handshakes and air kisses
Painful as the annual evaluation process is, bidding is unquestionably the most unpleasant aspect of working in our nation’s Foreign Service.
As an entry-level officer, the first two assignments are directed. One can express preferences, but ultimately the decision rests entirely with HR. We felt fortunate that our priorities apparently were taken into account at the outset – Nairobi was our top choice out of a 90-post list of potential first assignments, so we were quite happy to land in Kenya. Because of various entry-level assignment rules, D only had five countries to choose from for his second posting, and three of those had unrealistic transfer timelines. We ranked one of the remaining posts dead last, which left Moldova as all but a foregone conclusion for our second tour.
Starting with our present assignment in Kigali, D has now gone through two mid-level bid cycles, which in principle work more or less like a medical school match process. One applies, sends in resumes and cover letters, drums up references, and then puts in one’s bids. On the other side, the hiring managers draw up their own shortlists for each position, negotiate conflicts within the various regional and functional bureaus, and haggle over the top candidates who may be sought by multiple offices.
In practice, this translates into a months’-long dating game – one defined by asymmetric information, as each applicant tries to suss out how competitive he or she might be for each position of interest. Sometimes the hiring managers are refreshingly honest. One told D, for example, that he was a competitive candidate and would make the shortlist, but that there were a couple candidates who were ranked higher, including one who had already declared her intention to take the job if it was offered to her. Many are far less transparent. “Looks like you’ll be on our preliminary shortlist,” wrote one cryptically, refusing to elaborate any further when D asked.
D interviewed for half a dozen positions. One potential supervisor told him he was incredibly competitive, promised to stay in touch, and then refused to answer follow-up emails. Another tried to interest him in a job that was far less substantive than the one D was actually interested in filling. A couple of positions that had initially given D the cold shoulder all of a sudden developed a strong interest after decisions for many jobs had already been made. “So…I see you bid on one of our positions,” ventured one hiring manager in a late afternoon email the day bids were due in reference to D’s expression of interest in the job several weeks earlier.
The most frustrating aspect of this whole ordeal is that one’s competitiveness appears to be only minimally related to one’s actual competence or relevant experience. Twice D has tried to get a job in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA), which would seem like a logical step for someone who speaks Spanish and spent half a decade bouncing around Latin America. Both times D has run into the catch-22 of Foreign Service bidding: WHA jobs are notoriously hard to get if one has not served in WHA before. Because there is no shortage of competent candidates – at least on paper – hiring managers frequently determine their shortlists based on colleagues’ recommendations, so it is challenging to break into a new bureau in which one has not served before and thus does not have a good network.
Having served overseas for the entirety of his State Department career to-date, D thought it wise to head back to Washington for his onward assignment – both from a career development perspective as well as for family reasons. Given the plethora of Washington jobs, this bid cycle felt marginally less stressful than the previous one – when we were trying to land in a country we’d want to call home for a couple of years. And when the bidding portion of the assignments process wrapped up two weeks ago, we felt pretty good about our prospects.
First, D received an “air kiss” – an official email indicating that he would be the preferred candidate for a position he was targeting. Then came the “handshake” – another form email informing D that he would be offered the job and giving him 24 hours to respond. Amazingly, having accepted the offer, the job is still not officially D’s until he is “paneled” into it by HR, which means we still have a bit of a wait before we can officially start negotiating our Kigali departure. That said, after spending the better part of seven years overseas, we will be headed to Washington next summer….we think.