@StateDept Sends Out Job Offers to Prospective FSOs For March 6 Class But — Will There Be Jobs?

Posted: 3:47 am ET
Updated: 1:03 am ET
Updated: 7:12 pm ET
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The most popular topic in the State Department’s career forum right now is Mgt non-authorization of appointment letter?  Candidates for appointment into the Foreign Service are roiled at the possibility that the next classes for new officers and specialists will be postponed or cancelled after they have already prepared to move to DC.  One commenter writes, “We signed attendance letters and received confirmation that we are in the March class. We signed paperwork with Oakwood for housing.”  Another adds,  “Have resigned from my job and given my apartment notice of our leaving. I also turned down another job offer in December.” Still another candidate writes, “[A]m about to go from a good, full-time job to being unemployed because of this lack of transparency and foresight. For my family’s sake, I’m trying not to show how terrified I am that we will potentially be without income and a roof over our heads.”  And yet another says, “I am not sure how future language and caveats helps those who will soon be unemployed and homeless.”

Last week, we asked the State Department about this issue, requesting some clarity on what is going on regarding the offers that went out, the classes scheduled to start, and whether or not cancellation of classes is a possibility/offers rescinded given the change in administration.

We received a four-word response from State/HR:  “We have no comment.”

We tried DGHR Arnold Chacon on Twitter, but it appears he was deaf to our question on this matter.

As best we could tell, in late November-early December, the State Department sent out appointment offers to Foreign Service applicants who have jumped through the hoops to join the incoming 190th A-100 Generalist Class, due to begin March 6. We understand that similar offers went out for the next Specialist Class due to start in March 20.

For the Generalist/FSO class, the job offer recipients were asked to notify the Registrar’s Office of their response to the job offer, via email, no later than noon, Friday, Dec. 2nd.  They were also asked to provide documentation of their annual base salarysubmission of 90 days’ worth of earnings and leave/salary statements, or a signed letter from your Human Resources Division, on the company’s letterhead, verifying the candidate’s current (base) salary.  Candidates who are current federal employees were asked to provide their most recent personnel action (SF-50), in lieu of 90 days’ worth of earnings and leave statements.   Candidates transferring from a federal agency, were asked to provide the Registrar’s Office with the name, email address and telephone number of their Human Resources Officer, so that their “transfer and a release date can be coordinated without a break in service.”

Recipients of the offers were informed that they need to provide via fax or email an updated resume with eight specific details including address, telephone number, email address, eligible family members and confirmation that this is the address from which you are traveling to attend Generalist training; please include your confirmed address, telephone number and current email address on your resume” to the Registrar’s Office. 
The candidates were reminded that if they are appointed from 50 miles outside of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, they are eligible to receive per diem to assist in offsetting living expenses incurred while attending training. They were given the per diem rates from March-September 2017. The letter informed the candidates that during the first week of orientation, they will have an opportunity to apply for a Government Travel Card via Citibank. Also that candidates must submit a travel voucher every 30 calendar days to receive reimbursement for their lodging and meals and incidental expenses (M&IE).   They were informed that lodging receipts are required.  The candidates were further reminded not to purchase their own tickets as they will be issued travel authorizations approximately 30 days prior to the class date.
 

They were provided information about lodging and information on specific needs such as lactation services:

The Department entered into a contract with housing vendors to provide apartments at various locations in the Washington, D.C. area for eligible employees receiving a travel authorization to attend Generalist training at FSI. Participating employees will not be responsible for paying for housing costs which can result in savings of many thousands of dollars over the course of the training period. Participants will still receive the meals and incidental expense portion of the per diem allowance on the sliding scale listed above. We strongly encourage all new employees to take advantage of this program not only because of the cost savings, but because of the convenience of making reservations, free transportation to and from FSI, and to avoid the many legal and contractual pitfalls encountered when finding your own housing. 

 If you are a candidate that will require lactation services during the orientation period, please advise as soon as possible so that arrangements can be made.

They were directed what to do/where to go on their first day of processing: 

Please note that the first day of Generalist In-Processing will be held in the Harry S. Truman (Main State), 2201 C Street, N.W, Washington, D.C. (Loy Henderson Auditorium, 23rd Street entrance only) and the remainder of the Generalist Orientation, will be held at the George Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center, 4000 Arlington Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia, Room F-2328.   (Please enter via the 23rd Street entrance only.   Please do not enter via the Department’s 22nd  and C Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., Main Entrance. )

They were informed that the priority of the Registrar’s Office is the processing of the January 9th Generalist Class.   And that their “patience and understanding are greatly appreciated.”

The appointment offer we reviewed includes links and contact info. It does not include a contingency language about not making “lifestyle changes.”  If you receive one of these letters, you probably would also start making arrangements to terminate current employment, leases, etc, in preparation for a new start as an entry level U.S. diplomat in Washington, D.C.

