Foreign Service Promotions: 10 Things I’ve Learned

In 2022, I received a promotion as a mid-level officer. It makes my head spin a little trying to figure out how to explain the Foreign Service promotion process to someone outside the FS, particularly to private sector folks who would likely expect diplomats’ promotions to be based on a complex set of 360 reviews, impressive projects, and reputational factors. (Pro tip: They’re not.) I’d like to share 10 things I’ve learned since I joined the Department in 2014 as a Foreign Service generalist about getting promoted (or not!)… I’m going for lay terms, but you be the judge.

1. First and foremost, the Department posits its promotions are competitive and merit-based. I don’t want to disagree, but I think it is more complicated than that. In my opinion, it would be hard to make any promotion system based solely on paper – as ours is – an objective, comparative review of people, and particularly when that paper is employee evaluations that have some… inherent, eh, challenges. It’s often the luck of the draw who an officer’s rater and reviewer are (and how well they can write), and there are so many aspects of how we are to work with that our evaluations do not address, such as subordinate feedback. I am not an HR expert, so I don’t necessarily have improvement recommendations. But as an argument for our system, I would say it is a more streamlined way to review thousands of officers annually than other potential methods, and the lack of “corridor reputation” influence seeks to keep promotions based on criteria that are as objective as possible. However, the word merit implies that if you were eligible but didn’t get promoted you lacked merit, vis-à-vis others who ostensibly merited promotion more, and that burns a little.

2. Promotions matter, and not just because getting a pay bump is nice. The Foreign Service is an up-or-out system that requires officers to consistently demonstrate the potential to perform at the next level. To advance in our careers, we must both do well in our current roles and bid to take on positions of ever-greater responsibility. But also, if we are unable to get promoted and advance within a defined period of time, we will be unable to keep our employment, period, and “time out.” Now how’s that for scary, particularly for those who don’t particularly find management alluring?

Celebrating my promotion, September 2022

3. There are always more hard-working officers deserving of promotion than spots to promote them into. In fact, two separate personnel offices manage parts of the promotion process: one works with mathematical models to calculate promotions based on projected long-term staffing needs for different grades and job types within the Department, and the other assesses the merits of current officers eligible for promotion. The latter office holds six-person selection boards comprised of members who must deliberate without being aware of how many people they actually have “room” to promote that year. I won’t get too into the weeds on this, but the Foreign Service Act of 1980 lays out how this is supposed to work, including having a member of the public on the selection boards. Reading between the lines: it would literally take an act of Congress to change aspects of our promotion process.

4. As I mentioned, getting promoted is the result of a paper-based exercise dependent solely on our annual EER (Employee Evaluation Report, or performance review) and documents within the last five years of our performance folders, such as awards and commendations. The folders may also contain information about suspensions or disciplinary actions, as applicable. Our EERs contain narrative statements written by us, our rater (who may or may not be our direct supervisor), and our reviewer (who our rater may or may not be a direct report to). EERs could really be a whole blog post on their own – and perhaps someday they will be! – but for now suffice it to say no information other than what is inside our performance folders may be considered during the promotion process. This means not only is no information available about an officer’s age, gender, disability, religion, etc. (nor should it be determinable from one’s EER), but other factors such as reputation and experience not listed in the EERs are also not admissible. Similarly, if anyone on a promotion board personally or professionally knows someone up for consideration, they must either leave out of consideration anything not contained within the folder or recuse themselves (if they cannot be objective, such as in an obviously inappropriate case like reviewing an officer who is your spouse or child).

5. Boards tend to review between three and four dozen folders per day. Boards divide officers into three potential groups: those who are high, medium, and low-ranked. Both low- and high-ranked officers receive additional screening, while medium-ranked officers’ folders are set aside. The latter category tends to comprise the majority of officers. Later, those who remain low-ranked receive a written explanation while those who are high-ranked receive a numerical ranking. Ensuring board members concur with rankings and avoid ties can be complex, and is designed to address human subjectivity and bias to the extent possible. Ultimately, only officers who are both high-ranked and have a numerical score high enough to reach within the parameters of available promotions (in light of future staffing needs) will receive promotions. The other high-ranked officers will be noted as recommended, but not reached.

