Why diplo-spouses can’t get real love at the State Department – they are headaches, especially when they are heard and seen

Hear no evil ...Image by jinterwas via Flickr
EFMs and squeezing into ConGen training

One of our blog pals, that funny woman, Kolbi, who almost disappeared sometime back posted recently about navigating the rough Stoopid Seas of trying to get employed as an eligible family member in the State Department.Excerpts below:

(For those of you who may not know, ConGen is a class that all Consular folks have to take about Visa laws and such.  EFMs who want to have jobs in the Consular area of post have to take the class, also, but only get leftover seats.  Which there usually are between none and very few of.)

This was a most unpleasant experience, as the State contractor with whom EFMs had to interact in order to get into the class actually laughed at me when I said I wanted to take the class.  I’m assuming this had to do with lack of ConGen space, etc.  He was also rather obnoxious and insinuated that most EFMs can’t pass the basic English skills tests that an EFM has to pass in order to even QUALIFY to even be PUT ON THE WAITING LIST to take ConGen.*  Jerk.

[* FYI, I have heard, though I do not know for sure, that any EFM that does not pass the English pre-screening exam(s) has to wait two years before being allowed to attempt it/them again.  That’s a long time!]

Hey, Kolbs, the screener probably  thought you were a foreign born spouse who speaks English learned from Sesame Street. Did he speak rather slowly but loud in the most complimentary way — “You …Speak…Very Good…English…but   most    spouses    fail   the    test…”

I’ve seen bureaucrats do this in more than one occasion, the English part and the con·de·scen·sion. It appears to be a stress test on the notion that how best you enunciate your vowels = brain power …. “yis, I spik viry gud inglish, so do you … may I now tik the tist?”

Some years ago, we were at a dinner hosted by one of the Rising Stars in the Consular Bureau, who by the way, is now an ambassador over there.  Anyway, one of the guests was an FSO with a spouse who was formerly an FSN with considerable experience in consular work. Now the FSO wanted to know if his English-speaking, embassy veteran wife, may be allowed to take the ConGen course. The Rising Star then also insinuated that most EFMs can’t pass the basic English skills tests and that most EFMs at ConGen quit or flunk the course. In not so many words, the answer was like … don’t bother dude, find her a hobby instead.

It was most shocking to the FSN-EFM who had worked for a consular section for some dozen years, shocking to her husband who had at that time, far less experience in consular work than the wife, and shocking to us the poor audience, who had the misfortune of observing firsthand a bureaucracy that saw numbers rather than individuals.

Would it have hurt so much to say “your wife is welcome to try …?” Would it cost more to the USG, if the screener processes 12 interested EFMs instead of say 5? Would it cost more to the USG if there are 25 students in ConGen instead of 20?  The course is run by salaried employees, is it not? It’s not like they are paid by piece like a maquilla worker in Latin America.

The better paying jobs at the embassy are in the Consular Section, of course. Unlike most sections in the mission, the consular folks actually has money they can tap to request and pay for additional employees.  And sometimes, you do get lucky when you have real leaders in the captain’s chair.  Other times, you get lemons, too, although CA hates to advertise that.  But ConGen has always been a tad “complicated.” I mean, management often wants the EFMs because they are cheaper, but they really would rather have junior officers if they have a choice.  They want  EFMs to fill in an empty slot, but they won’t pay for you to go back to DC and take the course.  Also some well-qualified EFMs can’t get consular gigs because managers worry that they’d get bored over repetitive mindless work, go on leave during the peak visa season, take off to take care of kids or school issues, demand their Highest Previous Rate (if previously held a higher pay grade than advertised) and yada, yada, yada.  And for non-ConGen required jobs, they would rather hire local employees because they are usually way, way cheaper than EFMs and blessed their patient hearts, they, the LES usually duck-taped themselves before they even think of letting out a whine.

Dear Consular Affairs leaders ~ ~~ ~ ~ can — you — hear — meeee?

