Diversity Challenge At World Bank: How An "Exceptional" Confidential Assistant Was Ousted By President Kim

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Marline Alexis

[Focus: The World Bank]

At The World Bank Group co-workers speak fondly of the memory of Marline Alexis, a dedicated member of the support staff for 27 years, whom they say was mistreated by the Bank's president Jim Yong Kim even while battling the cancer that finally claimed her life earlier this year.

She'd never imagined that her last years would be spent fighting the disease while also dealing with what she felt was the repudiation of her nearly three decades of work by a new Bank president who forced her premature and, her friends say, ignoble exit.

In 2012 when Jim Yong Kim, a medical doctor, became the World Bank Group president, Alexis was then personal assistant to Ian Solomon, who was the United States Executive Director to the Bank and who'd made an effort to get the Bank to hire more African Americans, according to Bank staffers interviewed for this report.

Solomon is no longer with the Bank and has been vp for global engagement at the University of Chicago since June, 2013.

"I've never worked with someone who's harder working and more committed than she was," Solomon says, of Alexis, when The Black Star News reached him by telephone. "She was one of the most dedicated person I've ever had the pleasure to work with. I consider myself privileged to have worked with her."

Solomon declined to comment about the circumstances surrounding Alexis's departure from the Bank.

Formed in 1945 to spur economic recovery after the devastation of World War II, Washington, D.C.-based World Bank Group comprises The World Bank, which is made up of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the International Development Association (IDA). The three other component institutions are: the International Finance Corporation (IFC); the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA); and, International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).

The Bank's mission is "ending extreme poverty and building shared prosperity."

The Bank tackles global poverty by broadly focusing on human development issues such as health, education, and agriculture and annually channels about $30 billion to the developing world for major projects such as power plants, bridges, roads, electrical grids, and in recent years large-scale commercial farming.

The Bank's president is treated like a head of state in many countries and often attends G-20 meetings with world leaders.

World Bank presidents serve 5-year renewable terms. Dr. Kim's term runs through 2017.

His total compensation package is $848,542 ($476,360 annual salary net of tax; $121,615 contribution to his pension plan; and $250,567 contribution to other plans, including leave, medical, life and disability insurance, and accrued termination benefits).

Dr. Kim was so impressed by Alexis's work ethic that he asked her to apply to become his confidential private assistant soon after he became president, several people interviewed say.

At the time Alexis, who attended the American University in Washington, D.C., was making $80,000 net, having already logged nearly three decades at the Bank.

The Bank has various job categories, beginning with grade A through grade K; grades H through K are senior executives.

Grade promotions are very hard to come by and carry much social prestige; current and former Bank staffers speak of being rewarded with significant pay increases while languishing in the same grade level.

"There are cases where Blacks have been stuck in the same position for over 20 years," says a former staffer. "Even for non-Black staff it can take 10 years particularly at higher grades."

Alexis had attained grade D by the time Dr. Kim asked her to work for him and a year later was at grade E.

To be personally selected by the World Bank president was validation of Alexis's many years of service co-workers say; or so she thought at the time.

But about a year into the job Alexis started hearing rumors that Dr. Kim was going to hire his former personal assistant while he was president at Dartmouth College from 2009 to 2012, Karen Rodzenko,  to replace her. When she asked the president if it was true he denied it, according to people who worked with Alexis.

Alexis herself later retold the episode in a statement detailing her experience working with Dr. Kim that she e-mailed to a colleague on June 11, 2014.

"Dr. Kim's former chief of staff, Laura Frigenti informed me a day after Dr. Kim had confirmed to me the previous day that I would not be affected by Karen Rodzenko's arrival," Alexis says in the statement, referring to Frigenti's attempt to warn her. "She was supposedly hired to replace an operations officer. Dr. Kim had lied to me."

"Other staff in the president's office became aware and cautioned me," Alexis adds. "I was humiliated since I felt Dr. Kim had misled me and I subsequently met with him and basically had to force him to be truthful."

Frigenti, who is no longer with the Bank, did not respond to a request for comment via e-mail message.

The post for Rodzenko was never advertised Alexis says in her statement.

There was more controversy surrounding Rodzenko's hire, current and past employees say. When Dr. Kim became president in 2012 Rodzenko had taken a test administered by the Bank's human resources department and qualified at a grade C level.

The only way Dr. Kim could bring Rodzenko on board was at grade F to circumvent the Bank's test requirement, people who worked with Alexis say.  Grade F is a full professional rank. There is no test requirement at the professional level.  In order to open a slot for Rodzenko, Dr. Kim removed a staff member from his office with a grade F level, Bank staffers say.

