It must have been in the second quarter of 1991. Three powerful personalities from the international office of World Vision in the USA arrived at the Ghana office in Accra. In my village, there is a saying that “the calibre of the visitor can change the quality of the soup”. These three were definitely soup changing visitors. They included a Senior Human Resource (HR) executive, a highly placed Legal Advisor, and the Sub-Regional Director for West Africa. Their arrival created tremors in the office with the grapevine experiencing a lot of the shocks and aftershocks that run from the roots to the leaves. Some of the news was blemished with exaggerations and others fell short of the reality. Something had gone terribly wrong in the Ghana office of World Vision International, and this team was here to put things right.
I sat down with hands between my thighs as one of the members of the team formed to meet the high calibre personnel from the international office. I have been constantly reminded recently that I was the leader of the team. I have no idea how this came about. Many people have quoted what I said on that day back to me but I know that I did not prepare a speech. It must have been a divine thought that led me into the speech.
The legal expert from the International office held a document in his hand and told us that claims for End-Of-Service Benefits based on this document could not be respected because the document was illegal. I raised my hand and said that I had worked for World Vision International since 1981. I was recruited into the organization based on the contents of the policy document being held up by the legal expert. When I joined the organization, I had been made to sign that I had read and understood the contents of the document. I had come to work at 8 AM in the morning and closed at 5:00 PM based on the contents of the policy document. World Vision International had registered as an NGO based on that document. To say that the document was illegal meant that the organization had been operating in Ghana illegally for more than 10 years and all the employees had been working illegally throughout the lifespan of their work with the organization. Members of the delegation took a deep breath, and as one of my colleagues puts it, they were immediately deflated and had to come down to reality.
If the above narrative of my intervention in the meeting was divinely inspired, the next part of my presentation was divinely arranged. I said that the international office of World Vision International and the staff of World Vision Ghana had found ourselves in a conflict situation. We could easily take positions and argue our cases for a long period of time and come to no conclusion. On the other hand, it would be better to abandon entrenched positions that placed us on opposite sides of the table and rather isolate the problem by placing ourselves on the same side.
We should concentrate on our interests instead of our positions. And in our discussions, if we focused on satisfying our interest without forgetting the interests of the other party we will come to a solution that will be win-win for both of us and not a win-loss situation. At this point, the senior HR executive, got off his seat to come and shake my hand and said that he thinks we had been reading the same book. Indeed, this was not simple wisdom from Samuel Braimah. Three months before this incident I strayed into Challenge Bookshop and bought a book entitled “Getting To Yes” written by Roger Fisher and William Yuri. It was about the art of negotiation. I read this book diligently without knowing that I would have to apply it anytime in my life. My suggestion for the way forward to the team of experts was basically what I learned from the book.
The genesis of this episode goes back all the way to 1979/1980 when World Vision International started work in Ghana. In order to register as an organization, there was a need to present some basic documentation. And the HR manual was one of the requirements, so World Vision Ghana presented the document in dispute. I am not sure whether it was called a Human Resource Manual or a Personnel manual. This manual, like every normal HR manual, referred to World Vision Ghana as the employer and staff as the employees. The manual detailed everything about Human Resource Management from recruitment, remuneration, different types of leave, promotion, discipline, exit from the organization etc. There was also a clause in the manual concerning retirement from the organization. According to this clause, any member of staff retiring from the organization will have End-Of-Service Benefits equivalent to three months salary multiplied by the number of years of service. All staff, at the time of their recruitment, were made to sign that they had read and understood the contents of the HR manual. This looks simple enough. The magnitude of this policy became apparent when looking at a senior management staff member who had been with the organization for 10 years or more. The retirement of this individual meant that the organization had to pay more than 30 months of salary to him. I remember one of the members of the international office delegation saying that if this policy was really correct he would prefer to come and take a job in the Ghana office and retire from here. The big mistake is that this policy document was never taken through the approval process for deliberation and signing by the right authorities. This meant that the Ghana office of World Vision was working and holding onto a policy document that was not approved until the reality dawned on everybody.
In an effort to identify the root causes of this problem, one can easily see a number of ways by which this scenario of policy hiatus could have been avoided. In the first place, the leadership of the organization could have followed up on the approval process for the HR policy document, all the way to the top hierarchy of the organization in the international office and gotten it approved and signed. This could have led to a renegotiation of the draft and arrival at a mutually acceptable policy document, that would benefit staff, and at the same time and not bring the international office into a confrontation with them. Secondly, a periodic policy review process, that is put in place to review all national office policies, say every two years or three years, would have revealed this lacuna and responded to it appropriately. Obviously, this did not happen for more than 10 years. Sadly there was no clear understanding of purchasing power parity on the side of the international office. While a month’s salary of a worker in the US sounds like a lot of money; a month’s salary of a worker in Ghana is not as big as imagined by the International office. International organizations need to contextualize what they mean by the figures they mention in policy documents. Obviously, the international staff who joked about taking a job in Ghana and retiring on the job will not except what a Ghanaian staff member is paid.
I cannot remember the details of the negotiations after this initial explosive meeting. But I know that the negotiations went on in a way to ensure that the staff interest was taken care of without breaking down the finances of the organization. Policy and reality can be very different things. I found myself sitting in the midst of the two. And by divine intervention successfully lead the process to a fruitful end.
Learning from this experience, when I found myself in a leadership position as a Country Director of an NGO in another country, I made sure of three things: A lawyer recruited as HR Manager received further training in Human Resource management. An external lawyer was engaged on a retainer and I made sure that he had a legal opinion on every HR document and meticulously read every letter coming out of the HR department. He also represented my organisation in every legal case. I took the time to familiarize myself with the common international HR policies of the organization and the labour laws of the country in which I was working. Finally, periodic reviews of policy documents ensured that we stayed in step with evolving HR policy issues in the organization and labour law changes in the country.
Labour issues in Africa are very dynamic and anybody who wants to play a leadership role in development work must keep their eyes on policy documents to ensure that they stay abreast with changing trends.
I really appreciate comments from readers on the blog, as well as personal messages and phone calls that encourage me. Next post is sub-titled “Taking Stock To define A Roadmap For the future”.