BY TANESHA T. DILLARD
Speaking Out is the Journal’s opinion forum, a place for lively discussion of issues affecting the U.S. Foreign Service and American diplomacy. The views expressed are those of the author; their publication here does not imply endorsement by the American Foreign Service Association. Responses are welcome; send them to email@example.com.
“If you don’t get along, you don’t belong.” This is how I summarize the message received during the first weeks into my dream job, the U.S. Foreign Service. “Corridor reputation” is an unofficial but espoused value of the State Department’s culture, according to Diplopedia. It is described as a person’s character, qualities, and interactions based on informal observations from colleagues not detailed in record. It is highly regarded, and for new hires it becomes a fixture in the lexicon of State Department lingo.
The corridor reputation conversation during orientation was uncomfortable. Despite the notion that you can have a positive corridor reputation, my orientation class was mostly warned of the opposite and its impact on one’s career. After the talk, we had a much-needed break that went on longer than the trainers anticipated. One of our trainers, who was the typical successful State Department extrovert, asked me to rally my colleagues back from the break.
Being an introvert and already outside my comfort zone, I failed miserably at this task. I saw the trainer’s annoyance with me, as she stepped in to get the job done. I felt the sting of what could become my corridor reputation immediately.
I internalized her response and my failure as incompetence that others would see, if not believe. Thereafter, whenever I passed this colleague in the corridors of the State Department, she wouldn’t acknowledge me or seemed annoyed by my presence. At least with her, I felt my corridor reputation was sealed and couldn’t be undone.
I passed all the requirements, certifications, tests, interviews, and clearances to be selected for this competitive position. Surely, if I qualified for the Foreign Service, didn’t I deserve to be here? Yet doubt set in as I grappled with corridor reputation and its importance to my onboarding. Later in my career, I realized that corridor reputation is equally, if not more, about perception than reality. This phenomenon exists in every organization, though its importance in personnel decisions may vary. As informal as it may be, the State Department has not only named it, but also embraced it. Not surprisingly, the criteria for assessing “corridor reputation” reflect the predominant values of the institution.
At State, the corridor reputation culture fails to support a genuinely collaborative workforce, and thus burdens members of minority groups, simply because while diversity is increasingly seen as a value, the importance of inclusion is not yet appreciated. The recent diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) initiatives give us a chance to change this for the better.
The State Department has been slow to understand the difference between diversity and inclusion. While diversity exists, it cannot thrive due to the lack of inclusion. Diversity is recruitment. Diversity is having different people in an organization. Diversity doesn’t address the need to make changes to support individuals that belong to marginalized groups. Inclusion is retention and representation in leadership. Inclusion is the acceptance of and continued desire to have a diverse community. And it’s the appreciation of what that diversity brings. It’s an openness to have a culture that reflects a diverse community.
Culture is developed through shared experiences and values over time. At State, the experiences of highly educated white men have set the tone and expectations of our culture for decades. They, therefore, defined what is acceptable in terms of character, qualities, and interactions in assessing one’s corridor reputation. The majority—who may not relate to minority groups based on gender, ethnicity, culture, racial history—set the standard for all, and while diversity is increasingly accepted, inclusion is not yet part of that standard.
Marginalized groups at State already experience the feeling of being under a microscope and the fear of being singled out, for better or worse. Many of us do not feel psychologically safe; our identities feel threatened. We are playing a game we don’t have a rulebook for and are constantly questioning and second-guessing our actions. We opt to not fully engage with peers. We lack the support, subsequently the confidence, to be authentic beyond our own social demographic.
Whether a new hire or later in a State Department career, most State employees do not want to go against the grain. Some of us are so busy trying to be seen as acceptable that independent thinking and creativity get lost. Concerns about our corridor reputation reinforce the need to be accepted by others, but at what cost? Whether to call out a wrong is no longer a question of doing the right thing. It’s a question of what implication it will have on your career, your corridor reputation. The more different you are, the greater the danger to speak out.
Earlier in my career, I recall several instances when peer assessments were being made casually in both professional and social settings about colleagues. When I attempted to add input, even if in agreement, I would be cut off and shut out. I quickly learned that majority observations were more valuable than mine. Giving that privileged observer greater validation, I hoped not to be identified as the difficult one but rather to be looked upon favorably. But I became keenly aware that I would only be seen as adding value if I supported the negative assessment of a colleague who was different like me.
This privilege can also be seen in meetings and the decision-making process. Though we are in the room or even at the table, some colleagues automatically get extra votes of support to our one. Rarely are there allies ensuring equity for all voices to be heard.
