Naughty Diplomats: How do you not get Tenure in the US Foreign Service?

Word on the street is that a small fraction, maybe 5% of Foreign Service officers (US), don’t get tenure, that is, they get booted out before it becomes their career.

Anyone personally know how one gets the boot from the Foreign Service? What are they doing that is so bad? I know it is very difficult to get past the two tests to get considered to even get in the Foreign Service to begin with, so i wonder what they are doing to get the boot.

Piss off the wrong ambassador and you’re history. You acquire a “corridor rep” when that happens and when you transfer to your next posting, word has already reached them that you’re a malcontent or that you’re uncooperative, etc. Of course, few in the Foreign Service have the balls to tell you to your face that you’re not performing adequately, so your fitness reports are written with buzz words that alert promotion boards that you shouldn’t be promoted. Even the slightest hint of a problem can tank your career. I know this from bitter experience.

In the meantime, ambassadors can commit all sorts of illegal, immoral and outrageous acts, including outright theft and get away with it.

You mean career ambassadors, or political appointees? What sort of buzz words give it away? How can you piss off an ambassador as a junior visa clerk?

Usually an appointee, but not always. Say the wrong thing in a meeting, try to do your job the right way instead of the ambo’s way, defy his/her wishes in any fashion whatsoever, not treat them as royalty, don’t stand when they walk into the room, refer to him as “ambassador” instead of “Mr. Ambassador”, introduce him in the wrong order of precedence: the list is endless, and you may not even know that you’ve done something wrong until somebody tells you later on.

My spouse was a finance officer, who took her job as guardian of the taxpayers’ dollars quite seriously. Elizabeth Frawley Bagley was given the ambassadorship to Portugal by Bill Clinton for her fund-raising efforts. If ever there was a self-important and entitled princess, she was it. Her drunkard husband was the heir to Reynolds Tobacco and many years older than she.

Anyway, they demanded a lot, and were given a lot, but when she wanted to spend tax dollars to reupholster personal furniture at several thousand dollars per chair, my wife said ‘no’. You would not believe the amount of shit she got for that from her immediate boss and from the ambo. Her boss ended up approving the expenditure despite written protest from my wife. After that, the ambo made it her personal goal to see that we were removed from post. While my wife was vindicated by her home office, the damage was done. Even though we received the posting we wanted, plus language training (granted to us because, in the words of the personnel director: “We don’t want to get any blood on the floor”), this followed us to our next posting.

The next admin officer took it all with a grain of salt and based his evaluations on performance. The guy following him did the same, but felt he had to put something slightly negative in her performance review, since there had to be something in the “improvements” section. So he made an innocuous comment about her sending an unclassified cable without clearing it through him first.

The promotion review board in WDC, obviously prompted by Bagley, spun this comment up into a “pattern of poor performance” and recommended that she be reviewed by a panel for selection out of the Foreign Service. When her career guidance officer called her to tell her this news, my wife turned in her resignation, and so did I. There were immediate panicky calls from all manner of people who knew her worth to the FS, begging her to reconsider. Her boss in DC sent the recommendation for termination to a review board, which exhonerated her and wrote a rather pointed rebuff to the first board, saying “the FS needs MORE people of this caliber, rather than fewer.” But we had had enough of these fuckers, and pulled the plug. A damn shame, really, as we enjoyed what we were doing and did it well.

Now aren’t you sorry you asked? :dubious:

By all the Gods and Deities combined!?! That’s totally ridiculous. My sympathies to you and your wife.

I wonder if this type of stuff happens in other foreign services?


Have you ever read “The Ugly American” ? Did it ring true?

I haven’t. But I’d say that whatever the fevered imagination of a novelist can dream up will not even begin to touch on what happens in the FS on a daily basis. Bagley’s husband used to invite himself to the ambassador’s daily press briefings, where he would paw at his young wife and make lewd comments about her. At a party of high-ranking local officials, he was quoted in the Lisbon paper by an attending reporter as answering the question “how do you spend your time in Lisbon”: “I have a small office at the embassy (also illegal, by the way) where I do some work. In my off time, I fuck the Ambassador.”

A previous ambassador to Lisbon (also appointed) was an avid sailor. He would take his boat out on the Tejo (Tagus) River with some selected local lovelies and show porn films on the sail which were easily seen from shore.

