Project Recycle: Boss from hell in London is now somebody’s boss elsewhere …

We all have our share of good bosses and we remember them fondly. But we’ve also had our share of bad bosses and we tend to remember them extremely well; probably because bad memories do manage to stand out while good, happy ones are not the sort that make or break us or derail or destroy careers.

We have had a regular round up of bad bosses in this blog largely from the OIG inspection reports and occasionally from the Foreign Service Grievance Board. Why? Because those are the cases that do not ever make it to the State Magazine or the DipNote blog, silly.

We try to be an equal opportunity blogger on these cases, not just on political appointees but also on career diplomats. A terrible political ambassador gets chucked out after a term or two, and the embassy gets a chance to recover with the next go around of appointments. When the boss happens to be a career diplomat and a terrible leader and manager at the same time, well — we hope that the organization actually has a process on how to get him or her to become a better leader, or is it a ten-star leader? No, not just with enrollment at FSI’s “Leadership and Management Training Continuum,” dear me, but in a transformation process or a 12-step program of sorts.

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What we normally would not expect is for Exhibit A for bad behavior to get recycled into other leadership and management roles.  And yet in some cases, that’s exactly what happens. A bad unit chief becomes a section chief. A bad section chief gets a stretch assignment as a DCM.  A bad DCM is rewarded with another DCMship, or even worse gets a Charge d’affaires gig. In a sense, you not only get an example with potentially, demoralizing results, you also get a bad example with a multiplier effect.  And you betcha, the 360 feedback must have all said, they’re all A-ok.

An example is a case of an untenured Consular Officer who received an unsatisfactory EER and was not recommended for tenure by his supervisor (rating official) while serving a tour at Embassy London.  His EER was referred to the Director General (DG) to decide whether the FSO (the grievant) should be separated or given additional time for further performance evaluation.  The DG decided to give grievant an additional six months of performance evaluation.  At the end of the six months, grievant received a very positive EER with a recommendation for tenure, but the DG decided that grievant should be separated from the Service.

Excerpts below from the grievance case (FSGB No. 2009-016) in the FSGB website, publicly available online in the real Internet:

From a co-worker:

During the second day of my assignment [in grievant’s section] I observed      ’s     ’s] supervisor interact with him.  To say it was humiliating and demoralizing, both to him and me would be a gross understatement . . .  came over to ask for [      s] opinion.  Her response was to scream at him; and she never answered the question.  Her comments to me when he walked away were very negative, extremely disrespectful and were clear that she was negatively disposed towards him….  It was difficult for me to understand what she had against him since he worked so hard and contributed so much, but the antipathy was there.  This type of behavior toward  continued during my tenure working in NIV.  Her unprofessional and unstable behavior was evident in her relationships with all of the people she supervised, American and LES.

Another witness writes:

A hostile work environment existed in the non-immigrant visa unit in  under the management of  . . . .  She did not provide regular feedback.  When feedback was provided it was often derisive, given in public, and without effective counsel on the means one could use to improve performance. . . .   often provided conflicting guidance on dealing with visa cases. . . .  When officers asked for clear guidance on cases it was rarely forthcoming.  It was extremely difficult to perform to her vague and changing expectations.    In short, the environment in the NIV unit during my tenure there was not an environment in which entry-level officers were mentored and provided with feedback which enabled them to grow into better officers.  Without guidance on how to improve and in constant fear of attracting the negative attention of  most officers simply marked time in an effort to leave as quickly as possible.

Still another writes:

I have concerns about retribution should my involvement in this grievance come to light.  Mr.      and I did not work for  at the same time, so I cannot speak to their interactions in specific . . . .  However, I would like to note for your records that I found      unable to deal with the task of managing her staff without bias, intimidation, and unprofessional behavior. . . .  She seemed to hold grudges against people without effectively counseling them on her concerns.  Sometimes the grudges were related to a workplace concern and valid, but grudges are not an appropriate way to manage.

