It’s Not Just About Intake: A New Approach to Advancing Diversity

After 30 years, another round of the same measures will not do. It’s time to define the problems and seek new solutions.


Year after year, for more than 30 years, the State Department has rationalized increasing entrance rates of racial and ethnic minorities and women as the appropriate “flow through” mechanism whenever the issue of minority representation at the Senior Foreign Service level is raised. With historically low percentages of minorities in senior positions today, we see the inadequacy of this approach.

Back in 1988, in analyzing State’s 1987 affirmative action plan, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had indicated that the underrepresentation of minorities and women at middle and senior ranks of the Foreign Service was a major problem “which could not be directly resolved through entry level hiring of minorities and women, but rather through the internal movement or promotion of the individuals already employed” (as cited in the General Accounting Office’s June 1989 report, “State Department: Minorities and Women Are Underrepresented in the Foreign Service”).

Clearly, subsequent decades of focused recruitment and hiring efforts of racial and ethnic minorities and women have still not aligned the Foreign Service to reflect our diverse population, as required by the Foreign Service Act of 1980. That rationale and process are flawed. Starting from today, it would take 10 full years of consistent intake of minorities and women in the proportion in which they are represented in the population for their representation in the State Department to be at parity. And that level can only be reached if Congress authorizes hiring surges at the same levels as during the terms of former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But the fact is, bringing in large numbers of diverse officers will not transform the Foreign Service. For that we must look deep into the factors that discourage retention of minorities and women. Coddling bad management, perpetuating a broken bidding process and valuing self-promotion over neutral analysis in the evaluation process have all led to a flawed Foreign Service, one that does not look like America. If State is to do better, it must have an honest conversation about these factors.

Bad Managers

At the heart of many State Department problems is bad management and, in particular, a permissive attitude toward bad managers. The human psyche rarely permits behavior and attitudes stemming from one’s own social group to subside. Thus tribalism will crush equity and inclusive treatment of underrepresented groups if the culture itself is led by the majority.

When the first line of defense for this country does not feel supported, valued and empowered, it is a national security concern. Therefore, it is critical that the State Department protect such groups from the tyranny of emboldened individuals who seek to extinguish the respect, empowerment and progression of officers. By remaining quiet, our leadership is complicit.

The fact is, bringing in large numbers of diverse officers will not transform the Foreign Service.

Like many minority colleagues, I have experienced managers harassing subordinates to crush dissent without any accountability for their actions. These inherently biased leaders, hand-picked and enabled by their chain of command, are a sickness within the organization. They and their enablers use their power to weaponize the corridor reputation and the employee evaluation review process to suppress officers into silence. Those who do speak up are met by tone-deaf senior leaders. In rare cases, these senior leaders reward the loyalty of officers for “sticking through it quietly,” and offer “nicer” onward assignments instead of reporting to the Office of Employee Relations for punitive actions to disincentivize the perverse practice.

While the Office of the Ombudsman and the Office of Civil Rights are equipped with tools to support equality in the workplace, the impact of such processes is not to reduce discriminatory behavior but rather to resolve a particular issue. If no responsibility is assumed and punitive efforts are not made, bad managers are free to continue their reckless behavior.

Bidding: It’s Who You Know

Bidding is another area where I see that the State Department prefers order and past practice to an honest assessment of the process and where it goes wrong. The department tells us we are “generalists,” yet the Career Development and Assignments division has never controlled the bidding process to ensure we all meet our promotion requirements once we reach mid-level. We are asked to dance around 360s, résumés and employee profiles in search of that golden handshake. Yet by following this process, minorities and women frequently encounter closed doors.

The bidding process is supposedly transparent and fair. However, it is not exactly based on merit. Instead, assignment selection is based on who you know and when you met them. Bureau chiefs want their friends. And the only way to break into a bureau where no one knows who you are is by having specialized knowledge. Hiring managers rarely offer an assignment to someone from another skill set who does not already have the experience. So why are we called generalists?

Calls to reform the bidding process have been heard for decades. Except for consular-coned officers, there is a practical career disparity—meaning everyone’s experiences vary greatly— between the various generalist career tracks and how bureaus control and manage hiring. This disparity could be mitigated by centralizing the bidding process to CDA, so that both officers and advisers can truly manage career growth and assignment mobility. Because bureaus refuse to relinquish power and positions, we are forced to specialize our skill set to appropriately align our careers with the real needs of the Service. But even if we simply began specializing, the bidding process still needs to change, because the employee experience is a measure of inclusion, and those who do not have a strong network—mainly minorities, women and third-tour officers—are disproportionately disadvantaged.

While I see advantages in centralizing bidding, I believe a great option would be to launch a matching algorithm that considers all the experience, interests and remaining professional requirements of the officer in relation to positions within various bureaus. Hiring managers would then receive a short list produced by the algorithm and be required to interview everyone on that list. Such a process and system would greatly improve the experience, merit and transparency of the bidding process.

At the heart of many State Department problems is bad management and, in particular, a permissive attitude toward bad managers.