The original forum thread was posted in January 13. After the forum section lit up and multiple inquiries from candidates, HR/REE apparently sent out an email on January 17, as follows:

Dear Candidate:

The Office of Recruitment, Examination and Employment (HR/REE) would like to provide further information concerning your appointment to both the March 6th Generalist and March 20th Specialist hiring classes.

At this time, pending guidance from the incoming administration, the Registrar’s Office is not releasing any official appointment documentation related to the March 2017 hiring classes. This would include the official appointment salary letter and the Enter On-Duty employment forms. Once the Registrar’s Office has received further guidance from Management concerning your appointment, you will be informed immediately.

We recommend that you make no lifestyle changes contingent on employment with the Department until you receive further guidance from us.”

Look, the job offer letters went out after the elections. Unless folks were under a rock, State/HR knew that there will be a new GOP Administration who may have different priorities. In fact, in October 22, 2016, President Trump’s Contract With the American Voters lists “a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce federal workforce through attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health)” as part of his plan.  Perhaps the folks who sent out the job offers made presumptions they shouldn’t have, or perhaps there were transition issues?  The thing is we don’t know because HR and DGHR are both non-responsive to inquiries. It is worth noting, however, that the scheduled  189th Class proceeded as planned on January 17.  If there were doubts, even slim ones about the next training classes, the State Department could have included a contingency language in the job offer letters it sent out; it did not.  Wait, we’ll take that back. Even in the absence of doubts, given that a presidential transition was anticipated after the election, it is malpractice not to include contingency language in these job offers.

We understand that the agency has no control over the priorities or the interest of the incoming administration. However, it has control over how it communicates with its prospective personnel. The State Department demands that its future diplomats demonstrate high qualities of leadership, decisiveness, and communication skills among other things.  And yet, it poorly communicates with its incoming career candidates and refuses to account for its action when politely asked for clarity.

CBS News reported on January 20 that White House chief of staff Reince Priebus sent a memo to federal agencies instructing the bureaucracy to cease issuing new regulations and to enact a federal hiring freeze. We were able to locate the regulatory freeze memo but not the memo on the hiring freeze. Government Executive has now reported about the hiring freeze here. Below is the text of the order freezing federal hiring.  Or see the more readable version here: President Trump Freezes Federal Hiring Regardless of Funding Sources (Read Memo).

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U.S. Consulate General Istanbul: Post On Evacuation Status With a “No Curtailment” Policy?

Posted: 1:49 am ET
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In October 2016, the State Department updated its Travel Warning for Turkey to announce the mandatory departure of family members of employees assigned to the Consulate General in Istanbul. The announcement says that the Department of State made this decision “based on security information indicating extremist groups are continuing aggressive efforts to attack U.S. citizens in areas of Istanbul where they reside or frequent” but adds that “the Consulate General remains open and fully staffed.”

The mandatory evacuation order issued in October meant that family members departed Turkey for temporary housing typically in the Washington, D.C. area without their household effects or personal vehicles. And like all posts on mandatory evacuation, the children had to be pulled out from their schools and temporarily enrolled in local schools in the DC area. We are not sure how many family members were evacuated from post but the last data we’ve seen indicates that USCG Istanbul has approximately 80 direct-hire US employees.

By law, an evacuation cannot last longer than 180 days so after the Under Secretary of State for Management (“M”) approves the evacuation status for post (authorized or ordered), the 180-day clock “begins ticking”. The order can be lifted at any time but if family members are not allowed to return to post, and no reassignment decision has been reached, the post status could change to “unaccompanied”.  For those not in the FS, that means, family members will not be allowed to return to post and incoming employees will no longer be allowed to bring their family members to their diplomatic assignment.

The latest evacuation order for USCG Istanbul could potentially last until April 2017 unless terminated earlier, or could be extended with a new order. Note that a previous evacuation order for US Mission Turkey was terminated in September 2016 and about five weeks later, the current evacuation order was issued. Who would have thought that Istanbul would become more restrictive than say, Beirut, where employees can still bring adult family members to post?

In any case, we understand that US Mission Turkey’s DCM had a meeting recently with the staff to let them know that post and HR/EX had agreed to halt all curtailments. Apparently, employees were told they cannot leave post until they have incoming replacements. But see — if they’re not allowed to send in their requests, or if the jobs of the curtailing employees are not listed anywhere, how will folks know about these job vacancies?  How will incoming replacements come about?  We understand that the hold placed on all curtailments apparently has “no stated expiration.”

We asked the State Department about this “no curtailment” decree specific to USCG Istanbul. Below is the full official response we received:

We cannot comment on the status of individual requests, but we can confirm that it is incorrect that a “no curtailments” policy is in effect in Mission Turkey. The Department adjudicates curtailment requests on a case by case basis, in line with established regulations and procedures. In doing so, we take into account the well-being and the individual circumstances of our employees and their family members, as well as the need to ensure sufficient staffing to undertake the important work of our diplomatic posts.

