Oh, boy, email of the day! [REDACTED] is “one of the biggest jerks in the foreign service”

Posted: 2:02 pm EDT
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Thank you for your emails alerting us to this! We did not want to start our 2016 blogging about the jerk in the foreign service but today is the 4th day, and there’s a lesson here somewhere, so that’s our excuse.

Somebody’s corridor reputation showed up as toner and ice, stirred, from the latest Clinton email dump of December 31.  Sidney Blumenthal calls this John Kornblum’s “unvarnished tone” in his email to then Secretary Clinton.

 

 

Ambassador Kornblum, a career diplomat joined the Foreign Service in 1964. He was President Clinton’s Ambassador to Germany from 1997 to 2001. Prior to that assignment, he was the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs from July 3, 1996 – July 1, 1997.  Previously, President George Herbert Walker also nominated him to be U.S. Ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 1991. In that capacity he served as chief of the American delegation to the 1992 Helsinki Review Conference and played a major role in drafting the Declaration approved at the July 1992 Helsinki Summit. According to the state.gov archive, Ambassador Kornblum established the new American delegation to the OSCE in Vienna in August 1992 where he served until April 1994. According to the WSJ, he is now senior counselor for Noerr LLP law firm in Berlin.

Bill Burns was appointed Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (P) on May 13, 2008 and served until July 28, 2011.  This Sid email is dated March 11, 2011, about four months before Burns departed post to become Deputy Secretary.  We don’t know what happened to the top Foreign Service contenders for the “P” job but we all know Bill Burns was succeeded by non-career appointee Wendy Sherman who was appointed “P” on September 21, 2011.

Prior to Ms. Sherman’s  appointment, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also wrote an email to HRC saying, “Don’t want to interfere but in case you are thinking about P, you will not be surprised that I am suggesting [name redacted].” Sherman had been Vice Chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, Albright’s international strategic consulting firm, since the group’s formation in 2009.

In September 2015, President Obama nominated career diplomat Thomas Shannon to succeed Ms. Sherman who left office on October 2, 2015. The Shannon nomination has been subjected to Senator Grassley’s hold in the 114th Congress.

In any case, according to AFP, America apparently was left guessing after a tantalizing near-revelation about the “biggest jerk in American diplomacy” email.  If you are playing the guessing game on your first day at work in 2016, just remember that the candidate for this title is a he, who purportedly “went over to the dark side” during the Bush administration, and quite possibly, an EUR/NSC/WH hand, high enough in rank/connection to shout down a career ambassador.

And no, we’re not soliciting nominations for this one, so please keep the comments clean.

Like folks often say, your EER gets you promoted, but your corridor reputation gets you your next job.

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A blog mistake hounds an FSO: Despite a good reputation for work, “there was the blog thing.”

Posted: 3:43 am EDT
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There are over 500 Foreign Service blogs by State Department employees and family members. Long-time readers of this blog may remember the tigers who bite bloggers (see Foreign Service Blogging: Tigers Have Teeth, Rather Sharp … Rawr!!!).

When I wrote that Rawr piece in 2011, I wrote this:

I have not seen or heard of Tigers actually yanking anybody’s clearance due to an offending blog. I am aware of private sessions of discouragements, issues with onward assignments, and of course, threats of various colors and stripes among directed at FS bloggers.  And as far as I know, they have not technically kicked out anyone who blogs either —  unless you call the “push” to retirement a payback kick.

Well, State did yank Peter Van Buren‘s clearance afterwards, but it was for more than just a blog.  Occasionally, I get a request to cite a case where identified individuals got into real trouble due to blogging in the Foreign Service. Except for a small number of cases (PVB, ADA and MLC), I’ve refrained from writing about the blog troubles out of concern that writing about them makes it worse for the individual bloggers. In many cases, the bloggers themselves quietly remove their blogs online without official prompting. Out of the abundance of caution.