Our career ambassador in Bamako routinely badgered his former university in the states to invite him to speak so that he could get free plane tickets back to the states at taxpayer expense. He would book his flights through convenient stops like Paris, London and New York for layovers and not show up for the lectures. He was also the ambassador to Rwanda when the genocide happened. He was either too stupid or too political to report what was happening, and as a result it was not called a genocide for far too long, which meant that NATO help didn’t come. His only regret was that his furniture and belongings had to be left behind.

A former ambassador to Kampala had had his power boat shipped from (I think) Sri Lanka all the way to Uganda, ostensibly to be used for escape on Lake Victoria in the event of an armed revolution. Lake Victoria was not all that far away, but certainly not where he could get to it quickly. It was used for cruising around the lake and entertaining friends. Big bastard with twin 400hp outboards. When the engines began having problems, he lost interest. It was still sitting there in 1998, and as far as I know remains there still.

The stories go on and on. The ones above are minor in the annals of the FS, and there are far worse ones to be told about more junior officers, CIA station chiefs, and the like. Ambassadors, however, are often coddled and protected. They’re like royalty and some seem to believe that one of the job requirements is to be quirky. Really good ones do exist, of course, and are a joy to work for. Nancy Powell comes to mind.

But the Foreign Service of my experience is a morass of political infighting, backstabbing and dithering. Getting anybody to make a decision was extremely frustrating. When I told one ambassador in a meeting that I wanted to paint the embassy exterior (it was desert pink, for god’s sake) and asked if he had a preference, he suggested having a contest to determine the color. People in meetings would look at me in horror when I would actually say what I was going to do. It’s just not how diplomats operate. Anyway, this is all anecdotal and many people manage to muddle successfully through a career in the FS regardless of the daily mental bludgeoning and the soul-crushing bureaucracy that is the Department of State.

Do most Foreign Service generalists feel similar to you? Or did you perhaps just have bad luck? What about ESPIRT DE CORPS?

Couldn’t say. Many obviously find their niche working for the government. The pay isn’t spectacular, but it’s steady. The benefits are good and the TSP program will certainly make a nice nest egg. Can’t beat the travel, although sometimes it’s to places you’d rather not go. There is a lot of team spirit in the sense that you’re all in the same small boat in places like Africa and all you’ve got are the other Americans there. You end up being “friends” with people that you probably would ignore in America. Working for the fed takes a particular mindset, IME. You have to be willing to be a drudge and to take a lot of abuse. Some folks can reconcile it all: we couldn’t.

My former brother-in-law was a mentally unstable dick and failed to receive a necessary promotion after his first two posts and the failure to get the promotion was a de facto firing. Failure to get the first promotion is understood that you need to get out.

I don’t know what would have happened if he hadn’t quit. Probably a series of shitty jobs in some of the shittiest locations.

Quite often the crappy locations are the best. I’d take a reasonably peaceful African country over Europe any day. European embassies are hotbeds of political intrigue, everybody hates each other, and everyone goes their separate ways after work. In Africa, we all hung out together and cut a lot of slack for personal foibles. Most of the career diplomats I met in Africa had made a career out of being an “African hand”. Much more relaxed and understanding about the difficulties in working at the end of the supply line. We would have been satisfied to spend many years in that part of the world, but it was too late. Without promotions, what’s the point? At an entry level of FS-4, I was making in the low 40s. With housing paid for and hazardous/medical/COLA pay, it was more like $60K, with about 20K of that tax free. My wife was a higher rank than I was, but it wasn’t a lot more money. Still, it paid off our debt and then some.

Thank you, Chefguy, for your and your wife’s service to our country. Sorry it ended on such a bad note.

More stories, Chefguy!

Well let us look at it from another angle:

Low ranking Bureaucrat decides Boss’s expense is not allowable, makes stink about it. Low ranking Bureaucrat’s decision is overruled, but others rule that even thoough Boss was right in claiming expense, Low ranking Bureaucrat was right in questioning expense. Low ranking Bureaucrat is “kicked upstairs”, which is correct (if you get into tussle with Big Boss, and you are found right but Boss was not found to have done anything fire-able wrong either, it’s best to transfer you).

Low ranking Bureaucrat gets a good evaluation next job. Everything is hunky-dory.

