Tandem Couples: Serving Together, Apart

Two tandems discuss some of the unique challenges they face.


Representative of the larger society, Foreign Service families come in all forms, each with its own unique challenges. The dynamic of the modern family has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. The percentage of family members working outside the home has steadily increased. More and more possess professional degrees and experience in a variety of fields. Not surprisingly, they possess traits similar to those of their Foreign Service spouses. In the face of these changes, have Foreign Service policies supporting the modern family kept pace?

For tandem couples—the term for families in which both spouses are members of the Foreign Service—the answer to this question is a resounding no. Little has changed since The New York Times published an article in 1986 titled “State Department; Till Reassignment Do Us Part?” describing the challenges facing tandem couples of that era. Being able to be assigned together was and still is the greatest challenge plaguing the members of any tandem couple. The threat of having to split up their family and children remains ever-present.

While the concerns of tandem couples can also include compensation and benefits, this article focuses on the assignments process because it directly affects not just the couple’s respective careers, but also the stability and integrity of their nuclear family.

A Relentless Game of Chance

During every bidding cycle, tandem couples place their fate in a complex game of chance that involves the availability of positions overlaid on the varied needs of several departments and agencies, hundreds of posts, and dozens of regional and functional bureaus. If a tandem couple have spent years hedging their bets and get lucky, they may end up with both members assigned to the same post at around the same time. But this euphoria lasts only until the couple realize that they need to start hedging their bets for the next round of roulette.

To increase their chances of serving together, tandem couples utilize a variety of strategies during the bidding process passed down in the form of advice, guidance and mentorship from the tandems that went before them. These strategies include: learning common languages; being interested in common regions; getting and staying on the same bidding cycle; and considering commuter posts, up- and down-stretches, out-of-cone assignments, Domestic Employee Teleworking Overseas assignments, excursion opportunities at other agencies, hard-to-fill posts, unaccompanied tours and leave without pay (LWOP).

The last two strategies don't even meet the litmus test of serving together. Accepting an unaccompanied tour asks a tandem couple to split up temporarily in order to increase its chances of getting back together in the subsequent bidding cycle. Similarly, having one member of a tandem accept LWOP achieves the goal of staying together but fails with respect to serving together; one member of the family is left unemployed and without benefits, and the family’s income sources are effectively halved. Likewise, recent policies prohibiting tandem members on LWOP from joining the Foreign Service Family Reserve Corps or from applying for certain Expanded Professional Associates Program positions have effectively eliminated most employment opportunities at posts.

We believe that with some shared effort, creative thinking and structural policy changes, the Foreign Service could usher in a healthier and more stable era for tandem couples.

The reality is that utilizing any or all of these strategies may not even result in a tandem couple serving together. They are options available to all employees that just happen to also possibly increase the chances of a tandem couple serving together. What they are not is an explicit and coherent assignments policy or process for tandem couples.

Tandem couples are not trying to circumvent the worldwide availability requirement. They acknowledge that directed assignments are not limited to entry-level employees but are also possible for mid-level and senior-level employees, as witnessed during the wars of the past decade. They understand and accept that they, like all their peers, may have to shoulder one of these directed assignments that may necessitate serving in an unaccompanied capacity.

In fact, one could argue that the unofficial motto of most tandems is, “It’s not a matter of where we serve … so long as we can serve together.” Just like everyone else, we signed up for worldwide availability, not worldwide separation—especially separation that is not directed and is based solely on the luck of the bidding draw.

How About Some Assurance?

What responsibility, if any, should the Foreign Service have in keeping members of a tandem couple assigned together, assuming that there are no extenuating circumstances precluding them from serving together (e.g., anti-nepotism and nondiscrimination provisions, medical clearance restrictions, security considerations or post unaccompanied status)?

For the last five years, Foreign Service senior management has been renewing its commitment to tandem couples and family placement, reiterating the importance and advantages of couples working together at post. But does this rhetoric translate into an effective policy? Many tandem couples would argue that it does not.

During every bidding cycle, tandem couples place their fate in a complex game of chance.

Under its current standard operating procedure for the assignment of tandem couples, the Department of State commits to making “every reasonable effort to help both members of a tandem couple find positions at the same post” so long as these efforts do not violate other existing policies. While this sounds nice, helping does nothing to spare the tandem couple from the ever-looming threat of long-term geographic separation.

It is the phrasing of the next sentence that is striking: “While helping tandem couples pursue a joint assignment, the [State] Department will also ensure that other members of the Foreign Service receive equal consideration for the positions in question.” Why is it not possible for the department to ensure—rather than merely “help” with—tandem joint assignments while also ensuring equal consideration of all positions?

We believe that it is. We believe that with some shared effort, creative thinking and structural policy changes, the Foreign Service could usher in a healthier and more stable era for tandem couples in the form of an explicit assignments policy and process for them.

