is worth noting that although Gallo’s research shows OHCHR to be an undesirable place to work, the Department still scored well on the rankings produced by the Global Survey. The scores for OHCHR on all indices exceeded the UN average. Scores for OIOS, however, placed it well below the overall UN average.

Previous news exposed OIOS as, at best, a very difficult place to work. This survey shows that the difficulties continue, despite the departure of the Under-Secretary General and the arrival of her replacement. And despite the departure of the Director of Investigations and the appointment of his successor. More to come.

Bea Edwards