A recent FSGB case decided in January 2015 shows a charge of “Poor Judgment” against an FSO based on a post in her personal blog written in October 2008.  That’s right. The blog post was online for barely a day and was taken down in 2008. To be clear, the poor judgment charge related to the blog is just half the charges filed against this employee.  But in January 2013, State proposed a five day suspension for the FSO. Excerpt from the FSGB record of proceeding available online:

The Improper Personal Conduct charges are based on grievant’s personal relationships in the summer of 2008 with two individuals to whom she had previously issued non-immigrant visas, and the Poor Judgment charge is based on a post in her personal Internet blog in October of 2008.
[…]
During a flight to the United States during the spring of 2008, grievant unexpectedly encountered another citizen of Country X (Citizen B) for whom she had issued a visa, fell into conversation with him, and exchanged contact information. Upon her return to Country X, grievant was hospitalized in June 2008. While in the hospital, she received a call from Citizen B, who said he would ask his family members to visit her. They did so. Soon after Citizen B returned to Country X, grievant invited him to lunch. Thereafter, the two conducted an intimate relationship for about three weeks.

Later, Citizen A contacted grievant requesting her assistance in issuing a visa to his new wife. Grievant told him she could not be involved in his wife’s visa application process because she knew him. Consequently, another Consular Officer adjudicated and issued the visa for Citizen A’s new wife. Shortly thereafter, grievant posted on her personal blog (using Citizen A’s initials) a comment saying, in effect, that sharing a bottle of wine with someone could be disastrous, especially when that person shows up at your workplace seeking a visa for his new bride. Within a day of this blog posting, grievant was warned by a colleague to take it down, and grievant did so.
[…]
In a letter issued on January 31, 2013, the Department of State proposed to suspend grievant for five workdays, based on three charges that arose from conduct occurring in 2008. Ultimately, the suspension was reduced to three workdays. Grievant’s appeal raised issues of timeliness as well as challenges to the substance of the charges. Grievant is a class FS- 04 Consular Officer who was serving abroad in 2008. In May 2009, a co-worker at her Embassy complained to the RSO that grievant had become too close to some visa applicants and their attorneys and was maintaining improper personal relationships with them. The Office of the RSO investigated the allegations and eventually referred the matter to the Consular Integrity Division (CID). In its report of October 2009, CID found no wrongdoing and returned the matter to post. Nonetheless, the RSO referred the complaint of the co-worker to DS for investigation, but did not do so until January 2011. DS, for no articulated reason, did not assign the case to a field agent until September 28, 2011. DS then did not complete its investigation and forward the matter to HR until late October or early November 2012.

The Board concluded that there was no fact-based excuse for the delay at the RSO level and that there was no evidence of necessity for the length of time engulfed in the DS investigation. The Board found that the grievant had been harmed by the overall delay, caused by two different bureaucracies in the Department. The Board identified the harm as the statistically diminished promotability of this particular officer, given her combination of time-in-service and time-in- class.

The FSGB explains in the footnotes that 1) “She [grievant] was unmarried and remained unmarried through at least the date of her suspension. We mention her marital status only because in other disciplinary cases, an officer’s married status has been deemed a risk for coercion if someone knowing of the sexual misconduct threatened to reveal it to the officer’s spouse. Here, however, it does not appear that the grievant’s marital status was relevant to the selection of penalty or the choice of the charges. Noting grievant’s marital status may obviate confusion, if anyone examining other grievances or appeals should consider this case for comparison purposes.” 2) “Because of sensitivity surrounding the country in which grievant served her first tour, both parties refer to it as “Country X…”

In its decision last January, the FSGB held (pdf) that “grievant had shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the Department’s delay of over three years in proposing grievant’s suspension was unexcused and unreasonable and that grievant’s promotional opportunities had been harmed as a result of the delay. Grievant is entitled to reversal of the three-day suspension for charges of Improper Personal Conduct and Poor Judgment, as well as removal of the suspension letter from her OPF. Grievant is entitled to promotion to the FS-03 level, as recommended by the 2013 Selection Boards, retroactive to 2013.”

While this case was resolved on the FSO’s favor, I’m taking note of this case here for several reasons:

1) According to the redacted report published online, the misconduct was reported to the agency by one of grievant’s co-workers on May 20, 2009.  An embassy is a fishbowl.  Anyone at post familiar with one’s activities, in real life or online can file an allegation. If you write a blog specific to your post, people at post inevitably will connect you to it. A single blogpost, even if taken down, can reach back and bite. Across many years.  State’s position is that grievant’s argument that the Department had no regulations or guidelines about personal blogs in 2008 “does not make her posting any less wrong.” Interestingly, that official line doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to the former secretary of state’s use of private email.