The Challenge of Tour Lengths

One element of the bidding process that is particularly challenging for tandem couples is tour lengths. It is noteworthy that while the foreign affairs agencies affirm that they would like to keep families together wherever possible, one of the most foundational components of the bidding process undercuts that goal.

Assignments for State employees are generally two years at the entry level and two or three years at the mid-level. Assignments for USAID employees are typically four years (two positions, two years each at one post), although some are just two years. Foreign Commercial Service tours last three years, while those for the Foreign Agricultural Service range from three to four years.

Mix in tour lengths for the Broadcast Board of Governors, the curious fact that more than half of the positions for security officers—who outnumber all other cones except political—are not even foreign but domestic, varying language and training requirements, and a host of other assignment peculiarities, and you may start to appreciate the level of complexity in bidding as a tandem couple. Extensions, curtailments and separations are not the exception; they are the rule.

Is the alleged mountain of anti-nepotism and nondiscrimination provisions merely a molehill?

The solution is to standardize tour lengths across all agencies and departments, allowing posts to determine the tour length that is optimal for them given a fixed set of objective criteria. Tour lengths for entry-level employees can remain shorter than mid- and senior-level employees; but standardize them throughout the entire Foreign Service.

Currently, when a tandem couple receives staggered assignments, one of them must request an extension or curtailment to align their tours. Instead, automatically align the tour ending dates for members of the tandem couple, eliminating the need for the couple to submit the extension or curtailment request. Once the tandem’s second member arrives at post, both officers would arrange with post management to align their tour dates.

If the post insists on keeping their tour ending dates staggered, then the onus is on the post to submit a request for non-curtailment or non-extension to Washington, explaining why they want to place an undue burden on the family by forcing a separation. Should Washington concur with post’s request, the period of separation would become akin to a directed assignment.

These basic structural changes to tour lengths would reduce some of the frustration felt by many tandem couples by minimizing the likelihood of separation.

“Two Is One, One Is None”

Beyond tour lengths, the core challenge is the availability of assignments. The directive nature of the Department of Defense’s assignments process, in comparison to the selective nature of the Foreign Service’s assignments process, allows DOD to be much clearer and more definitive in its approach to assigning tandem couples. To the question of whether federal departments should have a responsibility to assign tandem couples together, the Department of Defense’s answer is a resounding yes—so much so that the title of its tandem assignments policy is “Joint Domicile.”

Foreign Service senior management has a different perspective. Given a selective assignments process where employees bid on available positions and posts select individuals from a list of interested candidates, all available positions should be open to all qualified employees, without special treatment for any, including tandem couples. But is the alleged mountain of anti-nepotism and nondiscrimination provisions merely a molehill? How could the Foreign Service ensure tandem couples are assigned jointly to posts, while at the same time not disenfranchising married or single non-tandems in the bidding process?

Assignment of Tandem Couples

State Department Standard Operating Procedure, Revised November 2015—A Summary

A career or career candidate Foreign Service employee whose spouse or same-sex domestic partner is a career or career candidate FS employee of one of five foreign affairs agencies is part of a “tandem couple.” The State Department aims to make reasonable efforts to help both members of a tandem couple find appropriate positions at the same post. The State Department intends to ensure no advantage or disadvantage to members of tandem couples.

Assignments: Each member of a tandem must ensure that their Employee Profiles reflect this status by submitting an OF-126 through HROnline. Each partner should notify their career development officer (CDO) in writing of their intent to bid as a tandem. CDOs will provide guidance on bidding and long-term career planning as part of a couple.

  • A member of a tandem employed by another foreign affairs agency should consult with both State’s CDO and their own.
  • Candidates should inform prospective bureaus if bidding as a tandem.
  • Entry-level officers (ELOs) are considered the “lead bidder” when bidding with a mid- or senior-level partner because of their lower level of flexibility due to tenure requirements.
  • Only one member of a tandem may choose “with family” status prior to departure to the same post; dependent children appear on only one employee’s order. Couples may not transfer “with family” status until the end of a tour.

Tour of Duty: If TOD lengths differ, HR/CDA may approve an extension/curtailment for one employee (Cohen Rule). Extensions cannot exceed a post’s maximum TOD. Bear in mind that curtailment for synchronization may result in repayment requirements.

  • If one partner is an ELO, the TOD for the mid- or senior-level partner will often be adjusted to coincide with that of the ELO. This is not done automatically, and the mid- or senior-level partner must negotiate this under the Cohen Rule.
  • Direct transfers for the purposes of synchronization are not approved without presentation of compelling circumstances.

Alternatives to Joint Assignments: Alternatives include differing assignments, a Domestic Employee Teleworking Overseas (known as DETO) arrangement, detail to another agency, language study at FSI (Muller Rule), or Leave Without Pay (LWOP). Consult Diplopedia for information on commuter posts.

