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Change starts with us – An interview with Helmut Buss

“As leaders, to change behaviour we need to start with ourselves and make it a continuous practice.”

A photo of Helmut Buss.Helmut Buss is Director of the Ethics Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). As part of the Foundation’s new blog series, The Art of Leadership, recently we sat down with Helmut to discuss strengthening organisational ethics, empowering staff and creating an open dialogue on the future of the UN civil service.


Helmut, in 2017, the United Nations System Leadership Framework was developed to establish a common United Nations leadership culture. The framework identifies nine characteristics of UN Leadership of which one is norm-based leadership. Reflecting on your work experience in the UNHCR Ethics office, what is norm-based leadership for you? What does it mean in the daily realities of UNHCR and how does the UNHCR promote and support norm-based leadership?

To me as a lawyer, norms are the laws. If we look at norms-based leadership, norms include both informal and formal rules and regulations, as well as ethics, values and traditions. For us in the UNHCR, we refer to norms not only as the legal or rules framework, but also in relation to the UN’s values, professionalism, integrity and respect for diversity, and UNHCR’s values, which pertain to our human rights-, people- and humanity-centred mandate. To that I would add ethics principles like fairness, honesty, kindness and transparency.

Norm-based leadership in this sense is really the pool of reference points. In describing this, we, at UNHCR, have often used the visual of a picture frame. Imagine having a picture with a frame on the wall: The frame itself represents the formal reference points, the formal laws, rules, regulations and guidelines. On the canvas, inside the frame, are the ethics, values and principles that accompany us in those situations where the law does not always provide a formal response to the challenges, problems, the ethical dilemmas that we face. Also, there are new questions around Artificial Intelligence (AI) and technology where the laws aren’t keeping pace with the speed of development. For these questions, we need other tools and approaches to help us resolve ethical dilemmas in the interim.

I grew up in a UN system where the law, for example staff rules and regulations, was the only reference point: “This is what the rules say. Behave accordingly and if you don’t, you risk being sanctioned”. We at UNHCR have tried to turn this around: moving from a control and rules-based compliance approach to an ethics and values-based, enabling and empowering approach. In addition to the formal reference points, we want colleagues to use ethical principles and values to guide them when facing ethical dilemmas.

In this space, we make the distinction between personal and organisational ethics. Let me explain this a bit further. Personal ethics relate to individual behaviour such as the Code of Conduct, policies and provisions concerning conflicts of interests, and guidelines on things like navigating social media. However, the ethics lens goes beyond personal ethics to encompass the whole range of work, including organisational ethics. The latter relates to how the UN operates in the current and future environment, how it upholds its values and principles, like respect for diversity and human rights, and how it chooses to engage with the major ethical challenges of our time (such as climate change, artificial intelligence or the future of work), as well as how we balance the commitment to the Duty of Care with others, like Stay and Deliver.

You’ve indicated that ethics complements formal reference points, which indicates that the laws are the starting point but not the end point. What happens if ethical decisions come into conflict with UN regulations or rules? How do you manage this conflict? And does UNHCR provide guidance to people?

I have noticed that people tend to feel at ease when they can refer to a textbook, manual or policy that spells out what we can and cannot do. It’s like when you are rock climbing indoors, there’s a certain comfort in seeing the next colourful grip on the wall, guiding your path, and providing support. But later in life, when I was heading UNHCR’s legal department, I increasingly felt that the law alone was insufficient to find appropriate solutions. That’s why I started to go beyond the law, supplementing my knowledge with studies on mediation and conflict resolution, and I later became an Ombudsman for the UN Funds and Programmes.

Those experiences helped me to understand how to use informal conflict resolution tools in situations where the law alone could not resolve certain problems. To address this type of situations in cases of ethical dilemmas, we at UNHCR developed an ethical decision-making model made up of a series of questions, a journey of inquiry. One of the first points of inquiry is, “What is actually happening? What are the contextual facts?” Colleagues often rush into decision-making without examining all the facts. Other questions in the model are, “What do the relevant laws or guidelines say? How do our values come into play? And what are the potential consequences of certain decisions in terms of reputation, health and security?” And, lastly, “Have I asked and reached out for help or guidance? Who else should be consulted?”

Ethical decision-making and ethical leadership only work in an environment with an organisational culture that supports dialogue, feedback and learning from mistakes.

In the UN family, I feel that there are still too many pockets where the absence of such a culture presents a major challenge. We need to do more to provide safe spaces for people to speak up and feel comfortable to reach out to others for support and help.

A photograph of Helmut Buss

Helmut Buss. Photo credit: Caroline Harper.