So in 2013, Rodzenko was hired at grade F, three grades above what she'd tested, one grade above Alexis, and at a salary of $110,000 or $60,000 more than the grade C scale she qualified for after the test and $30,000 more than Alexis, who had far more experience.

Even though Rodzenko joined Dr. Kim's office as an operations officer she actually performed the duties of a personal assistant --the job that Alexis was performing, but at a grade F category.

Operations officers aren't supposed to perform administrative support functions.

So Alexis had in fact been a place holder until the Bank president found a way to bring Rodzenko onboard, a Bank staffer says.

"Dr. Kim actually told Marline that 'It's  just a matter of personal preference.' That he preferred to work with Karen," says this staffer. Rodzenko was a "blonde, blue-eyed, middle aged single woman," this staffer says.

Alexis, recalled by several people interviewed for this article as mild-mannered, was "very angry," one Bank staffer says.

Rodzenko started work in August 2013 and for the first few weeks both she and Alexis were both stationed in Dr. Kim's office. "This was very confusing for Marline," says the staffer.

That was only part of the challenge in what turned out to be Alexis's toughest year.

Just before Rodzenko started work, in June Alexis had been diagnosed with diabetes type-2.

In September, Alexis was transferred away from Dr. Kim's office to work for his new chief of staff, Yvonne Tsikata.

She continued to express her dissatisfaction. "She was parked without any responsibility," one former staffer says. 

"They told her she could even make up her own title," says one current staffer. "They basically wanted to get rid of her."

But Alexis had a "spotless record and there was nothing they could say about her work. They couldn't get rid of her."

Finally, Alexis asked that the bank offer her a package so she could quit. She wanted five-years worth of her salary. The Bank offers packages sometimes to managing directors it wants to get rid off. A staffer recalls only one instance when a senior executive received five years' salary in order to exit.

Yet Dr. Kim was aware of the troubling racial optics. He had pushed aside from his office a well-liked experienced professional in favor of, staffers say, a less-qualified person, who was White, and whom he said he "preferred" working with. Alexis was of Haitian ancestry.

There was also a worrisome precedent related to a hiring and compensation for a staffer by a World Bank president.

Dr. Kim must have recalled the controversy that cost Paul D. Wolfowitz, one of his earlier predecessors, his job as World Bank president. When Wolfowitz, the hawkish deputy secretary of defense who helped convince president George W. Bush to invade Iraq was nominated to head the Bank by Bush and confirmed in 2005, many board members saw him as a war-monger and hoped he'd fail.

Those prayers were answered in 2007.

When Wolfowitz assumed the post, his lover, Tunisian-born and U.K.-educated Shahah Riza Ali had been working at the Bank since 1999.

But the Bank's ethics rules barred sexual relations between managers and senior executives whom they reported to. When the Bank's ethics committee rejected Wolfowitz's proposed solution --that he recuse himself from any decisions involving Ms. Ali -- he took matters into his own hands, an internal investigation later showed.

Wolfowitz transferred Ms. Ali to a post at a State Department-funded outfit called Foundation for the Future, at a higher grade level and at a salary of $193,590, which was $60,000 more than what she'd made.  The World Bank continued paying her salary. When this arrangement emerged in the media, Wolfowitz was forced to resign. "Dr. Kim was confronted with a Wolfowitz moment," says one bank staffer. "Someone he preferred was hired at a salary $60,000 more than she'd tested for."

None of the several people interviewed suggest that Dr. Kim, who is married and has two children, had other than a professional relationship with Rodzenko.

A former Bank staffer believes he knows why Dr. Kim is still president today. "There is a double standard here," says the former Bank staffer. "Wolfowitz got the boot because he was seen as a right wing neo-con appointed by a Republican president. On the other hand, Dr. Kim is shielded because he's seen as a progressive, appointed by a Democrat. Yet his actions are even more egregious than Wolfowitz's."

"Alexis was pushed out more than two years ago. Why not a word from the Staff Association, which was all over the Wolfowitz story? Where are the media that made sure Wolfowitz was fired?"

The Staff Association is an internal organization that represents the interests of employees, staffers interviewed say.

When The Black Star News inquired about Alexis's displacement by Rodzenko, Daniel Sellen, who was only elected President of the Staff Association in July, in an e-mail message says, "Many thanks for the message, but I regret I cannot confirm any of this because I have never heard of Ms. Alexis nor Ms. Rodzenko."

Dr. Kim supported an exit package for Alexis. However, Sean McGrath, the Bank's vice president of human resources was opposed.

"The Bank has an iron curtain," says one Bank staffer. "When it smells controversy, the iron curtain goes up."

"The Bank has an established protocol but it is well known that the Bank selectively handles issues of dispute based upon who is deemed to be able to be the largest threat to the institution. This is one reason why there are so many Blacks complaining that the Bank isn't fair in how it treats it's staff.  There are always exceptions to the rule, but very seldom are those exceptions enjoyed by Blacks in the Bank," says the staffer.

