The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR’s) purpose and mandate is certainly not minor.
The international refugee agency exists to serve “the 110 million people who are forcibly displaced around the world”, in the words of director of HR Catty Bennet Sattler.
This means that UNHCR staff sometimes “put themselves in harm’s way to protect others”. This creates a real community, “camaraderie” among its 19,000-strong workforce.
But the agency’s HR policies and processes were not serving these employees out in the field, or the wider organizations’ needs.
When Bennet Sattler joined the UNHCR at the end of 2018, an assessment had been made of “everything that was wrong in HR”; this included things like being overly complex with policy and procedure, unnecessary layers of bureaucracy and a “highly dysfunctional, old solution for HR tech” that wasn’t “serving us well at all”.
So, Bennet Sattler got to work on a HR transformation, and after a lengthy procurement process the UNHCR chose Workday as its vendor partner.
UNHCR, Workday and HR transformation
Choosing the tech was a crucial part of the process, but Bennet Sattler is clear that a successful transformation needs more than just good tech.
There was also a need for a culture-change and restructure in how the HR function operated in the UNHCR.
“You can’t do one without the other”, she tells UNLEASH.
First of all, to get ready to implement, Workday the UNHCR had to adjust and update its processes to meet the vendor’s standards.
This was a huge plus in Workday’s corner for Bennet Sattler – she saw this a “one-time opportunity”, “almost like a Trojan horse, to radically simplify our processes”.
So, the HR team went through every single HR process one by one and asked, “is there a way we make our current process fit for the standard of Workday?”.
“If not, can we simplify our process or our policy? If the answer was still no, I would say ‘Try harder’.”
“The division didn’t necessary like it” – and it was a tough process, but, as a result, “my team started to think differently”, and Bennet Sattler is very proud of them and their discipline.
A whopping 200 processes were simplified over the nine-month period before Workday went live in October 2022.
Only two UNHCR HR processes couldn’t fit the Workday standard: the way the UN does payroll across all its offices globally, and how the UNHCR pays for the education costs of employees’ children in certain areas of the world.
The transformation project also helped the HR team break down silos – “here we had a project where everybody was involved; it wasn’t just the tech team”.
The “implementation was the responsibility of the entire division” – this created ownership, which wouldn’t have happened if the transformation had been left to IT, shares Bennet Sattler.
This had the added benefit of ensuring they had a proper understanding of the Workday tool and how to use it – “I needed them to have built it as they were going to use it” – because “then they would do a good job for their clients” – UNHCR employees.
Bennet Sattler adds that she also took the opportunity to also restructure the HR function and transform it into being “a much better partner to our operational colleagues out in the field” – this included introducing HR business partners in all of the UNHCR’s seven global regions.
“We created a stronger global HR community focused on our operations”, notes the UNHCR’s director of HR.
People as the secret to transformation success
Having the HR team bought into the entire transformation was key – but “the magic started to happen when we started training and rollout in our seven regions”.
There was such excitement – Bennet Sattler shares: “I’d wake up in the morning to excited messages. All of a sudden, I had champions across the world, saying, ‘This is exciting, this is the future’.”
Part of the reason for high engagement from UNHCR’s workforce is that Workday is easier to use; “it’s a pure user experience”. “They have better access to information”, and HR gets better data.
The tech “allows us to have better conversations, and really have data-driven conversations as opposed to [assuming] what is happening in the organization” – it has created a better partnership between managers and HR.
“We always talk about people, partnership and technology, and how the three constantly weave around each other”, the UNHCR’s director of HR tells UNLEASH.
The future of HR tech at the UNHCR
“I wasn’t a HR tech enthusiast, but now I am a total convert,” Bennet Sattler shares.
Crucially, she now sees “technology as a partner to a good HR professional”.
“Use your technology to support you, no matter what direction you’re going and bring the human side,” adds Bennet Sattler.
She has the same attitude when thinking about AI.
“As a humanitarian organization, we have to do more with less. For me, I have got to really make sure my budget and my people can stretch further – if tech, and AI in particular, can help me, that’s an angle that I’m very keen to pursue”, adds the director of HR at the UNHCR.
Success here requires having “the mindset to be open to try new things”.
“More traditional HR colleagues have to wake up to the fact that we’ve got to work with it”, Bennet Sattler concludes.
HR transformation and UNLEASH World
Want to get more tips on HR transformation? Catty Bennet Sattler will be “pay it forward” and sharing the UNHCR’s entire story on stage at UNLEASH World 2023.
“Why am I sharing our story? Because I wish somebody had shared a similar story, and that would have encouraged us to say it can be done,” Bennet Sattler tells UNLEASH.
She is also excited to learn from the amazing line-up of speakers – “we’ve got lot of other challenges and changes coming – transformation is continuous right? – so I am hoping to be inspired by others”.
It’s not too late to grab your ticket for the show in Paris this October.
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