We should note that we did not inquire about individual curtailments; and our question was specific to Istanbul, and did not include Ankara or Adana. You are welcome to interpret “Mission Turkey” in the most convenient way, of course.

We’ve learned that this is not the first instance of a decree issued on specific posts. In one NEA post, the Front Office reportedly made it known that it “would not accept” curtailment requests until further down the “ordered departure” road.  During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the Director General was also reportedly asked to implement a policy that no curtailment requests from those affected posts would be allowed until senior management decided it was “appropriate.”

We can see where the State Department is coming from; it certainly would not like to see mass curtailments from staffers but  — there is no authority in the books that prohibit curtailment requests. And as somebody familiar with the bureau puts it, “HR knows this damn well.”  

Curtailment is the shortening of an employee’s tour of duty from his or her assignment.  It may include the employee’s immediate departure from a bureau or post.  The statutory authority for curtailment is found in the Foreign Service Act of 1980.

In the Foreign Affairs Manual, 3 FAM 2443.1 allows an employee assigned abroad to request curtailment of his or her tour of duty for any reason.  The regs say that the employee should submit a written request for curtailment that explains the reasons for the request to the appropriate assignment panel through his or her counseling and assignment officer. Post management must state its support for or opposition to the employee’s request.  The Foreign Affairs Manual makes clear that a curtailment is an assignment action, not a disciplinary one.

The FAM provides any employee the right to request a curtailment for any reason at any time, regardless of where the employees are serving.  It’s been pointed out to us that this does not/not mean that the assignment panel will approve the request. We understand that the panel’s decision typically depends on the argument made by the CDO (Career Development Office) at panel and whether ECS (Employee Consultation Service) strongly supports the “compassionate curtailment.”

A source familiar with the workings of the bureau observed that if post is refusing to send out the curtailment request via cable, the employee needs to connect with his/her CDO and go the DGDirect route. If necessary, employees can also go to AFSA, as there are precedence for this in prior attempts to declare no curtailment decrees at other posts under “ordered departure” or where there were outbreaks of diseases (Ebola, Zika).

Note that 3 FAM 2446 provides the Director General of the Foreign Service the authority to propose curtailment from any assignment sua sponteAccording to the FAM, the Director General may overrule the assignment panel decision to curtail or not to curtail if the Director General determines that to do so is in the best interests of the Foreign Service or the post.

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State Department Seeks Diplomatic Security Special Agents (DSSA) — Job Closes Thursday, 12/15

Posted: 6:02 pm PT
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The Department of State is developing a rank-order list of eligible hires for a number of Special Agent (SA) vacancies. The announcement does not indicate how many vacancies are open only that the specific number to be hired will be based on the needs of the Department and is subject to change.

Diplomatic Security Special Agents (SA) manage a range of security programs worldwide. SAs live and serve at U.S. diplomatic or consular posts abroad, as well as in the Washington, DC area or at field offices in such cities as Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, or San Francisco, according to the needs of the service. As members of a diplomatic team, Special Agents not only help to accomplish the mission of the Department of State, but also represent the United States to people of other nations. The Foreign Service is more than a job – it is a career.

Special Agents normally will be assigned to one of eight domestic Field Offices for their first three years of service (including training), or possibly to a smaller Resident Agent Office. There may, however, be occasions when new SAs will be assigned to other domestic units, support temporary duty assignments, or sent directly overseas. Needs of the service will have a significant bearing on DS SA assignments; sometimes require that domestic assignments be shortened for re-assignment to a Regional Security Office at an overseas post.

Announcement No: SA-2017-0001
Position Title: Diplomatic Security: Foreign Service Special Agent
Open Period: 12/08/2016 – 12/15/2016
Series/Grade: FP-1811-06
Salary: $43,226 – $58,092
Promotion Potential: MC
Position Information: Work Schedule is Full-time – Permanent after being tenured in the Foreign Service by a Foreign Service Tenure Board.
Supervisory Status: Yes
Duty Locations: MANY vacancies – Washington DC

Read more here: https://careers.state.gov/work/opportunities/vacancy-announcements/sa and here: https://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/458476800

ds-recruit

 

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Burn Bag: A confidentiality agreement so others don’t find out how f’d up is the system?

Via Burn Bag:

“How is it that — as promotion panels go back for at least the last several EERs normally and in that period someone gets several awards, and gets specifically recommended for promotion every year by their rater and reviewer — they can be low ranked?? And then the injured party grieves and wins immediately but is required to sign a confidentiality agreement so others don’t find out how f’d up the system is … and how often this sort of thing occurs by promotion panels composed of member(s) who should recuse themselves when reviewing the files of someone they don’t like.”

via reactiongifs.com

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*EER – Employee Evaluation Report
*MHAs – Meritorious Honor Award
*IRM -Information Resource Management

 

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Oh Damn and Blast! @StateDept’s Administrative Leave Data Is One Hot Mess

Posted: 3:32 am ET
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According to State/OIG, administrative leave is granted to employees as an authorized absence from duty without loss of pay or use of leave for various reasons unrelated to employee conduct, such as blood donations and weather-related closures. It may also be granted to employees who are under investigation for misconduct.  Senator Charles Grassley asked State/OIG for a description of the State Department’s administrative leave policies and the controls in place to prevent extensive use of administrative leave. On October 3, State/OIG posted online its report, Department of State Has Administrative Leave Policies but Lacks Complete and Accurate Data on the Use of Leave.