6. The Director General of the Foreign Service and the Under Secretary for Management approve promotions up to FS-01; promotions into and within the Senior Foreign Service (SFS) are subject to nomination by the White House, confirmation by the Senate, and appointment by the president.

7. EERs are due on tax day (April 15) for tenured officers, and promotion cables for each grade are approved and come out the Friday before Labor Day weekend each year. This can be either a really great (if your name is included) or a really crummy (if you were overlooked) way to start a three-day weekend. That’s right – the promotion cables are released to the entire Department of State! Work (along with computer bandwidth) pretty much grinds to a halt for the better part of an hour as every single employee scans the lists for their name, or the names of other officers they recognize. If you got it, everyone will see. And if you didn’t… well, you get the picture.

Celebrating my promotion with V at Broadkill Beach, Delaware ~ September 2022

8. Lest you think I have a real bee in my bonnet about the paper (because I just might), back to the paper for a moment. Promotions are based on how well your EER said you did all the things during the rating cycle. More specifically, how demonstrably well and impactfully you did your work and exemplified what we refer to as the service-wide ‘core precepts.’ Until earlier this year, semi-unwritten EER rules also necessitated a lot of focus on something we called “areas of effectiveness” and how strongly your rater advocated within his or her narrative for your promotion; this all, thankfully, is no longer a requirement. Now we have more room in a tight space to talk about our impact and let the work speak for itself, rather than playing proscriptive word games. Because of the nature of the promotion machine, not everyone who deserves to be promoted will be. While this can feel unfair, it doesn’t mean that everyone who did get promoted doesn’t deserve it. It also doesn’t mean the promotion system is arbitrary. Is it imperfect, like every system? Yes, in my opinion, it is. Do we have data showing men tend to be better at self-promotion than women? Yes, we do. Do we know implicit gender bias continues to frame women’s achievements in collaborative ways and punish credit-grabbing – the very opposite of what the EER and promotion processes reward? Yes, women pay higher social and professional penalties for ‘arrogance.’ Do first and second tour (FAST) officers sometimes receive a rater who is their same rank who “competes” with them within a promotion cohort by torpedoing their EER? Absolutely. Don’t ask me how painfully I’ve seen this. But for now, this is the system we have, and not working within it demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding on how to successfully navigate this niche sphere of our profession.

9. The best way to get promoted is to keep on doing great assignments you enjoy, irrespective of how ‘promotable’ you think they are. Yes, you also need to have a stellar EER that is reflective of your work and capability. But often when you are doing great work, the EER will practically “write itself.” Yes, beware the call of extrinsic motivation, and also yes, play this giant game called “keep getting promoted so you don’t get kicked out of the FS,” even if you don’t care whether you ever become an ambassador. I tried to remind myself of this during the years I felt disillusioned and frankly did not care much about “showing the Department more” with another great EER, when the Department seemed to keep forgetting my file in the bottom of a drawer anyway.

10. Whether or not you are promoted, you should be gracious to your colleagues who are. As I mentioned, promotion cables are released to the entire workforce, thus giving you an opportunity to congratulate the promotees. You should take this opportunity. In our A-100 (diplomatic orientation) back in 2014, our course coordinators counseled us to always send congratulatory notes or emails to colleagues who received awards or promotions. Then we watched them model an example of the right way to do so: simple, succinct. Since that time, upon the release of any such cables, I have made a list of everyone I know from entry-level to Senior Foreign Service who deserves congratulations or kudos and send them a message. In the first year or so, I only knew a couple awardees; now I often know dozens and this exercise takes more than an hour. It’s worth it. As a manager, I have also counseled FAST officers to do this because regrettably, like many diplomatic niceties, it seems manners are becoming a lost art.

Grace, perseverance, and professionalism are something we should all promote, whether we are promoted or not.

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Sarah W Gaer

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