If colleagues follow the line of inquiry that you mentioned, do you trust them to get to the right answer? Will the organisation support the resulting decision even if it has reputational consequences?

That’s an interesting and important question. The hope is to get to a point where the organisation respects and sees that due diligence has been done, which would require a certain amount of documentation. In that case, the organisation should support the employee’s decision. If later it turns out that the decision was incorrect or that a mistake was made, the emphasis should be on learning from the situation rather than blaming and finger pointing.

A practical starting point for ethical decision making is our mantra, ‘Stop, pause and reflect’. That is easier said than done especially in organisations such as UNHCR, which is often working on emergency mode. Things must happen fast to assist and protect refugees and people of concern. Most UNHCR colleagues that I meet have an emergency mindset. Our challenge is to help colleagues understand that the processes of stopping, pausing, and reflecting before making decisions will save time in the long run and serve to mitigate risks. Decisions shouldn’t be made on a gut feeling: The ethical decision-making model empowers colleagues to make decisions based on a series of questions they assess. At the same time, there are red lines that must not be crossed like, for example, fraud, sexual exploitation, and crime. My point is that when we empower colleagues, we give them space to make a judgement call and feel confident that they won’t be left out in the rain.

The shift that we promote moves away from a top-down, control and rules-based mechanism to an enabling, values-based mechanism. When I joined the Ethics Office, the discussion on ethics was very transactional and rules oriented. The Ethics Office responded to ethical queries in writing setting out the rules. Today, we try to engage with people directly by talking to them, which allows us to listen to colleagues, understand their context and personal reflections, and think through the ethical decision model together with them.

Instead of perceiving ethics and ethical leadership as a set of principles for preventing colleagues from doing the wrong thing, we see them as enabling colleagues to do the right thing.

In prior discussions, we’ve heard you refer to the ethics gym. How would you describe this term? And when you see leadership failures which muscles are the most underutilised?

For me the ethics gym analogy illustrates how we can bring ethical behaviour to our daily lives inside and outside the workplace. Like in sports, we need to train our muscles if we want to improve. The same applies to strengthening ethical behaviour and mindfulness. For instance, I am a very rational person. While I know that it is important to manage and lead from the mind, heart and from the body, it took me a long time to make mindfulness and self-reflection a continuous practice. Doing so remains a daily exercise.

Change starts with us. As leaders, to change behaviour we need to start with ourselves and make it a continuous practice.

The Code of Conduct dialogue in UNHCR on Values in Action provides space for that dialogue, self-reflection and experiential learning. We invite colleagues to interrupt automatisms of behaviour by turning judgement into curiosity, turning disagreement into shared exploration, turning defensiveness into self-reflection, and turning assumptions into questions. Senior managers need to regularly ask themselves, ‘How am I doing right now?’ or ‘What is the impact of my behaviour?’. Without dialogue and openness, we can’t develop respect for other people’s views or hope to understand their perspectives. By practicing these transformations, including through active listening and the inclusion of other voices, we build trust and create an incentive for collaboration. When someone shares an idea, your reaction should be, “Interesting, tell me more,” not, “That won’t work”.

Overall, colleagues are very receptive to such an engaging, hands-on approach to Code of Conduct learning. At the organisational level, UNHCR is also promoting the use of coaching and mentoring as an accompaniment to leadership development. In addition, our Reflective Leadership Dialogue workshops create spaces for self-reflection, sharing of personal vulnerability and addressing feelings. We have conversations about power, gender and race. I still remember when colleagues would say, ‘Emotions don’t belong in the workplace: That’s unprofessional’. The reality is that we must be able to discuss our feelings in a constructive way in order to address challenges and create and maintain a healthy workplace. Many colleagues appreciate such opportunities for personal growth and life skills learning.

I come from northern Germany. Processing emotions and openly addressing conflictual issues were not prominent in my upbringing. Much was about avoiding conflict in the interest of harmony, being strong and suppressing emotions. Thus, my own journey to see the opportunity in conflict and to show my vulnerabilities, including asking for help, has been quite long. It is a continuous journey of learning and discovery. Together with my wife, I have recently started a clown course. It provides a fantastic opportunity to further discover myself and to engage with and not be afraid of my emotions, as well as reconnecting with my inner child and embraces more lightness in life.

A photograph of Helmut Buss

Helmut Buss. Photo credit: Anna-Tia Buss.

You have talked a lot about the shift from the rules-based system to a more value-based one. Where do you see the challenges? Do you think the challenges are the same depending on one’s level?

Very little is possible if you don’t have leaders who are walking the talk. Authentic role modelling by leaders requires them to practice the behaviour that we want to see. If we compare the enabling environment to a farm field, little can grow if there are only rocks. A bit of fertile ground, by contrast, offers areas of potential that can be nurtured.