2)  Even if an allegation is dismissed by the Consular Integrity Division (CID), it does not mean the end of it, as this case clearly shows.  After the case was dismissed by CID, the case was forwarded to Diplomatic Security for another investigation.  “Counting from the date on which the behavior was reported (as specific misconduct) to the agency to the date of proposal of the five-day suspension, the period of delay in dispute is three (3) years and eight months.” While I can understand what might have prompted the initial complaint, I’m curious about the second referral.  I’d be interested to see comparable cases to this. I’m wondering if this case would have been referred to a second investigation if she were a male officer? Absolutely, yes, no? But why a duplicate investigation?

3) When grievant departed Country X for a new post,  her continued blogging activity prompted other Consular (CID) investigations.  Since there are no public records of these incidents until the cases end up in the FSGB, it is impossible to tell how many FS employees have been referred to CID or DS for their blogging activities. Or for that matter, what kind of topics got them in trouble.  I am aware of cases where FS bloggers had difficulties with onward assignment, but those were never officially tied to their blogging activities; that is, there were no paper trail pointing directly at their blogs.  This is the first case where we’re seeing on paper what happens:

Grievant states in the ROP that “while in [REDACTED] she did not receive any of the initial positions she bid on. Eventually, she was told that even though she had a good reputation for her work, “there was the blog thing.” Also, she recalls that a “handshake” offer of a Consular Chief position in [REDACTED] was rescinded. She attributes this to an unnamed official’s claim that “Embassy decided they did not want me after CID told them about my history (presumably the blog, and my time in Country X).”

4) Beyond the consequences of not getting onward assignments, here’s the larger impact:  “In 2015, the first year her file would be reviewed without any discipline letter, grievant would have been in the Foreign Service for nine years and in class FS-04 for seven years. In point of fact, these lengths of time in service and time in class fall far above the average promotion times for officers moving from grade FS-04 to FS-03.[…]  We conclude, under the totality of circumstances, that the untimely suspension prejudiced her chances for promotion to FS-03 in the years 2015-2018.”

5) Beyond the blog thing — the FSO in this grievance case was an untenured officer serving her first tour at a “sensitive” country the FSGB would only refer to as Country X. When the FSO argue that she was never counseled at post regarding these relationships (other half of charges is for Improper Personal Conduct), the State Department contends that “any lack of counseling “does not erase the perception of impropriety [grievant’s] actions could create if made public, nor does it serve as an implicit concession that [grievant’s] actions were somehow appropriate.”   \

Well, okay, but ….. 3 FAM 4100 is the rules for the road when it comes to  employee responsibility and conduct. Which part of the current A100 or leadership and management classes are these FAM sections incorporated?  While I can understand the  department’s contention above, it also does not absolve the agency from its responsibility to provide appropriate counsel and training, most especially for entry level officers. Or is this a gap in the training of new employees?  When a new, inexperienced officer is first posted overseas, who can he/she ask about delicate issues like this? Is there a Dear Abby newbies can write to or call for counsel at the State Department without the question trailing the employee down every corridor?

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We’re Hosting a Q&A With FSO Mark D. Perry of CorridorRep.com — Saturday, July 18, 7pm EST

Posted: 2:23 pm EDT
Updated: 8:41 pm EDT
Updated: 12:43 pm EDT
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On July 7, I did a blogpost about CorridorRep.com, a website owned by Transparency In Government Performance, LLC. (See “Corridor Reputation” Gets a Makeover, And OMG …. It’s Now Online!)

CorridorRep.com’s site administrator is Foreign Service Officer Mark D. Perry. (Note: he is not the Mark Perry on LinkedIn). We requested a short bio and here is what he sent us:

Mark D. Perry is a consular-coned Foreign Service Officer who has served overseas in Monterrey, Cairo, and Lima.  He is currently working in a domestic assignment at the Buffalo Passport Agency.  He enjoys chocolate and looking for ways to make life better through the use of technology. Prior to joining the service, he worked in corporate HR for Tyco International, Ltd.

We cannot give you firsthand assessment of the site but readers writing this blog seems split between “this is great, yay!” or this is a terrible idea.

Mr. Perry told us via email that he has been thinking about this idea for years and floated it to a number of trusted friends. “Some said wow this is great and others said you are crazy,” he writes.

Another feedback we got is along the line of — hey, it only took a minute to figure out who runs this site; if he’s not good at protecting himself … what about my information?