In response to the congressional request, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) evaluated the use of administrative leave at the Department of State (Department). The objectives of the evaluation were (1) to describe the Department’s administrative leave policies and (2) to determine the amount of administrative leave Department employees used from January 2011 to January 2015 and the circumstances surrounding the use of such leave.

State/OIG obtained data on administrative leave granted to Department employees from 2011 through 2015 from the Bureau of Human Resources (HR). For several of these employees, OIG also reviewed select records from the Time and Attendance Telecommunications Line (TATEL) system, the Department’s time and attendance tracking system.

Excerpt from OIG report:

  • At the Department of State, administrative leave can be authorized in 26 circumstances not related to conduct. Employees under investigation for misconduct may also be placed on administrative leave if their continued presence in the workplace may pose a threat to the employee or to others, may result in loss of or damage to government property, or may otherwise jeopardize legitimate government interests. Conduct- related administrative leave over 16 hours may only be granted by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Human Resources.
  • OIG intended to determine the amount of administrative leave used by Department employees from January 2011 to January 2015 and the circumstances surrounding the use of such leave. However, the Department did not provide OIG with sufficient data to make these determinations. Consequently, OIG is unable to make any assessments about the Department’s use of administrative leave. OIG identified two key deficiencies in the data the Department provided: (1) the Department lacks a centralized source of information regarding the justification for why administrative leave is granted and (2) HR data on the hours of administrative leave used conflicts with data from individual employing offices.

Administrative Leave Not Related to Conduct: 26 Circumstances

  • There are 26 circumstances not related to conduct where administrative leave can be authorized. These circumstances include Federal holidays, voting, hazardous weather conditions, packing.unpacking, blood/organ donation, funerals, time zone dislocation adjustment period to name a few and several miscellaneous reasons like group dismissals for a reasonable period due to extreme climatic conditions; civil disturbance; transportation failure; breakdown of heating/cooling systems; natural disaster, etc.; jury duty; and absence due to an injury incurred while serving abroad and resulting from war, insurgency, mob violence or hostile action.  The amount of time authorized by the FAM and the FAH for administrative leave in these circumstances varies from one hour to one year.
State/HR’s Unreliable Data
  • In response to OIG’s request for information on administrative leave granted to Department employees, HR provided a report created by CGFS using TATEL data transferred to the payroll system. According to this data, the Department recorded 8.36 million hours of administrative leave for 33,205 employees from January 2011 to January 2015; however, their data was unreliable. Specifically, OIG identified two key deficiencies in the data that the Department provided. […] Currently, the only way to determine the justification for an employee’s administrative leave is to review the timesheet, ask the employee, or ask the employing bureau. The Department is currently updating its payroll systems, including modernization of its time and attendance systems. Once this project is completed, there will be more information available on specific uses of administrative leave. However, there is no expected completion date for the project.
  • OIG selected the 100 employees with the most hours of recorded administrative leave based on HR’s data and requested the justification from the applicable employing bureaus.17 According to the data provided by HR, these 100 employees recorded over 320,000 hours of administrative leave during the period under evaluation. However, after reviewing the information the bureaus provided, OIG found that administrative leave hours reported by HR were incorrect for 84 of these 100 employees (84 percent). Four of the employees were on work-related travel as opposed to on administrative leave. The other 80 employees were at work on regular duty between January 2011 and January 2015—with the exception of holidays, scheduled sick and annual leave, and weather-related closures—and their time and attendance records maintained by their employing bureau did not support the large amounts of administrative leave indicated by the HR data. OIG interviews with several employees and supervisors corroborated this information.
  • Although HR officials told OIG that timekeeping error was the most likely source of the discrepancies between the HR data and the information provided by the employing bureaus,19 reports from TATEL reviewed by OIG demonstrated that timekeeper error does not explain the entirety of the large balances of the administrative leave indicated by the HR data.20

