Professional Associates Program: When Bureaus Get Confused — Watch Out!

Here is a window to what happens when a functional bureau like HR/CDA, a regional bureau like WHA/EX and the US Embassy are not on the same page when it comes to the Professional Associates Program for eligible family members. The following is excerpted from an OIG Inspection Report of US Embassy Brazil and Constituent Posts:  
The selection process used to fill one vacant Foreign Service officer position was not handled in accordance with written guidance on the Professional Associates Program. Confusion between the Bureau of Human Resources Office of Career Development and Assignments (HR/CDA), WHA/EX, and the mission in applying EFM and veterans preferences contributed to the problem. Because no Foreign Service officers bid on Brasilia’s senior GSO position, HR/CDA added that position to the Civil Service Hard to Fill Bid list (State 00046622) and the Professional Associates Program Hard to Fill Positions list for EFMs (State 00046614) simultaneously.
According to the Professional Associates Program cable, “Qualified EFMs will be given preference over equally qualified Civil Service employees. Veterans will be given preference in the selection process.” The cable also states that an HR/CDA panel reviews all EFM and Civil Service employee applications and forwards only those deemed qualified to the regional bureaus and that “Selections are made by the bureaus.” HR/CDA deemed the EFM candidate as qualified, and forwarded his application, along with a number of Civil Service employee applications, to WHA/EX.
WHA/EX requested that Embassy Brasilia rank order the candidates and identify any that were “unacceptable.” Embassy Brasilia did not consider any of the candidates “unacceptable,” and sent its rankings back to WHA/EX which offered the position to Embassy Brasilia’s first choice – a Civil Service employee. While it appeared to the OIG team, based on a review of the application materials in the file, that some of the Civil Service candidates were better qualified than the EFM for the position based on their recent Department experience, assuming “qualified” in the Professional Associates Program cable refers to “fully” or “minimally” qualified candidates. HR/CDA, WHA/EX, or the mission should have selected the EFM candidate (who is also a veteran) because the candidate was considered “qualified.”
The mission contended that it appropriately recommended the “best qualified” candidate, and that it was the regional bureau’s responsibility to apply EFM and veteran’s preferences and make the selection. WHA/EX staff interviewed by the OIG team said that selecting the “best qualified” candidate was appropriate, and that if a “fully” or “minimally” qualified EFM or veteran was supposed to have been given absolute preference, HR/CDA should have forwarded only that application to WHA. HR/CDA staff said that the regional bureau and/or the mission is permitted to rank order the qualified candidates and to select the one deemed “best qualified.” HR/CDA said that, unlike the process used to fill a locally employed staff position at the mission, the bureau is not required to select a “minimally” or “fully” qualified EFM or veteran candidate when filling a position normally assigned to a Foreign Service officer. None of what HR/CDA said, however, is included in the Foreign Affairs Manual, in standard operating procedures, or in Professional Associates Program materials provided to EFMs. Also not covered in guidance is whose responsibility it is to consider the cost implications of the hiring decision. Embassy Brasilia, for example, incurred an additional $51,000 a year in residential leasing expenses by hiring the Civil Service employee. HR incurred relocation expenses that it would not otherwise have incurred.
OIG Recommendation 31: The Bureau of Human Resources should seek guidance from the Office of the Legal Adviser as to whether its interpretation that regional bureaus and overseas missions may select the “best” qualified candidate over a “minimally” or “fully” qualified eligible family member or veteran candidate in the Professional Associates Program is appropriate. The final opinion should be used to revise and reissue Professional Associates Program guidance. The revised guidance should clarify whether the Bureau of Human Resources, the regional bureau, or the mission is responsible for applying eligible family member and veterans preferences, for reviewing the cost implications of the selection (if applicable), and for making the selection. (Action: DGHR)
This is actually quite hilarious if only it’s not painful to laugh (certainly not hilarious to the qualified EFM with veterans’ preference who was passed over for this job). I mean, c’mon – it’s not like this program had just been rolled out yesterday at noon.

So — instead of hiring a qualified EFM who was already at post, the government spent $51K to bring in the “best qualified” candidate to post.  I don’t think that sound very “family-friendly,” do you?  And if a “recent Department experience” is the bar for “best qualified” candidate, just about every new EFM would be out of the running for these jobs. Holy mother of goat! I just realized that old timers who have not worked for the USG within the last year would also be out of the running for these jobs!  In a case like this, one can’t help but think that the EFM hiring preference is well – kind of a stand-up comedy routine that purports to be serious bizness.             

In must add that whether or not you’re happy with the performance of the OIG, things like this would never see the light of day without such inspections; unless of course, the case ends up in the Foreign Service Grievance Board. Or in court.  I’m not even sure EFMs are eligible to grieve under the FSGB.  But certainly, veterans’ preference candidates have an avenue for redress spelled out by the Department of Labor.

DOL says that Veterans’ Preference Eligibles who allege violations under such individual’s rights under any statute or regulation relating to veterans’ preference may file a complaint with the Secretary of Labor, The Veterans Employment and Training Service Agency (VETS) within 60 days after the date of alleged violation.  Complainant may also appeal their case to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). And if the MSPB has not issued a decision within 120 days, claimants may seek judicial redress in the US District Courts. Details of these procedures are identified in section 3 of the VEOA, PL 105-339. Read more from DOL’s e-law here.

Of course,  a job applicant with EFM and veterans’ hiring preference passed over like this may still opt not to challenge the decision — in a tide pool with extremely limited job opportunities, that would be like committing a future job suicide.

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