So I thought I’d ask the Consular Bureau why is it so hard for EFMs to get into the ConGen course. One of our blog pals suggested that I write to cagrowsleaders@state.gov.  Apparently that’s the CA Grows Leaders mailing list for the consular affairs bureau’s top heads who are seriously growing leaders like mushrooms. So I did, see below:

Dear CA leaders,

Why is it that EFMs have a hard time getting into the ConGen course? Just saw the CA is recruiting visa adjudicators for Chinese and Portuguese posts, why is that needed when you have 2/3s of EFMs looking for jobs in the FS?

I understand that the screening to be placed in the course waiting list is now handled by a contractor. Does her/his job description also includes discouraging spouses from applying for the ConGen course?

I would appreciate your kind response.

I’m still waiting for the “Dear Mr. Spero this is an internal matter ” email.

Perhaps they are too busy growing mushrooms, er leaders, they could not take the time to write back. Or perhaps my source gave me a bad email address — who has an email address like that, anyway?

But if the group is real and there are really leaders growing leaders but cannot be relied on to answer a simple inquiry about something that is a serious issue in the service —  well, that’s simply brilliant – lead by example, do not answer silly questions!

In some parts of the organization, this issue is not really a serious one until FSOs start leaving the service. And of course, if they do start leaving, the line of those clamoring to get in is still a long one.  So… there it is….

I understand from a reliable source that the new hiring authority on visa adjudicators is a new program that the FS union agreed to because it is the least bad of a number of bad options, and it is, for now, a pilot. The least bad. Pause and breath for a moment.

The bottom line I’m told — there is a need for MANY more low-level visa adjudicators in the so -called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, China and India). Some can be filled by EFMs, but not all, even if all EFMs wanted to do so. They have to be filled by language-qualified applicants, they have to be filled full time, and filling them cannot depend on the availability of EFMs. The word out there is that EFM employment opportunities will not be reduced. Where language-qualified EFMs are available, they will be used.

But if you have the language but not ConGen, then sorry.

If you have ConGen but not the language, then sorry.

Go apply for the embassy escort job, which does not require language or ConGen but I hear that at least, in one place this job now  requires that you have prior USG baby-sitting experience. To escort the cleaning crew while they’re dusting the desks inside the controlled areas, you need prior experience? Oh dear, is there an app for that?  Whisky-tango-foxtrot, over! That sounds like a cake already baked in the oven.

In any case, if Congress decides not to fund additional positions in the next fiscal years, the State Department may be “forced” to offer additional visa jobs to spouses again. Not out of the goodness of its heart, but because it needs cheap labor, and can’t afford the real thing.

Do not make waves, or you can’t borrow salt, sugar, TP, etc., ever again ….

There is a tenet in FS life that folks are encouraged to follow  as soon as they join the Service — do not make waves.  And in the confines of the work space, that is easy enough to follow.  To belong is to conform to the internal culture of the organization.  But that’s not always so for the diplomatic spouses.

In the old days, the poor wives, because they were mostly wives then, had it even worse.  Their actions, reactions, behavior, tea manners and such were all  part of the performance evaluation of their diplomat-husbands.  Keeping a stiff upper lip was of prime value  just as performing unpaid volunteer hours on behalf of the US mission without complaint was considered a desired characteristic of an ideal diplomatic wife.

In the supposed enlightened age decades in the making, they were officially declared their own persons years and years ago, and are no longer required to work for free for Uncle Sam. Nor are they considered line items in their spouses’ employee evaluation reports. Reality, of course, is more complicated than that particularly for more senior spouses, but that’s for another post.

What has changed very little is the notion that one must not make waves. At times that means biting one’s tongue, being agreeable even when the other person is disagreeable, stewing in anger but wearing a mask of a smile, and being ever so careful not to upset anybody who could be in the housing board, in general services, in management, in future posts, oh, just make that the entire mission.  And don’t even think of disagreeing with your FSO-boss because “being difficult” and “not being a team player” can just as easily follow you to a corridor of reputation dedicated solely for spouses and partners.

The truth of the matter is the embassy/post or the mission as it is fondly referred to is like a very small town. It doesn’t matter if there is half a dozen people there or 500 souls. It is like a small town. Everybody knows everybody else. And getting along, taping your mouth before you say something remotely controversial, and not making waves is a precious and necessary virtue or no one will let you borrow a pinch of salt ever again from Albania to Zimbabwe.

The town council, if you will, is counting on that.