Low ranking Bureaucrat makes what appears to be a rather critical error for next job/boss. Low ranking Bureaucrat is written up for this and they schedule a review. Low ranking Bureaucrat feesl that the review has nothing to do with error, but is caused by antipathy from a couple jobs ago. Rather than face review (which may clear employee or ask her to resign) Low ranking Bureaucrat just resigns. Low ranking Bureaucrat is exonerated anyway, but quits anyway.

Now, certainly it is possible for a High up to make trouble for a employee in later positions, for a record of being a troublemaker to follow you around, even if you did right. But there doesn;t seem to be any evidence of this here.

Chefguy appears to believe that Elizabeth Frawley Bagley was given the Ambassadorship based purely upon raising scads of cash for Bill. Certainly that happens. But according to wiki :

Mrs Frawly has quite a bit of experience before recieveing her Ambassadorship:
"As an attorney specializing in trade and international law, she was Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University in Washington until January 1993. She has held several other positions in the U.S. Department of State: Congressional Liaison Officer for the Panama Canal Treaties during the Carter Administration (1977 – 1979); Special Assistant to Ambassador Sol Linowitz for the Camp David Accords, (1979- 1980); and Congressional Liaison to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (1980 – 1981)."

She continued her career in International issues after leaving office, and was highly commended for her term as Ambassador:
…" she was sworn in as Special Representative for Global Partnerships in the Office of the Secretary of State on June 18, 2009. She served as Senior Advisor under a former Secretary of State from 1997 – 2001 where she established and headed the Office of Media Programming Acquisition for the newly independent Balkan states. Ambassador Bagley also served as a Senate liaison for NATO Enlargement. From 1994 to 1997, she served as the U.S. Ambassador to Portugal. Upon her departure from Portugal, she received meritorious awards from the Portuguese Navy and Air Force, as well as the “Grand Cross of Prince Henry the Navigator,” the President of Portugal’s highest civilian commendation."

Although certainly a Political Appointee as opposed to a Career FSO, her resume also shows she was highly qualified in the area of International Law and she had nearly 20 years of expereince in that field before recieving her Appointment.

She’s nearly 60, her husband just passed away this year at the age of 74. Although that’s a difference, it hardly made her a “Young wife” as she was 43 or so then.

Eh. Life takes many odd turns and they have usually been for the better for us. I ended up making a lot more money in the private sector than for the fed, but that retirement would have been nice! It’s a shame that my wife had to take that sort of abuse. She’s the most principled person I know, and to be treated that way after honorable service was just disgraceful (though she does have a tendency to fall on her sword sometimes). I spent 23 years in the military, so I can roll with it better than she can. But there was no way I was going to stay in the FS if she wasn’t going to be working. So we left and moved to Alaska and had a good 11 years there.

The two tours in Africa (one and a half, actually) were great. As a facilities manager, everything I touched made life better for everyone, since everything was in such piss-poor condition after years of neglect. The FS used to just treat building maintenance as part of the job for whatever FSO happened to be punching his ticket as the General Services Officer: in essence, a guy with a college degree who had zero experience with property management. This meant that he/she relied on the local workforce to take care of things, but without much oversight, and with no understanding of building systems.

As a result, theft was rampant, things broke and remained broken because they were American equipment and the locals had no idea how to either fix them or procure parts. There was a lot of cannibalism of old machines to try to fix other old machines, and HUGE amounts of tax dollars spent to buy new appliances every year, when the old ones went wanting for lack of an inexpensive repair part obtainable by a simple phone call.

The Department complained bitterly about the cost of electricity in Portugal. By the time I was done there, the local power company was coming by and wanting to know if we had switched off the power or were running on generators, as our bill had dropped dramatically. Well, if you replace all those old mercury vapor and quartz security fixtures with HPS or other high EFF fixtures, you’re going to see a big savings.

In my first tour in Africa, I completed over 100 improvement projects to the embassy and outlying buildings. The place was quite literally falling apart. It’s easy to be a hero in those sorts of circumstances. I had a hell of a contact in Florida who was hungry for government supply business, so I could get most anything shipped to Africa within a week or so. The guy was gold and made me look good.

Well, this thread has morphed into “my time with the Foreign Service”, and I apologize for the huge hijack. I hope the OP’s question was answered somewhere in there. Oh, one reason that an FSO can be refused tenure is by not reaching a competency level in a language by a certain time. Many posts require at least a 2-2 rating (out of a possible 5 in both reading and speaking) in the local language from the Foreign Service Institute.

