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chasing unicorns

After trying and failing to secure a position in Manila to align with S’s directed assignment to the Philippines, D moved on to Plan B – searching for a Washington-based job that he could perform remotely, known as a DETO in Foreign Service parlance. Just a couple of weeks into the search, it became abundantly clear that securing a DETO would be an uphill battle. After six months in which D spent about as much time and energy on the job search as on performing his actual job, he began to think of DETOs as the State Department’s unicorns – rumored to exist but impossible to find and pin down.

The truth of this realization became evident when the HR department organized a webinar on tandem issues in the spring. There are approximately 900 tandem couples in the Foreign Service, according to HR, representing roughly 13% of the workforce. How many of them are serving together, D asked – and of those who are unable to secure assignments at the same post, how many are working in a DETO capacity? The answers were disquieting, to say the least.

Although the data should be readily available, HR does not officially track or publish statistics on whether members of tandem couples are assigned to the same geographic location. Even allowing for the fact that some couples may prioritize career advancement over serving together – which in itself attests to our sad state of affairs – this lack of transparency is troubling. Anecdotally, a survey of tandems conducted by a tandem advocacy group found that only 60% of tandem couples were successful in obtaining assignments together during the last assignment cycle. The survey collected almost 500 responses, making this a robust illustration of the magnitude of the Department’s systemic shortcoming in balancing the demands of the Foreign Service with the modern-day reality of dual-career families.

To its credit, the Department does track how many employees are on DETOs, but that’s where the good news ends. At the time of the webinar, there were only 22 Foreign Service Officers serving in a DETO capacity – small wonder then that D struggled to gain any traction in his job search, with even sympathetic hiring managers unwilling to entertain a full-time telework arrangement. Apparently, this mechanism had been somewhat more widely utilized in the past before becoming a casualty of recent reorganization efforts. Rather than encouraging a mobile, flexible workforce, which our present-day senior leaders say they want, policy changes over the last couple of years have actually made full-time telework more difficult to arrange.

By early spring, D had applied for pretty much every posted vacancy in the Department, with absolutely nothing to show for his efforts. For those bureaus that did not give him a hard no, D had reached out multiple times, checking in with the same hiring managers every month or two in the vain hope that their calculus might change. By April, with S’s Manila start date rapidly approaching, D had made peace with the fact that he would have to take leave without pay, reaching a state of Zen that was only occasionally punctuated by moments of blinding rage at a system that forces highly-motivated and purportedly valued employees to choose between their careers and their families.

In late spring, as the summer assignments cycle comes to a close, HR begins directing officers who have been unable to secure an assignment into unfilled vacancies. Because leave without pay must be approved by an administrative panel, D had to request it ahead of time in order to avoid being directed into a random position, which would have been unacceptable to us. He gathered the leave without pay forms and then made one final Hail Mary attempt at securing a telework assignment, reaching out on a pair of jobs in the same bureau, which he had pursued unsuccessfully several times over the preceding six months. This time, fate smiled on us.

An improbable and fortuitously timed constellation of factors had shifted the hiring calculus in this bureau. D marshaled a couple of high-placed recommendations, went through several interviews, and landed a position – but not before receiving a letter from the Director General informing him that he faced an imminent directed assignment. That the position is in a bureau where D has always wanted to work is an added bonus.

This being the Foreign Service, of course, even this happy ending comes with a few downsides. For one, the assignment is only for one year, so after spending the better part of the last year anxiously searching for an onward landing spot, D may well be back in a similar position once the assignments cycle for next summer kicks off in the fall. Also, although D has already started his new job, the agreement that will enable him to telework remains unsigned for now, leaving a cloud of uncertainty hanging over his head. More importantly, what clinched this assignment for D was his offer to remain in DC for the summer to onboard, giving him a chance to develop relationships and expertise in his new role before transitioning to full-time telework. 

In the immediate term, this arrangement entails several months apart for us, and there is no sugar-coating the separation. D already laments missing Father’s Day with the kids, and Junebug’s second birthday, and Munchkin’s first day at his new school, not to mention the daily interaction with our kids that is critical at their young age. S meanwhile has to balance beginning her first FSO tour with single parenthood and the need to find her way in a completely new country and cultural environment while D remains behind in Washington, literally half a world away.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Unicorns upon unicorns, sheesh! What an ordeal! I don’t know how you guys do it! D, so happy you persisted and the stars aligned at least for the next year’s position. Although summer will feel like a long time apart, at least you know it’s just temporary. Stay safe, S! xoxo

    June 20, 2019
    • Thanks, Whit — appreciate your support! In fact, one of the positives for me of this whole ordeal is seeing just how many people have stepped up for us as we are trying to navigate this next step. It’s been huge.

      June 20, 2019
  2. From my POV (I’m not a tandem bidder), tandem seems to work better for an Officer/Specialist or Specialist/Specialist couple. I’ve met several, and they don’t seem to have nearly the trouble that you guys are running into. Not necessarily helpful, I know. You would think prioritizing having a family together would make for happy employees, who would therefore be happier at work and do a better job. Common sense is not a common virtue.

    June 21, 2019
    • Could be, though as you note we’re not in the specialist situation. We also don’t have to deal with the even larger headaches of interagency tandem assignments, different tour lengths, etc. the bottom line, of course, is precisely the one you hone in on. As an institution, the Department’s balance is not where it needs to be. So long as the trade off between family and career remains this starkly painful, good people are going to continue suffering and some will leave the FS.

      June 21, 2019

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