Boomerang Diplomats? Another Look at Reappointment

Speaking Out


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Workforce changes across the U.S. economy in recent years have made it more common than ever for so-called “boomerang” workers to return to previous employers. A growing literature suggests that these employees bring a number of benefits.

Those who return are generally more satisfied than employees who never left, presumably because they know the exact hue of the grass on the other side. They are significantly cheaper to onboard and already know the organizational structure and culture. In certain types of roles, they seem to perform better.

This is why well-meaning family and friends were befuddled by how much I agonized over whether to leave the Foreign Service last year for an exciting new opportunity. “But you can always go back, right?” they frequently asked. The answer for most Foreign Service officers (FSOs) up to this point, as many readers of this journal will know, is no.

That may be about to change.

Current Policy: A Product of Culture and Process

There has long been a theoretical path back into the Foreign Service. But as implemented, the policy has actively discouraged reentry. The Foreign Service Act of 1980 (as amended) allows for the reappointment of former FSOs when it meets the needs of the Foreign Service.

The Bureau of Global Talent Management (GTM) has historically interpreted this to mean: (1) there must be a deficit of employees in the grade and skill code of the position to be filled, (2) there must be no active bidders to fill the position, and (3) the position must remain unassigned for 30 days or more after the opening of the stretch assignment season.

There are additional restrictions, including a requirement to serve a directed assignment upon reentry. And reappointment has to be sought within five years of resigning (extended to eight years for those employed in the Civil Service).

Furthermore, when applications have been open in recent years, the skill codes with deficits have been limited to some specialists and consular-coned generalists. In effect, reappointment has not been a viable option for the majority of FSOs. This begs the question, why?

Culturally, an FSO career is viewed as an apprenticeship. The assumption has long been that FSOs will start at entry level and serve a 20-year career, much as the assumption once was that employees would spend a full career span at a single company. Department workforce planning models are still based on this underlying assumption.

The assumption has long been that FSOs will start at entry level and serve a 20-year career.

Process also drives policy. Reappointment affects a very small group. While major initiatives like changes to the oral exam are hotly debated, reappointment has been a sideshow, with commensurate resources and attention allocated to it. There is no dedicated reappointment team in GTM. The current process for bureaus to get needed staff through reappointment is reportedly so onerous that they typically opt for other, more well-trodden paths to fill their vacancies.

Now multiple individuals with insight into the process tell me that reappointment is getting a makeover. The website was updated in March to announce an open season until June 30 for all skill categories at the FS-2 level and below to express interest in reappointment. This will help the department gauge the size of the latent demand for reentry.

In addition, GTM is purportedly updating the standard operating procedure (SOP) with an eye to making it smoother to rejoin and is looking to staff that effort appropriately.

Why Bother?

With so many competing HR demands, three things make reappointment worth the effort: strengthening retention and diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA), upskilling the department’s mid-levels, and embracing incremental positive change.

Strengthening retention and DEIA. Following broader post-COVID-19 pandemic trends, department employees are demanding greater flexibility. Although the department has made strides in this regard, former Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Brian McKeon said internal workforce surveys show that “significant numbers” of employees are thinking of leaving. He noted that unsatisfied demands for flexibility are a factor in retention, a finding that prompted the creation of an Office of Retention. (On a personal note, after announcing my resignation, I was shocked by the number of FSOs who asked to speak with me privately, telling me they were also considering leaving.)

A 2021 Harvard Kennedy study found that although attrition may not appear higher, disaggregated rates reveal that women and racial and ethnic minorities were leaving the department at a higher rate. For some former FSOs with whom I spoke, leave without pay (LWOP) as it now exists would have helped them stay (it was extended to three years under former DG Carol Perez).

Greater LWOP flexibility has been a perennial recommendation to address DEIA and other workforce flexibility goals and is a useful analogue to reappointment. Just as consensus has emerged that a more generous LWOP policy is a retention measure (rather than a flight risk), a liberal reappointment policy would allow the department to retain some employees who need more flexibility to complete full careers in the Foreign Service.

Needs of the Service. In a speech at the Foreign Service Institute in October 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid out areas in which the department needs more expertise: climate, global health, cyber security and emerging technologies, economics, and multilateral diplomacy.

Following his lead, the Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of GTM Marcia Bernicat said last year that State needs upskilling in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and new technology. Similarly, the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) prioritized the role of science and technology in the exercise of diplomacy.

Unsatisfied demands for flexibility are a factor in retention, a finding that prompted the creation of an Office of Retention.

Much of this expertise is going to come from new specialized positions in the Civil Service. But leadership has been clear that the Foreign Service also needs skill modernization.

