The Buck Stops Where? Ambassador Files Grievance Over an OIG Evaluation Report

— Domani Spero
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The following is a Foreign Service Grievance Board case (all names redacted) where an ambassador filed a grievance over a State/OIG Inspector’s Evaluation Report (IER). The Board held that the IER be expunged from the ambassador’s personnel file.

Now, you see why State/OIG stopped doing the Inspector’s Evaluation Reports? We don’t like the fact that OIG no longer issues IERs but we can now understand in real terms why.

This is why. Where does the buck stops?

The President sends a Letter of Instruction to all Chiefs of Mission appointed by the President, and the contents of each letter differs according to whether the COM has a bilateral/country or international organization portfolio. The President’s Letter basically gives a COM full responsibility for the direction, coordination, and supervision of all U.S. Government executive branch employees within the host country or in the relevant Mission to an international organization, except those personnel under the command of a U.S. geographic area military commander or on the staff of an international organization.

We’re shocked it has not been argued yet that ambassadors must first have prior counseling from the President of the United States regarding their performance prior to the issuance of an OIG Inspector’s Evaluation Report. Not that it matters now, since State/OIG has ended the practice of issuing IERs.

Via FSGB Case No. 2013-028

Grievant, a former Ambassador to REDACTED, appealed the Department’s denial of her 2013 grievance, claiming that an IER prepared in November 2011 focused primarily on the performance of her DCM and contained several “inaccurate statements.” Grievant claimed that inclusion of the IER in her OPF was prejudicial because she had not received counseling on the areas of her performance that were criticized in the report. After soliciting feedback from post personnel, the Department expunged portions of two statements in the IER, but otherwise found the remainder to be an accurate reflection of grievant’s performance, as corroborated by numerous statements from identified Mission employees.

The Board determined that grievant was not counseled on matters that were negatively discussed in the IER, nor was she given an opportunity to improve performance problems raised in the report. The Board concluded that regardless of the purpose for the IER, grievant was entitled to be counseled and provided a reasonable opportunity to improve before she could properly be critiqued on performance deficiencies in an IER. The Board held further that grievant met her burden of proving that she was unaware of the shortcomings mentioned in the IER; she had no reason to become aware of these deficiencies; and, therefore, that counseling could not be excused as harmless error. The Board further found that the IER contained a significant number of inadmissible comments about the performance of the DCM, an identified other employee, and was, therefore, written in violation of applicable regulations that govern the preparation of evaluation reports. The Board concluded that the IER is invalid and ordered it removed from grievant’s OPF.

The Foreign Service Grievance Board decision:

HELD: The Department committed a procedural error by placing in grievant’s Official Personnel File (OPF) a prejudicial Inspector’s Evaluation Report (IER) that included inadmissible comments about another identified employee, in violation of agency regulations, and without first counseling grievant on certain performance issues mentioned in the IER, or giving her an opportunity to improve her performance. The IER was ordered expunged from grievant’s OPF in its entirety.

There are clips included in the Report of Proceeding:

“I do believe Ambassador REDACTED was aware that DCM REDACTED activities were exacerbating the rift between the front office and the rest of the mission, but I believe it was a type of willful unawareness, perhaps delusional. . . . If [the Ambassador] was not aware or not willing to admit that this rift existed, she was deluding herself. . . . [In All Hands meetings] . . . to the Ambassador, this kumbaya session was clear evidence that she had her finger on the pulse of the mission. It was a charade, but no one could tell the emperor that he had no clothes.”

Grievant submitted the following statements from post employees:

– “I think she didn’t realize the impact the DCM was causing till [sic] the OIG arrived. . . .”

– “I don’t know if she recognized the seriousness of the problems or not. . . . I don’t know if the Ambassador was aware of them or not.”

– “I believe that Ambassador did not fully recognize the seriousness of problems at Embassy If she had recognized the seriousness of the problems, I believe that she would have addressed them in the beginning and not let things get so out of hand.”