Employee Evaluation and Self-Promotion

The Foreign Service employee evaluation is an annual exercise of “walking on water,” which benefits white men because their culture of entitlement and privilege facilitates self-promotion, while minorities and women are less likely to self-advocate. Inflexibility in the process is designed to maintain the status quo and not consider gender and cultural differences when evaluating performance. The department’s desire to sustain what has existed for decades will never progressively move the organization’s culture toward supporting all groups.

To contribute fully, minorities and women must see a proportional flow of mobility within the ranks, starting with tenure. According to an official I spoke with recently, there is ample and strong statistical evidence that demonstrates minorities and women in every category are given tenure at much lower rates compared to white men. Why is it that minorities and women achieve tenure at much lower rates compared to white men? Where, exactly, in the tenure review process are minorities and women experiencing greater difficulty?

In general, self-promotion is extremely important for career advancement, whether within the department or externally. The ability to promote oneself skillfully is a learned talent, and I do not call for disincentivizing the behavior. I also do not believe anonymizing the evaluation process will greatly overcome the gender and cultural differences in the tone and custom of how underrepresented groups promote themselves. I do, however, advocate developing a completely new evaluation process and system. The current process was established in the 1980s, and its design is antiquated.

The evaluation process is designed to look at past contributions to determine future success and readiness for promotion. But research shows people are inconsistent in rating other people’s skills, while they are not so inconsistent in rating their own actions. If promotion is based on identifying the future capacity of officers to lead, inspire and innovate, then the entire evaluation system needs to reflect that.

Based on the “core precepts,” officers’ evaluations should not focus on knowledge, skills and proficiencies, but rather look to the future and potential of each officer. The evaluations should address questions such as these: Did the rated employee have a chance to develop skills useful for advancement, and use their strengths and talents in the assignment to drive the mission forward? How did the rated employee demonstrate capacity for leadership?

In addition, the rating and reviewing officials themselves must be evaluated on how they develop and mentor the officers they supervise. The evaluation for their sections should address questions such as these: How did the rating and reviewing officials facilitate growth and development of the rated employee? What substantive and/or institutional knowledge have the rating and reviewing officials contributed to the development of the rated employee?

If promotion is based on identifying the future capacity of officers to lead, inspire and innovate, then the entire evaluation system needs to reflect that.

Managers would need to be trained on how to develop employees and properly assess the leadership and leadership potential of those they supervise. The subtle shift here is in asking what did the supervisor do with their team, not what did the manager think of the employee. While this requires a cultural shift, doing so increases the effectiveness and value of the performance management structure for all, and truly places managers in a position to lead, coach and inspire their staff. That’s what leadership is all about, right?

Where Are the Barriers?

Issues relating to promotion and diversity within the State Department were reviewed in 2019 by the Government Accountability Office. The resulting January GAO report, “Additional Steps Are Needed to Identify Potential Barriers to Diversity,” highlights the statistical relationships between promotion and minority and gender status and the extent to which the department has identified any barriers to diversity in its workforce. The report documented that the odds of promotion from FS-4 to FS-3 were 12.8 percent lower for minorities than whites. The department commented on GAO’s report, stating that the high Pickering and Rangel attrition rates at FS-4 “skew” the promotion statistics to show a lower promotion rate for minorities entering the FS-3 rank.

How could minority fellows statistically distort the promotion rates from FS-4 to FS-3 if roughly 60 Pickering and Rangel Fellows, who are not all minorities but include white men and women as well, enter A-100 each year? If we look at the attrition rate for fellows it is close to 10 percent, while the rate for the entire Foreign Service fluctuates between 2 and 3 percent annually. Although the rate may be three times higher for fellows than non-fellows, do not focus your attention here. Because the total number of fellows is small, exactly two fellows need to leave each year for the fellows’ attrition rate to be greater than the Service’s attrition rate.

But for the department’s response to be correct—namely that the fellows’ attrition rate has caused the noise in promotion rates—the number of departed minority fellows would need to be disproportionately higher than the number of departed non-fellow minorities. At a 10 percent attrition rate, six fellows leave a year. In comparison, near the 2 percent attrition rate, exactly 183 officers left the Foreign Service in 2019, of which 43 were minorities (see the EEOC Fiscal Year 2019 Foreign Service Management Directive 715 Work Force Tables). The baseline numbers prove that the department’s assertion is incorrect. As a matter of fact, GAO modeled its data on the total number of employees in the Foreign Service, thus accounting for all generalist and specialist minorities and women.

The department’s response completely obfuscated a possible real issue—namely, that promotion to FS-3 constitutes a barrier for minorities. The department must take a hard look at the internal factors that truly affect minorities and women in the workforce, and must provide more data and be transparent in communicating correlation anomalies and advancement barriers.

By omission, the department has thrown a wrench in the wheel of efforts to sustain diversity gains. After decades without tangible evidence that minorities and women officers in the Service collectively enjoy empowerment and progression, now is the time to officially declare retention a problem and actively address the inadequacies within the culture that do not encourage us to stay.

Patrice Johnson has served as a Foreign Service officer for 14 years and is currently on sabbatical. Her previous position was as executive director for the Office of Foreign Missions. Prior to that, she served in various operations roles in Washington, D.C., as well as in consular and political roles abroad in El Salvador, Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Spain. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.