The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2024

FAS VP VOICE | BY LISA AHRAMJIAN AFSA NEWS 42 JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2024 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Contact: | (202) 841-7744 It’s Not All Unicorns and Rainbows? I’ve often imagined, had Dr. Seuss been married to an FSO, he would have had a heyday with our performance evaluations: As they seek to advance, Godlike claims start to prance. They make doozies go poof, They make wins hit the roof! Had they not had the skill, Agri trade would be nil! A fault? A flaw? A temper flare? Not here, not there, not anywhere! Oh did they succeed? Yes indeed, yes indeed! Ninety-nine and four-quarters percent guaranteed! Levity aside, many FSOs deliver exceptional results in challenging conditions and deserve commendation and advancement. It is also understandable that the Foreign Service culture (in all agencies) evolved this way since we only advance when we stand out in comparison to our peers. However, some performance evaluations equate FSOs to magical unicorns who transform impossible situations into beautiful rainbows of meaningful success, even when that doesn’t mirror reality. It is unfair to ask the promotion boards to make critical differentiations in a sea of glowing statements with only subtly nuanced differences. It’s not a surprise that most rating and reviewing officials are palpably uncomfortable with even mentioning an FSO’s identified deficiency—even when it is glaring. This long-standing norm is unfortunately often to the detriment of those FSOs and employees who work for or with them. Perhaps it appears odd that an elected union representative would advocate for a system that increases accountability for performance or conduct. However, this is a regular request from AFSA members, and one I believe is long overdue. I find the desire for accountability and more accurate performance management encouraging. Additionally, from what I’ve seen, younger generations are less willing to “suck it up” if they perceive a weak connection between recognition and performance. Instead of letting strong writers who are weak performers advance, we should commit to helping FSOs address their weaknesses, which may require a clear statement of the issue in their performance evaluation. Doing so would strengthen our Foreign Service and our ability to meet our respective stakeholders’ needs. However, to be proportionate, there needs to be a means of increasing accountability without negatively impacting an FSO’s career for five or more years. Of course, long before drafting evaluations, rating officials must have thoughtful discussions with FSOs about performance or conduct concerns and help facilitate their resolution. However, if the issue persists, or was a serious infraction, it should also be documented in the FSO’s performance evaluation. To make this more palatable, what if rating and reviewing officials could submit a separate and optional “Note to the Boards”? This would be reserved for frank statements of serious performance or conduct issues, which would expire after being reviewed by that year’s boards. For example, if the Cat in the Hat were an FSO, their rating official could submit a note indicating the cat demonstrated poor judgment by wreaking havoc with unaccompanied minors—even though they cleaned it up later. However, the rater statement would focus on the cat’s many accomplishments, thus allowing the boards to weigh the many positive attributes (persuasiveness, creativity, and ability to nimbly solve problems on the fly!) against the conduct issue. Yes, such a note would likely negatively impact the cat’s ranking that year—they would be unlikely to be promoted or receive a performance award. However, they would have the opportunity to demonstrate to their rating and reviewing officials that the conduct issue was a one-off, and that they had mended their ways. If so, the following year’s promotion boards would have no knowledge of the past note to the boards and might determine the cat was a high-flying, rainbow-generating unicorn worthy of promotion. However, if the cat continued its destructive and irresponsibly zany tendencies, the rating official could submit a stronger note. Alternatively, it could be part of the rating official’s statement, which would be part of the cat’s permanent performance files, reviewed by the boards for at least five rating periods. An approach like the “Note to the Boards” would be a fair and important step toward a more balanced approach to performance evaluation, which would pay dividends for morale and retention. It might also help more of us not just appear as, but actually be, those high-flying, rainbow-generating unicorns that our Foreign Service and its stakeholders need. n I find the desire for accountability and more accurate performance management encouraging.