Administrative Leave Related to Conduct

  • OPM guidance states that administrative leave should be used only as “an immediate, temporary solution to the problem of an employee who should be kept away from the worksite.”13 OPM also recommends that administrative leave “should not be used for an extended or indefinite period or on a recurring basis” and agencies should “consider other options prior to use of administrative leave.”
  • Department policies follow this guidance and contain several controls to ensure that administrative leave is used only as a temporary solution for employees who should be kept out of the workplace. The FAM defines conduct-related administrative leave as leave authorized “when an investigation, inquiry, or disciplinary action regarding the employee’s conduct is pending, has been requested, or will be requested within 2 workdays, and the continued presence of the employee in the workplace may pose a threat to the employee or to others, or may result in loss of, or damage to, U.S. government property, or may otherwise jeopardize legitimate U.S. Government interests
  • The Deputy Assistant Secretary told OIG that he and his staff carefully scrutinize each request to ensure that there is sufficient documentation that an employee’s continued presence in the workplace poses an actual problem. They also encourage the bureau to explore other alternatives and have, in some cases, referred the issue to the Office of Civil Rights, the Office of the Ombudsman, or the Bureau of Medical Services. The Deputy Assistant Secretary has disapproved administrative leave requests when alternatives exist or when there is insufficient documentation of a problem.
  • Even when HR approves a request for administrative leave, leave is only authorized for a 30 day maximum. According to HR, this incremental approach ensures that it will reevaluate the employee’s status periodically to determine whether administrative leave continues to be necessary. HR identified three main justifications to place an employee on administrative leave for over 16 hours:
  1. loss of security clearance
  2. medical-related issues
  3. violence or threatening conduct

63,000 Hours in a 4-Year Period

  • Despite these deficiencies, OIG found that more complete information exists for employees on conduct-related administrative leave. For example, sixteen of the 100 employees OIG reviewed had accurately recorded administrative leave and 15 of these were conduct-related cases. For each of these cases, HR confirmed that it had followed Department policy in granting administrative leave to ensure that the employee’s continued presence in the workplace posed a serious problem. These employees represented approximately 63,000 hours of administrative leave in the four-year period
  • According to HR, one of the reasons for these large balances is the difficulty in finding alternative work assignments or locations for employees who are on administrative leave because their security clearances have been suspended. The nature of the Department’s work limits the number of positions for which a security clearance is not required. Department offices may have unclassified work that employees can perform, but those employees would have to be escorted and monitored because most offices are secure spaces. Furthermore, employees who have had their clearances suspended may pose a risk even in unclassified areas.

The original report is posted here (PDF), or read in full below (click on the arrow at the lower right hand side of the box below to maximize view).

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Foggy Bottom Finally Delivers Guidance for Domestic or Overseas Obstetrical Medevac– What’s New?

Posted: 12:15 am ET
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Remember the January 2016 Burn Bag: Expectant Parents Still Waiting For Foggy Bottom to Deliver 2015 Pregnancy Cable? It’s May, and the Pregnancy Guide (PDF) finally came out!

“The U.S. Department of State Bureau of Human Resources’ Pregnancy Guide provides information to assist Foreign Service employees and family members with pregnancy-related questions and issues. The guide includes information on payment for medical expenses, types of leave, obtaining a diplomatic passport and visa for the child, allowances and per diem, and other topics related to an obstetrical medevac.”

The guide above is available directly from state.gov here.

According to the pregnancy guide above, its key source of information is 3 FAH-3 (Maternity, Surrogacy, and Adoption Handbook) and 16 FAM 300 (Medical Travel).  “Information was selected to address the specific issues related to a birth parent serving overseas on overseas or domestic obstetrical medieval.”  Also 16 FAM 315.2 for Delivery Outside the United States.

3 FAH-3  (Maternity, Surrogacy, and Adoption Handbook) reportedly has some superseding text issued by the Department in a Department Notice in June 2015 and this subchapter according to the online regs will be revised to reflect the new guidance  — FAH says refer to Department Notice 2015_06_099 for more information.

16 FAM 300 (Medical Travel) — as far as we could tell from the online regs — has not been updated since July 11, 2012.

Screen Shot

So okay, help us out here —  if there was a Department Notice back in June 2015 for 3 FAM-3, and 16 FAM 315.2  has not been updated since July 2012, where was the holdup with this new guidance? Or for that matter, can anyone tell what is new here?

 

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Foreign Service Members Offer Candid Views of @StateDept Mental Health Services (via FSJ)

Posted: 3:04 am EDT
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The January issue of the Foreign Service Journal is out. The issue is focused on mental health care for the Foreign Service.  Dr. Samuel Thielman,  a recently retired regional medical officer/psychiatrist for the Department of State writes about how MED’s mental health program has grown and evolved over the years to address the unusual needs of FS employees and their families serving overseas in The Evolution of State’s Mental Health Services. Chantay White, the chief of the Employee Assistance Program with the State Department Employee Consultation Services and Paulette Baldwin, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker write about Mental Health and ECS—What You Should Know. Dr. Stephen A. Young, the director of Mental Health Services for the State department since September 2015, writes about The Face of Mental Health Services Overseas.

One part of the bureaucracy that is glaringly missing here is, of course, Diplomatic Security.  A majority of these comments express concern about DS and security clearance. The most instructive part is probably the section on MED/MHS Checkup: Foreign Service Members Weigh In that offers very candid views from people in the field.

The FSJ writes that the compilation includes 45 responses from FS members in Washington, D.C., and overseas, some entry-level and a few retired, from the foreign affairs agencies, primarily State and USAID. The gender split was about even. “Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, and known concerns about privacy, we took the unprecedented step of offering to print comments without attribution,” the editors write.