Many of us have lost confidence in our leaders, many of whom do not reflect the overall diversity within State. With a sense of powerlessness, there is an expectation that nothing will be done. Most will keep quiet. The others will only speak after reaching professional aspirations or leaving the State Department. And the brave will speak out at their own risk.
Corridor reputation was presented to me as an inward-looking reflection and self-controlled action. It was very black and white. Navigating as a woman of color, I remain inward, and it is debilitating at times. But for colleagues of the majority, I have seen corridor reputation as a tool for empowerment. It’s easier for them to be seen as acceptable and to look outwardly to control the narrative for themselves and others.
In my more than 10-year career span, I have experienced up and downs. This includes managing mental health, marriage, divorce, parenthood, and loss of family members. It also includes witnessing successes of family and friends and supporting family members battling cancer. I have experienced COVID, curtailment, medevacs, great supervisors, bad supervisors, rewarding tours, tours I wish to forget, the best and worst of colleagues. This is the beautiful yet common story for all of us. The problem is when only selected parts of you and short encounters are definitive of you and your corridor reputation.
Many of us own our corridor reputations, based on consistent experiences from different people. But do we question the people, context, or even the presence of bias? Like discrimination, the burden of corridor reputation belongs to everyone. However, it tends to weigh heavier on individuals that make the State Department diverse, who hope to feel included.
Despite receiving tenure and promotion, and being a reliable colleague, I believe my corridor reputation and the biases placed on me provide an opposing, if not incomplete, perspective. Wherever I work, I am often seen through the lenses of race and gender rather than my purpose to serve the American people. If I go into a position where my corridor reputation precedes me, people expect the me of years past. Trying to establish my present self is doubly exhausting and often defeating, especially with a new assignment.
Disenfranchised groups experience so much trauma in the United States. And at the State Department, even with the emergence of DEIA advancement as a priority, we still experience poor treatment. We associate being assigned less optimal opportunities, talked over in meetings, and questioned more than our peers as part of our being … different. Repeated experiences build up biases and expectations of how people will treat me. Assuming negative biases will be placed on me, I arrive on the job with a chip on my shoulder.
Doing my job seems less like a team effort and more like a daily tryout, trying to prove my value and potential to be on the team. I am forever grateful to the allies and individuals who have championed me and nurtured inclusive environments. I don’t know where my career goes from here, but my light within the State Department continues to dim. Despite this, the new DEIA initiatives taken by the State Department give me some hope.
The State Department struggles to support colleagues and fails to confront areas for improvement and to problem-solve. Supervisors are let off the hook of accountability, as bad behaviors are excused as character flaws. We avoid dealing with conflict and settle into our biases and comfort zone. Concern over corridor reputation leads to a culture of silence—silence on discrimination, bullying, mental health, bad employees and supervisors, and just about every issue DEIA is meant to address.
As noted in the Foreign Service Institute catalog, the course Mitigating Unconscious Bias “is a prerequisite for all of the mandatory leadership courses for all civil and foreign service employees.” If DEIA is a priority, we shouldn’t wait until later in our careers to learn about mitigating unconscious bias—and certainly not when corridor reputation is introduced in orientation.
In the unconscious bias course, we see that the ladder of inference shows how we come to conclusions on limited information, based on previous experiences and knowledge, even if it is not true. Unconsciously, we seek out confirmation of that story we created to validate it.
When we learn about corridor reputation, we aren’t advised on how to counter it or how to address possible bias presented in our observations of others and vice versa. Why should corridor reputation, often based on half-truths and rumors, and holding people against noninclusive standards, be a thing? We should be questioning our observations against reality. Whether unconscious bias is there or not, we should address it.
Let’s hold each other accountable for all things, including our biases that are deeply embedded in our personal experiences and State Department culture (Civil Service vs. Foreign Service, officers vs. specialists, locally employed staff vs. direct-hire American, etc.). While we push forward with new DEIA initiatives, it is time to critique, transform, and, if necessary, tear down historical components within the State Department where discrimination lives. The criteria for assessing corridor reputation must include DEIA as a fundamental value.
Corridor reputation should no longer be a priority; it should only be discussed in the context of mitigating unconscious bias. It would be profound to introduce mitigating unconscious bias in orientation as a declaration of the State Department’s true commitment to DEIA. It should be essential for new hires to know how to recognize and counteract biases prior to being dispatched into countries with cultural complexities of their own.
It would be powerful to teach and empower future diplomats to ask questions and challenge themselves and their colleagues. If we could do this for each other, imagine how much more effective we could be in American diplomacy and the world.
When sharing or linking to FSJ articles online, which we welcome and encourage, please be sure to cite the magazine (The Foreign Service Journal) and the month and year of publication. Please check the permissions page for further details.