From a Locally Employed Staff

[O]ur work environment was unbearable. . . .  Unfortunately [ ’s] more senior managers were unable to reconcile the situation.  Following her departure from post, a locally engaged staff member described the ambience to me as “gophers coming up out of their holes, knowing now they won’t be hit over the head.”

Still another employee writes:

Numerous persons in our office and throughout the mission had their own “ stories,” of her explosive, dysfunctional and abrasive communication and management styles. . . .  Her corridor rep in Emb as someone you best avoided and very very difficult to work with was strong and uncontradicted.

A statement from the Assistant Human Resources Officer in          who reported that:

• Several of s subordinates complained about her “unusually dictatorial style.” • used the EER as a weapon. • used leave approval as a weapon or “punishment.”  • showed a pattern of having “trouble” with junior officers who were older, experienced, previously successful, “not easily intimidated by [her] abrasive style,” and [who] “did not readily submit to her will.”

As if that’s not enough, the FSO’s input of his accomplishments was reportedly “weaponized” in his EER:

In the April 24, Counseling Certificate, the Department notes that the rater gave grievant credit for improving his interaction with the public, including the fact that his tone was friendlier.  He also had some improvements in his case notes.  However, according to the Department, grievant continued to need improvement in time management and writing skills.  The agency further observes that grievant’s rater was particularly concerned with his input on his performance evaluation.  The rater was concerned that grievant wrote about one of his accomplishments:

“[I] spoke civilly to child molesters, murderers, drug peddlers, spouse abusers and other human scum without losing my sense of self worth.”

The Department argues that this quote showed “poor judgment.” Damn, there’s no such thing as a sense of humor, is there?

According to the FSGB, the grievant challenges his rater’s decision to mention his comment to her that he “spoke civilly to child molesters, murderers, drug peddlers, spouse abusers and other human scum without losing my sense of self worth, etc.”  He asserts, without contradiction, that he was using humor in a draft, unofficial document that he was required to give to the rater describing his accomplishments.  He explained that he intended to humorously describe the difficulties he experienced processing the criminal applicants’ portfolio.  Grievant contends that he asked the rater what form to use in submitting his list of accomplishments.  She responded, “Just send me something.  I’ll tell you if I want it done differently.”  Grievant states that instead of advising him that she did not appreciate his humor, she “weaponized it” by putting it in the EER.  Again, the inclusion of the comment, omitting the context, renders it misleading and of a falsely prejudicial character.

The Chief of Visa Services back in Foggy Bottom states the following in the Record of Proceedings:

[     ] would meticulously document her counseling sessions and provide concrete examples to provide constructive honest feedback to the officers.  Those officers who constantly sought to improve their performance therefore held her good opinion in high esteem.

If you read the entire case, you gotta laugh out loud on that one.  The FSGB says:

On the basis of the evidence presented, we conclude that there was a hostile and toxic relationship between grievant and his rater that prevented her from fairly and accurately describing and assessing his performance. We further conclude that the challenged EER does not show balance or fairness.   This Board has held that hostility by a rater can undermine the balance and fairness of an EER.

“Damning with faint praise” is not just a rumor down the corridors.  The Board slams the reviewing officer for wasting space and the alphabet:

The reviewer’s statement is no better.  It consists entirely of negative or neutral comments with the exception of praise for grievant’s willingness to work hard.  The reviewer writes that grievant volunteered for extra work and successfully participated in a task force set up to meet the passport surge and to overcome a backlog of applications.  However, the reviewer writes that grievant was overly concerned that he might miss details or hidden fraud intentions that “slowed his productivity and led to inappropriate delays or refusals.”  The record, however, suggests that productivity was never a concern.  The rater consistently found that grievant was productive, albeit overly concerned with ferreting out fraud.

