The most difficult job interviews are usually the ones with curveballs: Google notoriously used to ask questions like “Why are manhole covers round?” and “How many golf balls fit in a school bus?” But startups-turned-tech-giants aren’t the only ones putting candidates through the ringer. For the most arduous and soul-crushing job interview around, look no further than the United Nations.
For more than eight months, the UN has been working on electing its next secretary-general, and time is running out: The body must make a decision by late October, before Ban Ki-moon concludes his term at the end of the year. As things stand, it’s looking like the process may come down to a Cold War redux between the United States and Russia, which are each angling to get their favored candidate in the top seat. The US is keen on Argentinian foreign minister Susana Malcorra, while Russia is vying for Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian diplomat and UNESCO director-general.
Here’s how it works: The process starts with “early voting,” held via secret straw polls. This is just an icebreaker to gauge support for various candidates, and to peer-pressure low performers into withdrawing. In early voting, each of the Security Council members marks “encourage,” “discourage,” or “no opinion” next to the names of candidates that have been nominated by their respective nations.
The current race—down to 10 candidates—has seen three polls so far. In the latest, held last month, Malcorra and Bokova were beat out by Antonio Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who has spent the past decade as head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Bokova came in third place, with five “discourages” against her, and Malcorra came in fifth, with seven “discourages.”
Guterres also won the first and second straw polls in July and August, but he doesn’t have it in the bag. Russia was reportedly one of two countries that “discouraged” him, suggesting Moscow may veto Guterres later in the process. (The five permanent members of the Security Council—the US, Britain, France, China, and Russia—have veto power, but they can’t use it in early voting.)
But wait, there’s more. Each of the candidates is also giving a live, two-hour televised and webcast interview as part of the election process, a step added with the hope of increasing transparency (yay!) and involving the public in the UN’s decision-making (umm…) The interviews begin with a presentation of the candidate’s “vision statement,” which addresses the challenges and opportunities facing the UN and its next secretary-general. Then, the president of the General Assembly and representatives from member states ask the candidate questions drawn from more than 1,000 that have been submitted via social media. The questions cover a range of issues, including peace-building, human rights, humanitarian response, and meeting the challenges of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
There has been considerable support behind the idea of electing a woman—for all of its 70 years, the UN has been led by men—given the importance of women’s and girls’ rights to economic development and political stability. But while the additional interviews may give female candidates another chance to shine, they could also exacerbate the biases women can face when vying for jobs: discriminatory questions, disproportionate focus on their appearance, a dislike for women who express ambition, and a broader disinclination to put women in positions of power.
A fourth straw poll is expected to be held Sept. 9, with two more to follow in late September and early October. After that, the Security Council member states will formally propose a candidate to the General Assembly. He or she will have to win the approval of a majority of the 15 members, including that of the five members with veto power.
Elections are always a bit messy. But when the UN gets its first secretary-general, it will be after a grueling process that’s part beauty pageant, part grand-jury investigation, and part college admissions essay. Even after all that, victory may pass by the most deserving candidate in favor of the one who simply draws the fewest objections.