A Time for Kindness

State VP Voice


On a recent Sunday, the minister at my church started his sermon by sharing that he and his son recently came upon a bit of graffiti in their neighborhood. “It is in your self-interest to find a way to be very tender,” it said, quoting neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer. The sentiment was powerful, the pastor said, and raised questions about how we can respond to each other during difficult times.

This got me wondering about the Foreign Service, how we treat each other, and how—at times of increased uncertainty—it truly is in our self-interest to find a way to be kind to one another.

During this time of the year especially, as so many of us in the Foreign Service family are far from home, far from loved ones and far from old lives, the need for kindness from our colleagues can be greater than ever.

From my perch, I hear from a lot of members, and I love it. I am thankful to have the opportunity to talk to so many of our colleagues about their fears and concerns, their successes and hopes. Members tell me about minor points of contention that somehow develop into major disputes; but they also share positive outcomes to challenging situations.

While our work can be incredibly rewarding, it can also be truly challenging. And when we’re feeling isolated and far from home, those challenges can lead to short tempers, and short tempers can lead to additional difficulties.

The sad fact is that bullying still exists in the workplace. But what I’ve found is this: bullying never brings out the best in anyone. Foreign Service officers and specialists work best when they feel supported, when they feel that someone’s got their back.

We all stumble from time to time, or at least most of us do. When that happens, a helping hand can right the situation and keep everyone on track. And when we’re all working at our best, the unit—and the mission—thrives. And that, after all, is our goal.

When we talk about esprit de corps in the Foreign Service, it’s not just lip service. At least, it shouldn’t be. It’s how we stay strong. It’s how we have each other’s backs. If someone in our section or at our mission needs help, we’re there for them. We’re not just helping out that person; we’re also improving the cohesion amongst our colleagues, holding up those who need it and ensuring that the entire mission flourishes.

Foreign Service officers and specialists work best when they feel supported, when they feel that someone’s got their back.

Fundamentally, human resources are our greatest resource. Playing to people’s strengths and interests can help develop a team which achieves more together than the sum of its individual parts.

Following the Secretary of State’s “listening tour,” the report by Insigniam quoted respondents saying they feel like the system in which they operate treats them as tools or resources, not human beings. I don’t believe that is true for most members of the Foreign Service, but I do agree that we can do better.

When interpersonal matters arise, ask yourself: has any good ever come to a mission when a bullying boss goes after a struggling subordinate, or an individual makes an unwelcome advance on a colleague, or an officer feels entitled to disrespect or even threaten a local? My guess is the answer is no.

By coming together, offering a helping hand and an open door, we can accomplish the incredibly important goals of the mission and develop our cadre of Foreign Service officers and specialists.

That’s how AFSA staff responds to requests. We treat each member as an individual, each case as unique, recognizing that it could have an impact on someone’s career and life.

Sometimes our members just need someone to listen to them with compassion, to hear their story, talk things through. And that’s us. The AFSA Labor Management team is the helping hand, and we’re ready to support our members.

So during this time of year, especially, and during this challenging time for the Foreign Service, remember that it’s in your interest, our interest, and the interest of the Foreign Service, to be kind and to watch out for one another.

We’re not just stewards of the Foreign Service; we’re stewards of each other. And together, we are stronger.

Kenneth Kero-Mentz is the Department of State vice president of the American Foreign Service Association.