The FSGB reviewed the comments in the challenged EER and writes:

What is clear is that the document consists largely of negative statements.   The rater largely overlooked grievant’s accomplishments.  For example, the rater failed to mention that grievant had the fifth highest rate of visa application adjudications since of over 17,000 cases.  She failed to mention that grievant won a Meritorious Service Award for his efforts during the passport surge time period.13  She did not mention that he volunteered to be the Consular Duty Officer on five different occasions over the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays.  Nor did she mention that grievant was selected to accompany the Consul General and the Ambassador to the Home Office.  The rater did not credit grievant with developing a standard operating procedure that allowed domestic U.S. passport applications to be adjudicated remotely overseas.  The rater also did not mention that grievant wrote the annual “J-1 Refusals Analysis Report” that was apparently adopted unchanged, all while he kept up with his normal workload.  Notably, the Department does not contest any of grievant’s claims of accomplishment that occurred during the rating period, but were omitted from the EER.    Instead of writing a balanced report, the rater made one other positive statement, followed immediately by a harshly negative one.

As further proof of his rater’s focused disdain, grievant reports that he was the only member of his unit to be excluded from two Group Meritorious Awards that were given to the section in both and , despite the fact that he had contributed significantly to the reasons for the awards.

In its decision, the Grievance Board finds the EER to be extremely negative and held that the Director General’s decision to separate the untenured FSO be vacated:

We too counted the number of negative lines versus the number of positive lines, weighed the content of the positive and critical comments, and found that the substantial majority of the rater’s and reviewer’s narratives are negative.  This is clearly an unbalanced EER, particularly when it is viewed in conjunction with grievant’s accomplishments during the evaluation period and with his other EERs.

The DG’s Decision Must be Vacated
We have concluded that the EER was of a falsely prejudicial character, imbalanced and therefore must be expunged.  The record suggests that this unsatisfactory EER was the only reason why grievant’s file was sent to the DG for his review.15  It further appears that the DG relied, at least in substantial part, on the invalid EER in making his decision to separate the grievant.  Accordingly, his decision must be vacated because it relied primarily on an invalid evaluation and because there appears to be no other reason presented on this record to support it.  We therefore, do not need to decide grievant’s claim that the decision was arbitrary and capricious.

The DG must then “review all relevant and admissible material on file regarding the candidate’s performance and may “[w]ithhold judgment regarding possible action for a specified period of further on-the-job observation.”  Once the additional evaluation has been received, the DG “will readdress the question [of possible separation] based on overall performance history at that date.”
1) Expunge the  EER from grievant’s file;
2) Insert a gap memorandum in place of the expunged EER;
3) Vacate the decision to separate grievant; and
4) Submit grievant’s current performance file to the next scheduled tenure board for its review.

So that’s good news for the untenured FSO in this case.

And we thought, surely there must be consequences for bad management like this on the part of the supervisor or the dammit with praise reviewing officer who failed to recognize the hostile working environment?

Sure, there is.  The bad boss in London has now been promoted as section chief at a post in a non-EUR bureau.

Swell, just swell.

Now, I can’t even say — don’t be like this boss or you’ll get bitten on your gluteus maximus.  Because see, this one was not/not bitten on her gluteus maximus; just got another higher boss-job elsewhere.

Domani Spero

4 responses

  1. “[I] spoke civilly to child molesters, murderers, drug peddlers, spouse abusers and other human scum without losing my sense of self worth.” OK, that…alone…was worth the read. Just. Awesome.

    • El Snarkistani — dark sense of humor not/not appreciated in the bureaucracy. There is even a precedent for an employee who joked about things that goes kaboom and was put on medevac even when the person was as sane as the folks on the 7th Floor. I’d hate to think what would happen to Stephen Colbert if he ever makes it to A-100 …

      • I’ve got another example! Make it two! But I’ll keep them to myself, because despite sufficient official documentation, our organization clearly does not care.

        • Dear Too Young to Be So Bitter –
          Thank you for your note. Try not to be so bitter. There are inspiring leaders out there. You’ll have to find them and follow them around.

          There are, of course, organizational disfunctions out there that have no easy remedies. Some change happens from top down, some change happens from the ground up. But change is a long, perilous work that does not happen by chance.