We asked Mr. Perry about that and he explained that he created the LLC not to hide his identity, but to provide some additional legal protection.  That is true enough as LLC owners are protected from personal liability for business debts and claims.

We also asked about some readers’ concerns on data security, and here is his response:

I can understand the concerns about data security but I think the potential benefits outweigh these risks. Anything posted here could also be overheard in a cafe or sent by personal email to a friend or already on someone’s Facebook page. All of these are also easy targets for collection. This is nothing new. The site might make it marginally easier but I really do not see much risk in that aspect.

One reader asked about an “opt-out” so we also put that question to Mr. Perry.

[T]here really is not [a] way to prevent someone from  rating you. Preventing someone from being rated would be technically  close to impossible. Anyone can delete or edit the ratings they have  entered for others but could not delete ratings from others about  themselves. Anyone can choose not to visit the site so I guess that is one way one could opt out.

The site itself says that “you now have access to honest 360 reviews.”  One of the screencaps on the site is a section that says “Will work again with You” with the following options:  1) Supervisor, 2) Subordinate, 3) Colleague, 4) Other and 5) All.  We should note that the State Department has been using the 360 degree feedback for years primarily as a placement tool during the assignments process, and as far as we know, not as a developmental tool. See update below.

So think Yelp, Trip Advisor, Amazon and other online rating sites out there, except that the employee is now the rated brand/product.  Or perhaps the closest ones would be the student rating sites for teachers/professors performance.  Online reviews are popular and have grown prevalent in recent years.  There are even online reviews written by ex-convicts!  These online reviews have also grown controversial, of course, with some allegations of manipulation (and some real) orchestrated by companies to trick potential customers. The Harvard Business review last year, however notes that “voracious information-seeking has become deeply ingrained in many consumers, and we can envision no scenario in which they will see traditional marketing as a better provider of product information.”

In some ways, corridorrep.com is probably more like glassdoor.com, a career community that depends on everyone being able to share an inside look at a company they know.  Corridorrep.com depends on everyone being able to share an inside look about each other; it’s success certainly depends on the participation of enough individuals rating each other. Its stated goal is to have 5,000 reviews. Since we posted about the site, the online reviews have gone from 26 to 83, averaging about six reviews a day in the last 9 days.  That’s not a significant number at this time but if the number of posts continue at this rate, we estimate that the site will reach its goal in slightly over a couple of years.  The question now is how many of the Foreign Service’s 13,908 employees are willing to participate? Will Civil Service employees and Foreign Service Nationals, who all have state.gov emails also participate?

We understand that the site has become fairly controversial within the FS community. We are sure there are many more questions out there for corridorrep.com. We have offered to host a Q&A at our forum and Mr. Perry has accepted the invitation.  He will answer your questions on Saturday, July 18, 7pm EST. This forum is set as “open” so non-registered members of the forum and readers of the blog will be able to post questions of interest. You may post your questions ahead of time here: http://forums.diplopundit.net/?forum=457155.

See you at the forum!

Update:  We received the following nugget from an FSO with clarification on current use of 360 at State; our correspondent is not sure if there is a similar process for the Civil Service:

“State’s mandatory leadership and management training that everyone in the Foreign Service has to take each time they are promoted to the next level (at least for promotions to 02, 01 and into the SFS, not sure about below that) has a 360 component. You have to submit 10-15 names to review you anonymously, inlcuding subordinates, peers and bosses (the bosses are not anonymous). The results and comments are shared with you and the FSI instructors and I’ve found it quite useful. You also do one for yourself and seeing the similarities or differences between your self-image of your strengths and weaknesses and how others view you is very instructive.”

A Consular Officer also sent us the following details on the use of 360s at State/CA:

The Bureau of Consular Affairs also uses 360s as a development tool. Its CBAT program collects 360s for bidders and shares the report of the assessors’ input with the bidder. There are fewer questions than on the leadership training 360s mentioned above, but the CBAT does ask “would you work with this employee again?” and offers free text fields for assessors to say whatever they want. In general, the new (2 years old) CBAT process has been received pretty well, although I think some officers have been surprised by frank feedback.  And on the leadership training you mentioned, that is also open to Civil Service employees. I think it is mandatory at GS-13/14/15.

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“Corridor Reputation” Gets a Makeover, And OMG …. It’s Now Online!