There is extremely limited mid-career entry into the Foreign Service, mostly through Civil Service to Foreign Service conversion (as of this writing, a pilot lateral entry program at State, mandated by the NDAA, has not yet begun). That means that the upskilling the Secretary and DG call “critical to our national security in the years ahead” needs to take place primarily within the current ranks.

Hiring entry-level officers with the desired skills is an important part of this effort. But in 10 years, those same skills will, in turn, need to be renewed; there is a perpetual need for updated capabilities at the mid-ranks. This is why training has been such a prominent element of reform efforts.

Take, for instance, the push to revamp economic and commercial training. State has a number of programs to allow FSOs, mostly in the economic cone, to spend a brief stint in the private sector, like the Eagleburger Fellowship and six-month practicums after economic training.

Prioritization of these kinds of programs shows that private sector experience is increasingly necessary for top performance by those FSOs. Reappointment would be an additional cost-effective way to get people with the desired experience at the mid-ranks.

Incremental change is still change. According to GTM’s 2020 workforce data (the latest year released publicly), roughly 50 FSOs per year on average are voluntarily separating for reasons other than retirement. Most of them presumably don’t ever seek reappointment. So changing the policy will not solve the department’s upskilling issues, but for that matter neither will it break the system.

While sometimes we need the kind of big thinking involved in blue-sky proposals like a Foreign Service reserve, most institutional improvement happens as piecemeal incremental change. Expanded reappointment is one such small step. For many of the needed changes, such as current moves to remove skill code and grade restrictions, all that is required is a change to the SOP. Foreign Affairs Manual changes would be sufficient for much of the rest.

How to Stick the (Return) Landing

The department is in the early days of rethinking the process for reappointment, and many policy elements have not yet been settled. Time limits for seeking reappointment, ways to recognize experience gained while away, and the interests of employees who stayed all appear to be under consideration.

Let’s be honest, there are some possible pitfalls to welcoming former employees back. If they have not interrogated their own motivations, the reasons they left the first time may sow the seeds for another departure. Policies may change while employees are away, so they will need reorientation and mentorship to help them reintegrate and reach full performance.

The department is in the early days of rethinking the process for reappointment, and many policy elements have not yet been settled.

And the department needs to be careful not to treat the returning employee as the “prodigal son,” showering them with benefits to the resentment of employees who stayed. To that point, one contentious discussion is whether reappointees should be granted rank or grade increases commensurate with experience gained while away.

AFSA representatives have told me that while support for more liberal reappointment is quite high among their members, support for pay or rank increases for returnees is low. There are reasoned arguments for and against, but I predict that the ultimate decision will be to offer reappointment at the same grade and step the employee reached before they exited.

The department could find other ways to incentivize those with the most in-demand skills to return. One idea would be to award points toward rehiring for experience gained while away, much like language proficiency points are used on the A-100 register. Another would be to waive the requirement to serve a directed assignment for those with the most-needed skills.

A related concern is that officers would use reappointment to sit out administrations or policies they dislike. With the caveat that my sample is nonrepresentative, all the FSOs I connected with who had considered or sought reappointment had resigned principally for family reasons or professional opportunities, not partisan protest. It would be more likely that senior policymakers would return via a different avenue, given that reappointment is envisioned for FS-2 and below.

Building an Alumni Ethos

I loved my years in the Foreign Service, but I don’t plan to seek reappointment. Why, you might ask, do I still care enough to spend my free time dissecting what some see as an esoteric personnel policy?

From day one, I knew that serving my country was an immense privilege. And despite no longer being employed by the State Department, I am still representing the Service.

Hardly a week goes by that I don’t have a call with a young person considering a career with the department, speak on a panel where I’m asked about my time overseas, or connect with former colleagues or contacts looking for advice.

More than a “former FSO,” I am a department alumna. I have seen this sense of loyalty and belonging replicated in dozens of other alumni who left for myriad reasons. For myself, and for them, it would be an honor to see behind us an open door to serving at our alma mater again, even if most of us never step through it.

Sonnet Frisbie was an economic-coned Foreign Service officer from 2009 to 2022. Her assignments included Mexico, the Czech Republic, Iraq, Poland, and Washington, D.C. She is currently the lead geopolitical risk analyst for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa for Morning Consult. Her analysis and commentary have been featured in The New York Times, Bloomberg, Axios, The Financial Times, Politico, and more.

A sincere thank you from the author to AFSA, the State Department Bureau of Global Talent Management, and all the former and current Foreign Service officers who shared their experience and expertise for this piece.


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