Some excerpts below, each paragraph selected from a separate FS member response.  The last one It’s No Joke is in full; the contributor appears to be part of US Mission Libya following the 2012 attacks. The full comments are available to read here.

“Dealing with the bureaucracy after having sought mental health treatment is itself enough to cause PTSD.”

“Senior officers, in particular, need to set the example by ensuring that their employees understand that a mental health issue, like any ailment, is best addressed early. Until they do, we will all still sign notes like this as… Anonymous.”

“During a rough patch in a relationship, my partner and I sought couples counseling. When my security clearance was up for renewal, I was grilled by the investigator regarding this counseling. I had to defend myself for wanting counseling, and the harsh and critical tone she took for me wanting to do what I needed for my relationship was upsetting. I got the clearance, but it was a stressful process.”

“After service in Iraq, there is no doubt in my mind that I suffered from PTSD. Now (several years later), I see my symptoms as both classic and obvious. At the time I was suffering, however, I hid my symptoms out of fear that knowledge that I suffered from PTSD would harm my career. That concern was heightened by the intense questioning I endured by a Diplomatic Security agent conducting a security clearance update when I was serving in Iraq. When it became known that I had sought mental health care, I was hassled and forced to repeat the content of a private discussion with a mental health professional to a DS agent with zero mental health training. I found the entire episode both distasteful and inappropriate.”

“My mistake—I was told by MED that I’d be given a Class 2 because of seeking continued therapy. I thought that showing that I’d made arrangements for my mental health would ensure a Class 1, but instead that’s what gave me the Class 2. Geez, why be honest with MED—it could have cost me my assignment.”

“I met with a therapist who told me he never wrote anything down because all of his FS clients were terrified of getting caught seeking assistance for their stress-related problems. It’s sad. Concerns about security clearances have a big effect on whether or not I seek mental health care.”

“I feel that if I had declared myself an alcoholic I would have gotten more attention from MED than when I was traumatized and sat in my office working, feeling like an isolated zombie.”

“Once I joined the Foreign Service, I could easily understand why there is an impression that the Service has an alcohol abuse problem—it’s self-medication that is easy to hide from a clearance process. I find that distressing and disturbing and extremely unsupportive.”

“Despite former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s message a few years ago telling employees that their clearance will not be affected by seeking mental health treatment, that is not what happens in practice. DS investigators zero in on this, considering it a red flag, as if mental health were any different than physical health.”

“No matter what management says about the importance of mental health, if there are no real changes, then the Foreign Service will continue to be an ineffective and unsupportive mental health environment.”

“You also do not know who the regional psychiatrist’s client really is: you or the State Department? Does a psychiatrist see you as a patient who needs help or just a problem for the Foreign Service best remedied by removing you from post?”

“The mandatory out brief improved between the time I returned from Afghanistan in 2007 and 2012, when I returned from Iraq. However, both times I was told that the symptoms in the PTSD questionnaire are normal for six months and not to worry unless they persist. (And I was offended when taken aside after the briefing and asked how pervasive I thought infidelity was in Baghdad.)”

“During the onward assignments process, MED refused to consider my needs as identified by my therapist, instead assigning me to a post where there was no one in-country who could serve as an appropriate psychiatrist. There, I raised an issue of concern with the health unit nurse, who in turn shared it with the management officer, who then told my supervisor that I was “nuts.” This was not only a violation of my privacy; it reflected total ignorance on the management officer’s part of what PTSD and its symptoms are.”

“I would rate the mental health support at 3 out of 10, with 10 being the best. Working in a high-stress post that was not a “high-threat” post, my colleagues and I were given limited support in a time of crisis.”

“I am grateful for the mental health assistance available to me. If it weren’t for grief counseling, I would have qualms about seeing the RMO/P, because I’d need to disclose this in the five-yearly security update. And while that disclosure might not affect my security clearance, I still think there’s a stigma attached to the fact that I needed mental health assistance.”

“As a veteran of two priority staffing post (PSP) tours—one in Iraq (2007–2008) and the other in Afghanistan (2013–2014)—my experience with transition support has been abysmal. Just getting authorization to attend out briefings and to access mental health services was impossible.”

“I am not concerned about medical and security clearances as they relate to mental health care. Most people have seen a therapist at one time or another, and I don’t think it would affect a security clearance. But corridor reputation is a concern. Even when people need to talk to a mental health professional, they’re more worried about their corridor reputation and often won’t seek help due to the stigma of being “weak.”

“In my final post, when I had finally had enough bullying from my fourth bully boss (three of whom were DCMs and one a GS-15), I worked with the regional psychiatrist who prescribed two anti-anxiety/anti-depressants and a sleeping pill to help me cope. I sought assistance from the ombudsman, but received no help, so I resigned.”