The OIG inspection team leader wrote:

REDACTED showed little awareness of the significant impact on morale cause by front office management practices and actions. She was not aware of the extent of negative sentiment concerning front office communications, nor the depth of employee resentment of the intrusive and imperious management style of the DCM. Although scheduled and conducted numerous regular meetings with employees, staff members told inspectors they volunteered little real feedback to the front office, fearing the reaction and the subsequent damage to their careers.

The best part of this decision is this:

What remains are grievant’s claims that the IER improperly focused on the performance of the DCM and a claim that she had a right to counseling prior to inclusion of negative statements in her IER. As to her complaint about the focus of the IER, grievant points out that although the report was meant to address her management and leadership skills, it is largely directed at the DCM’s behavior and contains several comments that did not pertain at all to her performance. We find that what was at issue in the inspection was grievant’s alleged lack of awareness of, and inattentiveness to, the negative effect on post morale that was purportedly caused by the behavior of her subordinates. Because the concern was how well or poorly grievant was performing as Chief of Mission, we find that the IER should have focused on grievant’s performance vis-à-vis her detection and management of post problems caused by a subordinate.
[…]
We think the rule of fundamental fairness applies equally when the performance of an Ambassador is evaluated in an IER, as when an untenured officer receives his first EER. We conclude that “[c]riticisms included in the final [evaluation report] should not come as a surprise to [any] rated employee.” Accordingly, because we see no difference between the impact of performance criticisms in an EER and an IER on an employee’s career opportunities, we conclude that any employee whose work performance is evaluated in an IER, as in an EER, has a right to be notified and counseled about any perceived deficiencies and given a reasonable opportunity to improve before those deficiencies may be included in either evaluative document.

The parties do not contest that grievant received no counseling about any of the criticisms about her performance that were stated in the IER at issue. Grievant presented evidence that shortly before the OIG began its inspection at post in November 2011, the DAS from the regional bureau (and the Office Director visited and met with Mission employees in October. It is unclear whether these individuals received the same information as the OIG team, but grievant reports that neither of them counseled her on any of the matters later identified as performance weaknesses by the OIG team. If grievant’s superiors were made aware of any shortcomings in her work performance, then they should have, but did not, counsel her about them. If they were unaware of any performance deficiencies, then the Department must concede that grievant’s superiors could not, and did not, counsel her. In the absence of counseling, grievant did not have the opportunity to try to improve.

The Department argues that grievant was not entitled to be counseled on matters about which her supervisors were not aware. We do not agree. The fundamental fairness of a performance evaluation hinges on the provision of notice to the rated employee of his or her deficiencies, coupled with a reasonable period in which the employee can make efforts to improve. If a supervisor is unaware of the deficiencies, it is true that he or she cannot counsel the employee, but, it follows, then, that, unless the employee was independently aware of performance deficiencies, he or she ought not be negatively evaluated on those deficiencies of which neither the employee nor the supervisor were aware.

The Department also asserts that even in the absence of counseling, the criticisms contained in grievant’s IER should not have come as a surprise to her because she should have known of the morale problems existing at post. In support of this assertion, the Department provides numerous statements from Mission employees expressing their beliefs that grievant was aware of the problems raised in the IER, but failed to manage them. Grievant responds that not only did her supervisors not tell her of the employees’ complaints, but the employees themselves did not inform her. She speculates that “[i]n hindsight, I recognize that the DCM may have been shielding and insulating me from staff dissatisfaction.” She also cites a number of employees who stated that they did not think she was aware of how the DCM was behaving or how it was undermining morale.

Bureaucratic high drama,very instructive, read it below:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 responses

  1. So, in other words, because the grievant didn’t seem to understand that as the chief of mission she was responsible for everything her subordinates did or failed to do, she shouldn’t be held accountable for her lack of leadership ability? Maybe more emphasis should be put on leadership ability for COMs before they’re sent out to posts.