Your conclusions about what happened and why are completely incorrect. The ambassador was completely in the wrong to claim that and many other expenses. It was abuse of position, plain and simple, as found in the review conducted by the people who came to Lisbon to sort out the mess. My wife made no “stink” about it, merely denied the payments. Her immediate supervisor directed her to approve the payments and my wife asked him to put it in writing, and cited federal regs as to why she could not approve the expenditure of federal dollars for personal expenses. He refused to do so and approved the payments himself. The ambassador asked that we be transferred, which didn’t hurt my feelings (my boss was no picnic either, but that’s another story), and we were given our choice of assignments and language training. That’s not something that’s done for somebody who is in the wrong. They normally send you to the biggest shithole they can find and training is out of the question.

Ambassadors, especially presidential appointees, do not get fired for such things. If they create an international crisis, they may be removed from post by the pres, but that’s a very big deal and rarely happens. If they turn traitor, they are removed to the Department until the investigation is complete, but still draw paychecks. But spending tax dollars inappropriately? Don’t make me laugh.

The error she made at our next posting was not a critical one. Unclassified cables go out all the time for routine reporting, particularly when it’s to your own agency. The admin told her that he had zero problem with what she did (it happened in his absence from post), but felt he had to put something in the improvements block, as the Department is rather sticky about filling in all the blanks. Now, I suppose there is a remote chance that Bagley wasn’t involved in the review board, but you don’t have your record put before a termination review board for something that simple unless somebody has decided that you need to have your ass whipped.

My wife concluded (rightly, IMO) that her chances for advancement were over, regardless of the outcome of the board. That sort of review stays in your record and follows you wherever you go. She also felt, and rightly so, that her integrity and ethics were being questioned, which was not something she was willing to swallow. I would probably have waited for the board result, but that’s not how she operates. When it finally became clear to her bosses in DC that she was serious about resigning, one of them let slip that at least two of the persons on the review board were personal friends of the admin in Lisbon who approved the payments, and were the most strident voices against her.

Portugal probably did like Bagley, although those military awards are pretty common for ambassadors. Socializing with government officials is what she does, and what ambassadors are supposed to do in friendly countries. In the realm of dicey government relations, Portugal must rank near the bottom for problems. Her American employees, on the other hand, couldn’t stand her, nor could the local employees. I’m surprised by the age difference between her and her husband. If you saw him, you’d understand. The guy looked like the dissipated drunk that he was. His comments about her are a matter of public record.

If you haven’t worked for the FS, you have no idea of the pettiness within the ranks. Vendettas are all too common, and it only takes a couple of phone calls from an irate ambo to tank someone’s career. You wouldn’t believe the amount of shit I took over a stupid basketball hoop, a story I’m not going to relate here. I don’t know if you’ve worked for (or still work for) the FS, and it’s pointless to argue about what happened. I was there and saw it play out to its ugly conclusion.

It is supposed to be a “names and places changed” more or less factual account. From the anecdotes you have posted in this thread, I’d say it understates the problems.

I’d be fascinated to read a “Ask the disgruntled former FS worker” thread. You could elaborate on the basketball hoop for example.

Honestly, I really hate dredging all this crap up. It was a bitter experience for us overall, and it took a couple of years to put it behind us. I don’t really even know why I launched into it here.

The FS is a lot like the military. You have to put up with some shit and sometimes you have to kiss the ass of a real jerk, but you do it because you like the work, like the lifestyle, and like your coworkers. Just like the military, some junior officers learn to play the game and advance. a few won’t or can’t learn to play or are just plain unlucky and end up in another line of work.

I’ve spent 12 years at 4 different U.S. overseas missions (though not as a foreign service officer) and enjoyed it all. Of eight ambassadors I worked with, half were perfectly reasonable and the others were not all that bad, but all were career. I consider myself fortunate that I did not have to work with any political appointees.

I only spent six years as a direct hire, but worked another six prior to that in different capacities (military, contract worker). Of the two, the non-direct hire years were the best experiences by far. It’s far easier to deal with egos when you’re only at post for a few weeks, and my dealings were primarily with the RSO/GSO/Admin types. I met Shirley Temple Black in Prague while on a job, though. We were told in advance not to bring up her childhood movie career, as she didn’t like to talk about it. She was very pleasant (and very short). I met George Shultz when working on the Reagan summit in Moscow. Also met Dave Brubeck there.