“I had discussed my mental health with the regional psychiatrist during his visits, but he just gave me Xanax and told me panic attacks were normal. He asked me about work-related stress, but reported the results of our meetings with post leadership, contributing to my stress.”

“When State does not actively intervene in cases of abusive behavior, managers are given the impression that they have carte blanche to do whatever they want. Even if victims get mental health care afterwards, the damage has been done. From what I hear, the problem is getting worse and more widespread. It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of sending out feel-good cables on workplace atmosphere and bullying, put policies in place that have real teeth. A zero-tolerance policy for workplace bullies, administered neutrally and enforced by D.C., would lead to an instant decrease in unacceptable behaviors and the resulting damage they cause.”

It’s No Joke

The first MED-directed mental health intervention that was provided in Tripoli after the Benghazi attacks on Sept. 11, 2012, was a video conference in April 2013, conveniently less than a week before the Director General arrived for a visit to Libya. Prior to that, the only service provided was a discussion with the nurse about “fostering resiliency” several months after the attack…hardly a useful assist.

The half-day course for those returning from hardship posts is a joke. I took it after my first (!) unaccompanied tour (UT), and both the instructor and some of the other students made fun of me for enrolling, since at the time my tour was seen as one of the “cupcake UTs,” without an active war going on outside the embassy walls. I refused to take the course after my second UT. No one from HR or my bureau asked if I’d taken it or even how I was doing after the second UT.

An RMO/P made fun of some of my coworkers in a high-stress, high-threat post that happened to be a popular destination for American tourists. He told them that they had no idea what serving in an actually difficult post was like, comparing it to the regional city where he was based. Never mind the fact that almost every person at that highly desirable but still challenging post got there via a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I have neither respect for nor faith in MED’s mental health efforts. As long as MED is staffed with people who see mental health as an inconvenience, supported by State leadership (from the very top down) who barely pay lip service to mental health and a work-life balance, there’s no hope for anyone who suffers in the aftermath of an emotionally catastrophic tour abroad. At least there is solidarity among those who survived terrible times abroad.

Read in full the candid views from the filed via the Foreign Service Journal.

 

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Burn Bag: The new norm is four years of consular work until …

Via Burn Bag:

“My second tour bid list now confirms the old bait and switch is indeed true. I joined to do one job and will be confined to consular work for five years of my life. We are told it is all good for  professional development. In our large embassy consular section in Asia, only consular officers are invested in for CA trainings. No time is available for professional development and I hear third tour bidding won’t even promise us the chance to do what we joined the service to do. All we are told is to wait…five years…to do that job. We often question what it was that we joined the department to do in the first place. In the meantime old private sector friends have joined the Department in much higher and more interesting jobs than our own. Our promotions have slowed down and yet we are managed by mid-level officers who became managers overnight. AFSA, if they answer your email, claims they cannot address every issue at the Department. The new norm is four years of consular work, until the new norm is no longer four years of consular work.”

via Doctor Who Tumblr

via Doctor Who Tumblr

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Via careers.state.gov about Foreign Service assignments:

After you complete orientation and training in Washington, D.C., as a newly hired Foreign Service Officer, you will typically be assigned overseas, although at this time a few officers begin with a domestic assignment. Typically, the first two overseas tours (usually two years each) are designed to develop your talents in different working environments and ensure that you attain foreign language skills. You will hold a variety of positions within a probationary period (up to five years) in order to demonstrate your qualifications for tenure as a career Foreign Service Officer and to see if the Foreign Service is the right fit. As part of this process, you will perform two to three years on average of consular work, and should expect an assignment to at least one hardship post.

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How many people should be put through a wringer before, oh you know ….

Posted: 3:48 am EDT
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We’ve previously blogged about Foreign Service assignments to international organizations. FSOs who take up assignments in some of these organizations are excluded from promotion consideration in the Foreign Service (see Secondments to international organizations and promotions? Here comes the boo!).

We’ve been able to locate the FSGB case here (PDF), and the appeal case here (PDF).

Grievant filed his initial grievance with the Department on August 7, 2012,1 claiming that he was improperly excluded from promotion consideration by the 2008-2012 Selection Boards, during which time he was encumbering a position at the REDACTED. His assignment to REDACTED was effected by separation/transfer (“secondment,” according to Department usage) in the spring of 2007, and he exercised re-employment rights to return to agency rolls in 2012. Grievant claimed he believed he would remain eligible for promotion consideration during the REDACTED assignment, based on information contained in the Information Sheet that accompanied his Separation Agreement and on alleged assurances he received from Department Human Resources (HR) personnel. He claimed that shortly after he took the REDACTED assignment, he became aware that the Promotion Precepts exclude from review employees who have been separated/transferred to international organizations. Nonetheless, he claimed that the official notification of his assignment (SF-50 Personnel Action) assigned him to a status (the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai (MFO)) that specifically permits officers so assigned to remain eligible for promotion  consideration. He argued that instead of using the separation/transfer mechanism, the Department should have detailed him to REDACTED leaving him on Department rolls and eligible for promotion consideration during the assignment. Grievant argued that Department errors in documentation of his assignment, and its different explanations of its own regulations, amount to bad faith on the part of the Department.