A primary challenge to realising the shift toward empowered, ethical decision-making and dialogue is the fear of speaking up. The message coming from the top and the behaviour modelled by those in positions of authority is key for colleagues to feel invited to share their ideas and safe to report problems. There are many factors that contribute to the fear of speaking out and a reticence toward participating in dialogue and learning. By way of example, short-term contracts and distinctions in employment conditions and benefits between national and international staff are two such factors. Trends like the rise in non-staff personnel and the practice, in parts of the UN, of not paying interns represent other examples. How should employees feel when they do the same work as other colleagues but have less stable contracts and fewer benefits? How does that provide a safe environment where they can speak out? What signals are such practices in the UN sending about its commitments to fairness and inclusivity?

We want to come back to the contract issue. This has also come out in our previous reports and activities. In our feminist roundtable (PDF) that we held in June 2020, for example, some UN staff underlined that short-term contracts can be empowering as individuals can be more frank and outspoken and open to taking risks when not concerned about climbing the leadership ladder. I suppose one could look at it from both directions. In terms of the nature of employment, are there any other trends that you think are important in terms of empowering ethical leadership?

I have always wondered: how included do people feel who are doing the same work next to each other but are in very different contractual relationships?

The UN needs the flexibility to use different kinds of contracts, including in relation to contract duration. The problem is that too often short-term contracts, which should be limited to cover short-term needs, are extended repeatedly without providing the contracted individuals with job security. On top of it, we lack a well-functioning career and talent management system, leaving colleagues on short-term contracts in a very volatile situation. When I joined the UN, we were all staff. The UN has since introduced the employment category non-staff. In doing so, it asks a large group of employees for a higher level of loyalty to the organisation than the organisation itself, as an employer, will return. From an ethical point of view, this presents problems related to principles of fairness or core values such as diversity and inclusion.

UNHCR invites dialogues among personnel on race, sexual abuse and gender. From these dialogues, we have noticed that, while it is always difficult to engage in open and honest dialogue on such issues, when colleagues are uncertain about whether their contracts will be extended, they become worried that sharing their views may impact on their career. In the 2020 Annual Report of UNHCR’s Ethics Office, we recommended that a study be undertaken to explore how contractual status impacts on speak-up culture and inclusion.

There are fewer entry-level positions in the UN today than there were before. The average age for entering the UN today is 47. Many recruits have developed their ethical mindsets and their value systems elsewhere. What is your sense of how this impacts the approach to ethical leadership with UN personnel? What do you think about the future of the UN civil service?

I recall conversations with the UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi on this topic. He has always highlighted the importance of being guided by the principle of service when working for the UN. Ahead of my forthcoming retirement, I’ve been having a lot of discussions with colleagues about what it means today to be an international civil servant. In those conversations, it has become clear that the mentality of those who joined the organisation like me decades ago, understood that one must make personal sacrifices to serve the organisation in the field, and to be able to go wherever one was needed. The loyalty that these colleagues demonstrated towards UNHCR was profound but often came at a high cost, sometimes too high a cost.

When I joined UNHCR in 1988, we were about 5,000 employees, had an annual budget of USD 0.5 billion and were serving a refugee population of 14 million. Today, we are nearly 20,000 UNHCR colleagues with a budget of USD 9 billion USD and a global population of concern to UNHCR of 80 million. When I joined, the UN was broadly highly respected. Today, humanitarian workers, including within the UN, have become targets, and too many having tragically lost their lives.

All of this has had a huge impact on our work and what it means to be a UN civil servant in today’s world. Many colleagues of the younger generation join the UN with other expectations, also in relation to their ability to participate. It is important that we start engaging in a dialogue on this generational shift within the UN. To my knowledge, not much is happening in that regard and too much young talent is leaving when confronted with hierarchy, bureaucracy or exclusion.

At the same time, I observe encouraging grassroots movements within the UN, including groups such as Young UN, which are challenging outdated management and leadership practices. As I leave, movements such as Young UN give me hope that the next generation will assume leadership roles and engage in a different way than I did.

A photograph of Helmut Buss

Helmut Buss. Photo credit: UNHCR Geneva.

The UN promotes bottom-up governance approaches, inclusivity and local ownership. Does what the UN promotes externally align with how it functions internally? What can the organisation learn from social movements and how are they impacting the structure and culture of the UN?

