How I crashed into the glass-ceiling

How I crashed into the glass-ceiling

A few months ago I wrote about the problems with funding civil society, and Roma civil society in particular; how EU funds (in particular structural funds) but also project-focused funding stimulate false reporting, rationalizing failures, useless by expensive meetings and trainings, and corruption. Incentives for grassroots work, learning from failures, critical thinking, participation and sharing responsibilities of the vulnerable groups are missing.

I thought I might work to change things for the better from inside a European intergovernmental organization, as my efforts to make changes from outside had failed. So I applied for a job in Brussels with one of the most important donor intergovernmental organizations in Europe. I was a perfect fit for the job description and requirements. The job deals with Roma issues and is instrumental in setting up the priorities for funding targeting Roma social inclusion. I had all the requested skills and solid proof[1] to support my application.

Many of the best Roma professionals and experts I know applied for the job. Five Roma (including me) and one non-Roma person were interviewed, in the first round.

During the interview the main concern of the senior management present was how would I adapt to being a “bureaucrat”. They seemed little concerned about my skills, but worried that I was too strong a leader and might not adapt to their “bureaucratic culture”. They asked about how I would deal with accepting clearly poor decisions taken against my advice by staff members senior to my position or their political superiors, considering that all had much less knowledge than me.

I was stupefied. I had thought that an organization that spends hundred of millions of euros of public money should make sure that politicians and high ranking bureaucrats would NOT take poor decisions, and would do it’s utmost to fight AGAINST sugar-coating and the cover-up of poor decisions.

They did not ask about my experience at the grassroots level – either in the ghetto or leading a network of Roma organizations struggling with huge problems due to inadequate funding.

Several weeks later, I was invited for a second interview. Three of us were left: another well-qualified Roma person, a non-Roma person, and me. Coincidentally, a few days before the second interview a close friend of mine had a meeting with the non-Roma candidate. She presented herself as already representing the organization we had applied to work for. Not knowing that I had applied for the same job, he commented that she seemed to have little awareness about the issues affecting Roma exclusion and what he thought was a proof of structural racism.

The second interview was slightly better than the first in terms of the questions asked of me. But by that time, I had started to wonder if I really wanted the job, after all. The salary they offered was obscenely high, and I told those interviewing me that I would donate 70% of it to the organization I had started in the ghetto of Ferentari. That, I thought, was a good example of social responsibility and a good model to be followed by others, and might even reflect well on their institution.

Three people interviewed me this time – two were new. None of them had any practical or academic experience with Roma issues. This time, the interviewers were worried about the fact that I was very energetic and I might not fit into the team. That I might not be “happy” within their organization. They also asked me how they would be able to benefit from my high-level contacts (but not about my contacts in the Roma communities). They made it clear that they viewed me as a potentially great asset, but with a rather “strong personality”. These concerns didn’t seem to fit with what I had read about the job: I would not have applied, had I thought I would be unhappy in the organization. The job required lots of travel in Roma communities and a significant degree of independence, so it seemed to me that energy would be needed.

As a team leader working for IBM many years ago, I learned that inability to deal with colleagues who are intelligent and good at what they do, but have a “strong personality,” reflects badly on the team leader. My experience as a manager[2] taught me to seek out the best people for my team, not the most “comfortable” ones. I checked some of my books on management and I didn’t find disagreement on this point.

All the Roma professionals who were interviewed had great hand-on experience working with Roma at the grassroots level, and also in international institutions. Most of us had very little or no experience with sugar-coating failures, accepting and supporting poor decisions of senior management, promoting practices that waste huge amounts of money in useless meetings, huge consultancy fees, and irrelevant trainings. In other words… none of us had worked for the European Commission.

The non-Roma candidate was the one who eventually received the job. She had previously worked for the European Commission. In fact, she had been the program manager of some EU funds dealing with Roma. I could not find evidence that she had any experience or success working at the grassroots level with Roma communities.

What message did I get out of this? That if I want a job as a bureaucrat, the skills that matter are to have low energy, to accept poor decisions made by others around me, to be able to present failures as success, and to have a non-threatening personality. The glass ceiling is concrete solid when it comes to Roma. Roma participation is indeed very important as long as is done from a very safe distance.

I write this not because I am bitter. I have plenty of ideas and work to do. Maybe I will apply for the next job that comes along, or maybe not. I write this because change is needed and if we continue to promote the idea that the ability to pay lip-service, compliancy and cowardice are the requirements for a brilliant bureaucratic career, our societies are doomed.


If the text in the link above is hypocritical or not is for each of you to decide. No Roma or people with hands on expertise in Roma communities work for the organization.

[1] Most published Roma expert on Roma issues, winner of a number of international and national awards for my work at grassroots level, national and European level (both policy and grassroots), contributor on Roma issues for all major stakeholders in the field, EC Commissioner, Secretary General of Council of Europe, Commissioners for Human Rights and National Minorities, over a hundred of EU ministers, mayors, MEPs, ambassadors came to see what I started in the ghetto of Ferentari…

[2] I lead for years a private company with over 300 employees


  1. It is really a shame, but it doesn’t surprise me considering how „effective” have been European policies up to now! And at the end we all, as European citizens, pay for the contributions given to these intergovernmental organizations… However you must not give up, as we say in Italy „La goccia scava la roccia” (Picătura găureşte piatra)!

  2. Oh Val, this is all too true of how managers and directors are chosen in this field – and why the results over the past 20 years have been so utterly dismal. Efforts to reduce poverty and create a Roma middle class can’t possibly succeed given the current way of approaching these complex issues – and that is true for all sides – the EU bureaucrats, the Romanian ‘indifferentia’, and the Roma oligarchy.

  3. I like your article and the amazing way you presented the situation. I have encountered myself the same problems while working on EU projects as a consultant on totally different kind of issues and your conclusions are correct. I am still amazed by the amount of money spent by different institutions without any concrete result and also about their requirements for employment. Furthermore I am still amazed by the arrogance of those „who made it” to become a „fonctionnaire”. My solution is to do what I do and try to make a difference in my way…and unfortunately I have no idea if this will ever change somthigs „up there”….

  4. Thanks for posting this, it’s a great read.

    It’s also such a ludicrous situation, but I’m not in the least surprised. Over the last couple of years I’ve come to realize that Europe has some serious issues with ‘effectiveness’ (but not with efficiency, necessarily). Basically, this story is the case in point that I was trying to make when I wrote this post:

    Moreover, I agree that not getting the job isn’t exactly a big loss for you (sounds like a blessing, really), but it’s a very tough loss for the Roma community and it speaks volumes about the integrity and usefulness of EU institutions.

  5. Man, be happy you were overqualified and with a „strong personality” for that job, otherwise they might have taken you in and that would’ve been much worse for you. Your experience confirms everything I thought of this grand union. Good writing and keep up your good work.

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