The Department acknowledged inaccuracies in the original Department documentation and in its decision on grievant’s appeal, in which it claimed that grievant’s separation/transfer instead of a detail was “standard protocol” for cases such as grievant’s. […] Notwithstanding the inaccuracies in documentation, the Department argued that separating/transferring grievant to the was not a clear violation of agency policy in effect at the time, and there was no impediment to taking that action.[…] The agency argued, therefore, that its actions were not contrary to law, regulation or collective bargaining agreement, and that neither the SF-50 errors, nor the errors contained in the Information Sheet, alter grievant’s status. Finally, the agency claimed it is an established fact that grievant did not serve in the Sinai in the MFO, and he is not entitled to benefits afforded to officers who serve there.

The FSGB ruled that “Regardless of the reason(s) why an “incorrect” SF-50 was issued in the first place, the preponderance of the evidence supports the conclusion that the only SF-50 in the record was issued containing several errors, not the least of which is that grievant was assigned to the MFO in the Sinai – where we know he did not serve. We fail to see the manifest injustice based on grievant’s arguments in this respect that would constitute grounds for reconsideration of our March 19, 2014, decision.”

We understand that this grievant was actually assigned to OSCE but his SF-50 says he was assigned to MFO. No, the grievant did not prepare his own SF-50, silly :-).  Wondering why the SF-50 says MFO, and was never corrected. Was it intended as a work-around? If not, why was it never corrected the entire time the FSO was on assignment at an organization that was obviously not the MFO in the Sinai?

Standard Form 50, is the official form the government uses to calculate your retirement. Your SF-50s determine your retirement eligibility, your federal pension, and in this case, it also impacts promotion eligibility.

In any case, this is an expanding case not just in the Foreign Service Grievance Board (FSGB), but also with the  Office of Special Counsel and now in federal court.

The individual would not discuss his ongoing court case but here is what we got:

“I decided to raise this issue with the new AFSA Board, which came into office with much fanfare as the “Strong Diplomacy” slate. After more than a month of non-response, I finally received the following this morning from an AFSA Board member:

“With limited resources, AFSA is unable to pursue each and every dispute with management and must focus on those issues that have the greatest impact on our membership and most benefit the Foreign Service as a whole. I understand you have already pursued this issue with private counsel through the grievance process. Given other competing priorities, this is not an issue AFSA is going to pursue with management.”

In other words, although AFSA is aware of an ongoing and systematic violation of federal law on the part of Department management, it is choosing not to pursue the issue with management due to more pressing priorities, thus leaving dues-paying members to fend for themselves in the courts, at their own expense.”

It’s worth noting that the promotion precepts are negotiated and agreed annually between the State Department and AFSA. We’re not sure what to make of this. If an employee is not able to rely on its union for disputes like this, who can he/she rely on? Is there a threshold on how many people should be put through the wringer before AFSA takes it up with management?

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Secretary Kerry Swears-in Hans Klemm as U.S. Ambassador to Romania

Posted: 10:58 am EDT
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Secretary Kerry Congratulates Ambassador Klemm After Swearing Him in as the Next U.S. Ambassador to Romania U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulates the next U.S. Ambassador to Romania, Hans Klemm, after swearing him in during a ceremony at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on September 16, 2015. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Secretary Kerry Congratulates Ambassador Klemm After Swearing Him in as the Next U.S. Ambassador to Romania
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulates the next U.S. Ambassador to Romania, Hans Klemm, after swearing him in during a ceremony at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on September 16, 2015. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Certificate of Competency – Klemm, Hans – Romania – April 2015

The WH release the following brief bio when it announced the nomination on March 24, 2015

Hans G. Klemm, a career member of the Foreign Service, class of Minister-Counselor, is a Senior Advisor to the Under Secretary for Management at the Department of State, a position he has held since January 2015.  Previously, Ambassador Klemm served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department’s Bureau of Human Resources from 2012 to 2015.  Before that, he was Senior Coordinator for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 2012, and Senior Coordinator for Rule of Law and Law Enforcement at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012.  He also served as the U.S. Ambassador to Timor-Leste from 2007 to 2010.  Prior to that, Ambassador Klemm served as Minister-Counselor for Economic Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Japan from 2006 to 2007, and as Director and Deputy Director of the Office of Career Development in the Bureau of Human Resources from 2004 to 2006.  He was a participant in the Senior Seminar at the Department’s Foreign Service Institute from 2003 to 2004, Director of the Office of Agriculture, Biotechnology, and Textile Trade Affairs in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs from 2001 to 2003, and Deputy Director of the Office of European Union and Regional Affairs in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs from 2000 to 2001.  Ambassador Klemm’s earlier assignments with the Department of State included postings in Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Ambassador Klemm received a B.A. from Indiana University and an M.A. from Stanford University.

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