I would like to give you a concrete example: UNHCR’s workforce could be seen as the civil society of UNHCR. Our High Commissioner recently termed it like that. For me this also means that we should encourage and support colleagues to be activists inside the organisation who participate in discussions on issues related to the values and principles for which the UN stands. This also means that we should support colleagues in making a difference in society and standing in for the principles the UN promotes. There is no question that our status as civil servants will always require us to make sure that our action is not in conflict with the UN’s interests. However, it is one thing to use the UN Staff Regulations and Rules as a set of principles for preventing colleagues to do the wrong thing. It is another thing to work with those principles as an enabler for colleagues to do the right thing, and to empower them in ethical decision making like when deciding whether or not to participate in demonstrations on global questions such as climate or gender and trusting them to take the right decision without crossing red lines. I would like to promote the latter.

Among the grassroots movements within the UN and UNHCR are Stronger Together, which engages in a dialogue on race, and Women & Change and Men4Change, which emerged following the #MeToo movement. Such movements didn’t exist five or ten years ago. Colleagues want to have their voices heard, engage in dialogue, co-design and be creative in addressing the challenges of today and tomorrow. I think that the UN should be allocating more time and resources to discussions with employees and (internal) grassroots movements on issues like climate change, gender, race or new technology, including how these issues relate to the UN’s values, principles and operations. If these movements and their concerns are ignored, these (mostly young) colleagues will eventually leave the UN.

Do you know what keeps me awake at night? My deep frustration that we have this mountain of silence, this fear of speaking out in many parts of the UN. Something big is missing. Many colleagues who have spoken up and reported wrongdoing are people whose health has suffered as a result of speaking out, and sometimes it feels like they’ve been left behind on the battlefield. Regardless of the validity of their claims, if the system allows people coming forward to experience harm rather than recognising them for doing so, then it is broken. We need to be more honest about this. There is still considerable work to be done to build a whistleblower protection regime that is trusted by personnel. We should have the courage to say that there is still a problem.

What will you miss most from the UN when you retire?

I prefer to think of it as graduation from the UN, rather than retiring. In graduating, one recognises having accumulated knowledge and tools, and demonstrates a readiness to move out into the world to continue to contribute in another way. I want to stay connected with this international space, which is marked by an enormous and inspiring diversity of perspectives.

Much of what I take with me after over 30 years in the UN is inspiration from so many people I have met, including the courage, hope and humanity role modelled by refugees and people of concern to UNHCR. I want to build on this energy, continue to participate in community work and through my coaching practice continue to stay connected with and accompany people on their career path and their journey through life.

Helmut Buss has been active for over 30 years in international humanitarian organisations on various continents and in different management positions. Before his appointment as Director of the Ethics Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), he worked as Ombudsman for the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC) based in Geneva. Previously, he was an Ombudsman for the United Nations Funds and Programmes (UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNOPS, and UN-Women) based in New York. Prior to that, Buss worked for UNHCR for some 20 years and held various positions both at headquarters in Geneva and on the ground, including legal counsel to UNHCR and country representative for UNHCR in Kyrgyzstan. He holds a degree in law from the University of Hamburg and an MBA from the Open University Business School in the UK, and a Master’s degree in mediation from the Institut Universitaire Kurt Boesch (IUKB) in Sion, Switzerland.

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Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström By Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström

Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström is a Programme Manager at the Foundation, covering the financing, form and functions of the UN development system, and UN leadership. She has led the production of a number of the Foundation’s reports, including Financing the UN Development System and The Art of UN Leadership: Framing What’s Blue. Previously, Veronika worked for several international foundations and projects including the Friedrich Ebert Foundation; the European Centre for Development Policy Management; the European Commission’s TradeCom Facility; and for PARTICIP, coordinating the European Commission’s Results Oriented Monitoring System for the Western Balkan region. In 2014, she was one of the members who set up the European Institute of Peace (EIP) in Brussels, where she worked as the Head of Operations and EIP's first Liaison Officer in New York, covering the Middle East. She has also carried out consultancy work with the UN Development Programme, the UN Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office and the Development Cooperation’s Office on Pooled Funds. Veronika holds a Masters from the University of East Anglia in International Development and Economics.

Marc Jacquand By Marc Jacquand

Marc Jacquand is as a Senior Advisor to the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. He is an adjunct Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University where he teaches risk management in conflict contexts.

Marc worked two years with the Executive Office of the Secretary-General António Guterres on strategic planning and UN reform. Starting his career in investment banking, he worked in the field of micro finance for FINCA International before joining the Microfinance Unit of the United Nations Capital Development Fund. He went on to work on conflict and post crisis responses both at Headquarters, for the Development Cooperation Office and for the UN presence in the occupied Palestinian territory, Libya, Yemen and Somalia. Marc graduated from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and the HEC School of Management in France.

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