"Since the Bank preaches it's mission is to enhance the quality of life for others, it should start from within," the Bank staffer says, adding that rather than just discussing diversity the Bank should implement it immediately. "Being an international organization that is headquartered on U.S. soil, the Bank should be held accountable for its highly discriminative nature."

Left with no choice, Alexis hired a D.C.-based lawyer named Stephen C. Schott to represent her. He'd worked at the Bank many years ago as a regional division chief and knew the institution's workings.

Alexis took an administrative leave from the bank in October, 2013. The following month, she was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer.

"There was a question as to whether the stress was a contributing factor in her illness," the lawyer, Schott says, when reached by telephone.

Even facing the serious illness, during the eight months of mediation before a settlement was concluded, Alexis's remained "upbeat" Schott says. "I worked with her at one point when she felt she was going to be able to beat it," he adds, referring to the cancer.

Alexis was disappointed by Dr. Kim because, "She had come in from the U.S. executive's office and expected to serve him for his term."

"I don't think it had to do with color. He wanted somebody he felt close to," Schott adds, of Dr. Kim. "I don't want to indicate anything improper."

Alexis herself felt otherwise and in her statement e-mailed to the colleague, she describes the World Bank Group by its initials, and says, "Prior to working with Dr. Kim, I never felt discriminated at the WBG."

"She got quite a good settlement," Schott says. He declined to disclose the amount of the settlement with the Bank. When told that The Black Star News had learned Alexis received five-years' salary, he says, "If that's what you were told, I wouldn't contradict that."

Schott last saw Alexis in August 2014, shortly after the settlement, at a farewell party for her in Washington.  Solomon, whom Alexis had worked for before being transferred to work for Dr. Kim, flew in from Chicago for the occasion.

To his surprise, at the dinner, Schott the lawyer discovered that, by coincidence, Alexis's mother was the same lady who had been his secretary when he first joined the Bank in 1969.

Alexis died on August 31, this year, at home in Sugar Land, Texas, where she'd moved with her husband Jacques Constant. She's also survived by a 24-year-old daughter, Maia Alexis.

She was 55.

A memorial service was held for her in Rockville, Maryland, the following week.  It was attended by some World Bank staffers,  including people from the Bank president's office.

"She felt mistreated by the WB who basically pushed her aside to make room for JYK Karen," Jacques Constant, Alexis's husband, says, in a short e-mail message, referring, respectively, to the World Bank, Dr. Kim, by his initials, and Rodzenko.  "And last, JYK never reached out to Marline during her sickness."

Ironically, Rodzenko herself left the Bank some time this year.

"There was a blowup between her and Dr. Kim," says one Bank staffer.

David Theis, a spokesperson for the Bank, says “Marline Alexis was highly regarded across the World Bank and served the institution with distinction over her many years here.  Marline had the respect of everyone she worked with, including the President of the organization.  All of us who had the pleasure of knowing Marline mourn her loss.  Our thoughts and prayers are with her family.”

"The World Bank is arguably the most diverse employer in Washington. Our staff come from more than 170 countries. Every staff member here expects to be treated with respect and dignity. We have zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind," he adds.

Citing policy barring discussion of personnel matters the Bank didn't respond to specific detailed questions about Alexis's employment, her replacement by Rodzenko, the questions about Rodzenko's test, her hiring as a grade F professional at the significantly higher salary, and other details, including the circumstances of her departure.

Theis says two-thirds of the Bank's employees (61 percent) come from developing countries, and that some 15 percent are from Sub-Saharan Africa and Caribbean countries. He says 40 percent of the Bank's managers come from developing countries, with 11 percent from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean; and, that half of the top managers are women. "The World Bank Group is committed to a fully diverse and inclusive workplace, and we know, like many governmental, business, and academic institutions, we can and must do better," Theis says.

The Bank also declined to address what current and former staffers say was an apparent gap, totaling 16 years, on Rodzenko's resume, and the fact that it didn't mention Dartmouth College, where she'd worked for Dr. Kim.

The Bank didn't respond to a question seeking to confirm the authenticity of  a copy of the resume which reflects administrative support background.

According to the resume Rodzenko earned a BA degree in economics from the university of Chicago with a minor in mathematics. It doesn't list the graduation year but her first employment is listed as 1981.

Reached by telephone today, Rodzenko declined to be interviewed. She also didn't respond to detailed questions sent by e-mail message including for verification of the resume.

 

Editor's note: There has been minor editing that involves addition of more information since the original piece was posted.

The writer can be reached via mallimadi@gmail.com or (646) 261-7566

 

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