Single people over the age of 18 are a growing demographic, but that isn’t the only reason State should be more mindful of its single employees.
BY NAUREEN NALIA
My first tour was in India, and after about 20 hours of traveling, I arrived in the early hours of the morning. I remember stepping into my new apartment jetlagged, anxious about the new job, and worried about my chronically ill cat making it through the journey. I was also grieving for my grandmother, who had lived in the same apartment complex as me for my entire childhood and whose recent loss had left me feeling unmoored.
The apartment in India was beautiful, but there was no soap to wash my hands or to shower off the dirt, sweat and germs that come with travel. I had diligently arranged my own transportation; but unfortunately, I was told at the last minute the car would not be available for the first three or four days after my arrival, leaving me stranded in housing that was at least 45 minutes away from other officers.
All the other entry-level officers were housed in the same complex, but I was alone in a distant suburb. I had no idea where to go on that first morning—the welcome book materials didn’t have any information about the area because I was the first person assigned to live there. But even if I had known, taxis were not recommended for women traveling alone. There had just been a horrific rape and murder of a woman on a bus, so that did not seem like a good option either. I was expected to be at work in a few hours to start my check-in process but had not made motor pool arrangements—I had not expected to need them.
Luckily, another officer came through and provided me with transportation; but it was not a great beginning to my first tour.
As a single woman in the United States, I was used to being able to manage for myself; but doing so in another country brought unexpected obstacles. The most challenging aspect has been the expectation to come into the office and often spend the entire day there, when your luggage may have been lost in transit, you may not have drinking water, or you have no food at home, and you are so jetlagged you have temporarily lost the language skills you learned at the Foreign Service Institute. Even if you can fill those needs at the office, it is difficult to go to work after hours of traveling and then come back and set up the house on your own. For single parents, coming into the office may mean you must make childcare arrangements or figure out how to get your child enrolled in a new school, because you don’t want to drag a jetlagged child to work with you.
There have been several cables in the last few years asking supervisors to give employees a couple of days’ leave upon arrival if requested, but there is still resistance. A high-level speaker told a recent A-100 class not to request leave upon arrival or they would suffer career repercussions; several of the members of the cohort started to wonder whether the Foreign Service was the job for them. The Singles at State employee organization showed them the cables supporting their right to make the request for leave, but as long as there are leaders opposed to such accommodation, cables will not be enough. Time off to adjust to being in a new country should be the norm, not something one has to fight for each time.
While COVID-19 quarantines alleviated some of the need to ask for leave, they brought new challenges to the transition process. It became more difficult to have parents or friends travel with officers to help with childcare, pet transportation or other aspects of making the transition as a single adult. If you were a single without eligible family members (EFMs), you were completely alone and unable to leave your home for the first two weeks in a new country, and that isolation was intensified if you didn’t have stable internet at home.
Singles with children now had little to no access to childcare, and therefore no assistance with balancing work and remote education. For those of us who deal with isolation by having pets, restrictions put in place by airlines and countries made traveling with them difficult at best, and often impossible. Some countries have lifted pandemic restrictions, but there are still many locations where restrictions remain or are reimposed every time cases increase. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made it more difficult and expensive to bring pets back to the United States regardless of COVID status.
As a single woman in the United States, I was used to being able to manage for myself; but doing so in another country brought unexpected obstacles.
There are people who argue that having pets, the ability to travel with people who are not EFMs and access to internet at home are not rights but privileges, and when we sign up for this job, we shouldn’t expect to have those privileges. That is a debate for another time—and as an employee organization (formerly known as an employee affinity group), Singles at State will strongly advocate against that viewpoint—but if the past two years have taught us anything, it is that we lose good people if we expect them to work without making any accommodations for their mental and emotional well-being.
Singles, especially Foreign Service officers, increasingly tell me they are seeking other employment, because it feels as if the Department of State does not want them or is not a good fit unless you have a stay-at-home spouse.
In a department that aims to be representative of the broader public we serve, single employees represent a key demographic. In 2017 the U.S. Census reported that there are 110.6 million unmarried people over the age of 18—that’s 45.2 percent of the American adult population. This large demographic is demanding a new set of societal norms. At State, single employees represent 25 percent of the direct-hire workforce.
If anyone wants to join us in working to make the department more inclusive toward singles, please reach out to SinglesatState@state.gov. Even if you don’t have the bandwidth to work on the employee organization, there are ways in which you can ensure that single employees feel welcome. Here are 10 insights about singles to help you do that:
1. We have the same social and downtime needs as people with families. Unless we leave post to travel home or have visitors in town, singles wake up alone every single holiday and birthday. If travel to and from post is difficult (as it has been everywhere during COVID), we singles could go an entire tour without ever seeing a human being who knew us before the beginning of this tour. By contrast, families don’t need to travel to see each other. That is why some of us might seem possessive or anxious about our R&R or vacation time. It also means that invitations to join group celebrations on actual holidays are especially meaningful and appreciated.
2. Not all singles are looking to marry/date/hook up. Some may be, but it is always better to not assume.
3. Even though we are single, the well-being of families and family members at post is important to us. Some of us intentionally choose the accompanied, rather than the unaccompanied, assignment because we have been at both and seek the atmosphere of a family post with healthy community morale.
4. Because the spouse community at post tends to be majority female, we watch how post leadership treats EFMs and from that draw conclusions about how much they value women overall.
5. Recognize that in many parts of the world, being a single woman limits your ability to develop contacts after hours. We have worked under leadership who complained that we didn’t do enough “night work” (meaning we were not out every night wining and dining contacts in the same way our male colleagues did). We do our share of contact development, but sometimes that is limited to daytime and in offices.
Time off to adjust to being in a new country should be the norm, not something one has to fight for each time.
6. The community liaison office coordinator (CLO) has traditionally been exclusively supportive of and engaged with people who have families at post. We have seen leadership open to change, and as things open up, we hope to see CLOs in the field become more inclusive and think about singles. A good way to do that would be to create a buddy system for wellness and mental health check-ins, because a lot of us worry about what will happen if we have a medical emergency or crisis when we are home alone.
7. Just because someone is single it doesn’t mean that they will automatically be friends with the other singles at post. Many of us try to socialize outside of the bubble, and single people don’t necessarily like single people just by virtue of their common singlehood!
8. Being single at post can be extremely isolating and lonely (especially, but not limited to, if you are a female office management specialist). This is also true of locally employed (LE) staff who may be from another part of the country or a third-country national. Similarly, being a single employee (Foreign Service or Civil Service) at Main State can be isolating in as much as many of us leave our families and friends to work on foreign policy issues in Washington, D.C.
9. Bidding is not easier for singles. While State denies it, the institution does give consideration to the fact that families have children in school, and that this may inform a certain bidding strategy and also affect permanent change of station (PCS) timings. It would be very much appreciated if State similarly understood that singles have certain criteria related to their unique situation when bidding and took that into consideration, too.
10. Given that we have no extra hands in our household, we would also appreciate at least one more admin day each for receiving household effects (HHE) and for packout.
While I have worked with many good officers who have families, the Department of State can only benefit by becoming a more flexible employer for those who don’t. It is because we love our work, and want our agency to be better, that singles formed our own group.
In response to a formal petition by Department of State employees, the Secretary’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion approved “Singles at State” as an official employee affinity group (now called employee organization) in 2021. Singles at State aims to increase awareness across the department about how norms and policies affect single employees (i.e., unmarried, divorced and widowed employees, including single parents, across race, gender, disability status, sexual orientation) and advocates for more inclusivity.
This group is open to all employees of the Department of State and interagency community, regardless of marital status. Join the Singles at State conversation on Teams.