Posted: 11:15 am  PDT
Updated: July 8, 5:28 pm PDT
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Every spring, our Foreign Service folks get a stressful season added to their lives. It’s called the EER Season. It’s when most people in the Foreign Service must do their Employee Evaluation Review, their annual report cards. It’s like doing your own tax return. It’s painful. People hate doing it. But it must be done, and done well, if folks want that promotion.

One FSO once quipped about the wisdom of “scheduling EER due dates at the same time as your tax returns; at least you’re combining as much pain and suffering into as short a time as possible.”  Another describes it as “a period of several weeks during which the entire service withdraws to semi-hibernation in their offices to produce and push around the mountain of paper that is the annual Employee Evaluation Review.” The Daily Demarche calls it the Creative Writing Season at the State Department, writing, “It is only with slight exaggeration [they] I say some reports use phrases like “when Dick is not walking on water he is busy turning it into wine.”  

There are tips and tricks online on EER preparation, see this and this, both written by FS-bloggers, who by the way, are no longer blogging. Also read this old post from Life After Jerusalem, it’ll crack you up.

An old adage is repeated in the Foreign Service Journal: “The EER system doesn’t work, so all we can do is gossip to keep bad people from getting good jobs.”  

We’ve heard it said often enough that the EER gets you the promotion, but your corridor reputation gets you your next job. Is that still true?

In a perfect world, the performance evaluation report should be the most useful tool in getting an individual, as they say, on the right bus. But that’s not the case in the Foreign Service. The Foreign Service where the entrance requirement is proudly based on merit, actually bases its assignment process on who you know, and what’s often called “corridor reputation,” instead of ability and talent.

So it was only a matter of time… and bang! This happened.

We received the following note:

As I have worked as an FSO for the better part of a decade, I have experienced a lot of different types of employees.  Like many others, I have often wondered how certain people got promoted and why certain others did not.  I have pondered the ridiculousness of the current EER system and its  unnatural obsession with style over substance.  How many times do I really need to roll it back to step 4 to make a comma edit and should that really sink my chance at a promotion?  I have wished that I would have known going in that my new boss would be horrible, and I have wished I could tell the world by boss was awesome.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that Department needs a place to discuss the performance of people.  It has to be outside official channels and done in a way so others feel like they can comment without reprisal.  After this realization, a long period of denial, and more than a few sleepless nights, the site http://www.corridorrep.com was born.  It is limited only to people with a state.gov email address and does not pretend to be any type of official or statistically valid tool.  It is just a forum for openly discussing the performance of others.  The hope is that by providing visible access to one’s corridor reputation, the good performers get publically recognized and the not so good ones know where they can improve.  Is this risky? Yes.  Will people be offended?  Probably.  Will I get sued?  Maybe.  Is it needed?  I think so.

Regular folks who get frustrated long enough with the process long acknowledged to be broken will occasionally roll the dice.

According to its Terms of Use, http://www.corridorrep.com is owned by Transparency in Government Performance, LLC, registered out of Arizona. Its intended users are “employees of the U.S. State Department and other government agencies as determined by the site administrator. The purpose of this site is to provide mechanism for rating employees based on a 5-star rating system.  It will allow users to view their own individual rating, as well as highlight top performers.  Users will access the site to see how they have been rated and to rate others.”

The site’s stated goal is to rate 5,000 employees. It has 26 ratings right now.  We are unable to read the full reports but one of those “Recently Liked” under “Poor Performer” starts with “It was the longest tour of my life…”  Another one under “Officer Bob” starts with “It was a dark and stormy…”

In order to use the site, users “must provide” their state.gov email address. “This is only used to ensure that Department employees can access the site. Your confirmation email will be sent to this address and once you confirm your account none of your activity will be traceable to it.” The site says that registration is limited to U.S. Department of State employees at this time, but may be extended to include other agencies as determined by the site administrator.

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Note:  Thanks for all your tips. Since the owner of the LLC who operates this new site has not self-identify as site administrator of CorridorRep.com, we will not identify that individual in this blog at this time. We have reached out to the site  administrator and will update when we hear more.  

Burn Bag: Where taking “open door” seriously can ruin corridor reputation … oh woe!

Posted: 2:19  am EDT
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When management at your post in crisis tells you they have an open door and want to know how people are feeling, then tells you your (widely shared) concern is insignificant and you are ruining your corridor reputation by bringing it up.