  • A member of a tandem may go on LWOP for the duration of their partner’s TOD, requesting extensions as needed. He/she may also compete for appropriate vacant positions at post, or be directed into positions if there is an overwhelming need and the position remains unfilled after a reasonable period.
  • He/she may accept another paying federal position provided the original remains on non-pay status. They may also accept assignments at post open to EFMs; this is not considered a formal return from LWOP.

Nepotism: Tandem employees should be aware of anti-nepotism regulations. Actions that affect or benefit or appear to benefit a relative’s career are prohibited. You may not supervise a relative. Duplication of travel, benefits or allowances is not authorized for tandems.

  • The Meaning of Paneling Remarks—
    • Tandem, No Issues: Indicates timing and other issues have been considered and the assignment can move forward. Confirm with your CDO.
    • Panel in Principle (PIP): Indicates that timing issues are unresolved for mid- or senior-level overseas assignments. If an appropriate assignment cannot be arranged, you may request breaking the PIP’d assignment.
    • Cohen Rule: The TOD of the non-entry level member is adjusted to synchronize bidding cycles.
  • ELOs may not appeal directed assignments (3 FAH-1 H-2425.8-6).
  • The assignment of a third employee may not be broken to accommodate the assignment of a tandem couple.

—Shannon Mizzi,
Editorial Assistant

Here is one possible solution. Tandem couples already have to designate one member as the primary bidder. That person’s bidding, assignment and career take precedence over the spouse’s, and the couple can change the primary designation every bidding cycle. When an entry-level employee has a mid-level spouse, the career of the untenured employee automatically takes precedence.

Building on this process, begin by treating tandem couples as one bidding unit. One member of the tandem—the primary—participates in the bidding process, while the other member of the tandem does not and silently accepts their joint fate. Once the primary member of the tandem is paneled for the next assignment, there are two possible ways to accommodate the other member of the tandem.

The first option would be to create a separate pool of positions that are held in reserve with the Bureau of Human Resources. When a post has selected the primary member of the tandem couple and does not have a vacant position to accommodate the partner, it can request one of the positions from the pool to be temporarily transferred for the duration of the tandem couple’s assignment. At the end of that assignment, the position returns back to the pool for use by another post. The second option would be to forgo the reserve pool of positions and simply allow the tandem partner to double-encumber an appropriate position at post for the duration of the couple’s assignment.

The number of reserve-pool or double-encumbered positions available to a post could be capped at one for posts with 10 or fewer direct hires, two for posts with 11 to 20 direct hires, and so on. The tandem couple could also opt out of this method and bid separately on positions at the same or different posts for the purposes of career advancement. They might even be required to do so because of anti-nepotism provisions.

The current method of treating the tandem couple as two distinct bidders forces its members to sell themselves as a pair, shopping for locations that have the need and desire for both members, usually with one or even both sacrificing career advancement. Tandems not only have to concern themselves with their own corridor reputation but that of their partner. They are keenly aware that their marital status significantly influences their careers, regardless of how many people parrot that the federal government cannot discriminate on grounds of one’s marital status. So long as the bidding and lobbying process involves humans making deliberate (not blind) decisions rooted in corridor reputations, offices will always know which bidders are members of tandem couples.

Treating the members of a tandem couple as one bidding unit puts them on an even playing field with both their married and single non-tandem colleagues.

The central argument presented in this article is to treat the source problem—the absence of a policy that ensures tandems remain together—with a viable and lasting solution rather than continuing to write policies that treat the symptoms.

Treat the Problem, Not the Symptoms

The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review says that the federal government takes “work-life balance seriously and will continue to support our employees as they balance their commitment to service with personal wellness and family life. Work-life balance is critical to retaining the best talent.” It is time for senior management to not only say these words but to take substantive action.

The central argument presented in this article and reflected in the preceding recommendations is to treat the source problem—the absence of a policy that ensures tandems remain together—with a viable and lasting solution rather than continuing to write policies that treat the symptoms.

Discussions about alternative employment options such as LWOP or EPAP—of which the former is not even employment and the latter is no longer an option—in lieu of tandem members actually serving as the officers and specialists that they are, only further shelves the discussion about the source problem.

With some shared effort, creative thinking and structural policy changes, we believe all Foreign Service departments and agencies are capable of adopting the following position:

The [Agency Name] will ensure that tandem couples are assigned to the same post should they desire to remain together, so long as their assignment does not supplant otherwise applicable regulations and practices (e.g., anti-nepotism and nondiscrimination provisions, medical clearance restrictions, security considerations or post unaccompanied status).

Fred Odisho joined the Foreign Service as a political-coned officer in January 2014, a few months after his tandem spouse joined. After being separated for their first four years in the Foreign Service, he is looking forward to reuniting with her in the summer of 2017 for their second assignment. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he spent 18 years with the U.S. Army and still serves today as a reservist.

Whitney Dubinsky joined the Foreign Service in 2010 through USAID’s Development Leadership Initiative. After two years of being unable to find meaningful employment at post, her spouse joined the Foreign Service in 2014. They travel the world with their 3-year-old son, without whom neither can live.