Friday, January 01, 2016

Tenure and Commissioning

Let me start by defining some terms:

I'm an Entry Level Officer (ELO), meaning a Foreign Service Career Candidate who was appointed to this position for a limited time span, to a maximum of five years.  To quote the Foreign Affairs Manual,  "The Foreign Service Officer Career Candidate Program is a comprehensive program of appropriate training, assignment, evaluation, counseling, and review intended to enable candidates for career status as Foreign Service Officers to demonstrate through on-the-job experience, and in the shortest time practicable, whether they have the potential to serve successfully across the normal career span of a Foreign Service Officer (extending to and including class FS-01)."

Tenure: Granting of career status. 

Commissioning: Act of appointment by the President and a confirmation by Senate of a candidate who has been recommended for tenure as a Foreign Service Officer by the Commissioning and Tenure Board. 

Within the first five years, all ELOs have to become tenured or their limited appointments expire and they are separated from the Service. Fortunately, this is a very small percentage of officers, and generally the separation is mutual as the employee and Department each realize that a long-term match was not made. 

All ELOs are up for tenure review for the first time after 36 months on the job. Those who are not recommended on the first review are reviewed again at 48 months, and then for (I believe) a final time six months later. When I switched from being a Specialist to a Generalist, my 36 month clock restarted and this past autumn, my cohort was up for our first review for tenure. 

I am happy to report that I was recommended for tenure, and now it's just up to a (literal) act of Congress to grant me my commission and I'll officially be a career member of the Foreign Service. 

Sounds sweet, but there's a bitter part too that takes away a lot of the pride and satisfaction in this event.  I can think of dozens of friends and colleagues who did not make tenure and frankly in only a very few cases, can I put my finger on why.  

See, when we went through A-100, we were told that the tenure process is essentially an affirmation that the Board of Examiners who evaluated us to be hired did not make a mistake.  We were told again and again, "Don't worry about tenure - just show up, do you job, don't be a big jerk and you'll make it!"  So when I see coworkers who exceed that description by ten-times being passed over - it makes me wonder how much of the decisions are just the luck of catching the reviewers at a good time, say after a particularly good meal or restful long weekend. Which then diminishes my feeling of accomplishment.  

Frankly, I AM proud of what I accomplished in my first tour and it would have been a particular slap in the face to have been passed over.  It would have made me feel like, "Well if that wasn't good enough - what more do you want from me?"  I think it would have made me more anxious about interpersonal relationships with those who write my annual reviews, as these reviews are used in determining our tenure and promotion.  It would have made me feel bitter that after all I'd offered and how wholeheartedly I'd waved the Foreign Service flag and sang the fight song - they were still scratching their chins and saying, "Hmmm... we're not really sure we did the right thing in hiring you.  We're just going to wait and see if you can really wow us next time." 

Friends who did not make it through on the first try have expressed these same feelings of betrayal, sharp disappointment and even concern that they made the right job choice. Some are sole breadwinners of families whose spouses gave up careers to come along for the FS ride.  Most understand that once they have a second tour successfully underway with no major international incidents - they'll be just fine.  But still, it's gotta' sting and knowing that they are feeling that way diminishes my ability to be happy for myself. 

The way in which we're notified of tenure plays cruelly on the typical competitive, A-type FSO's psyche. First a cable comes out listing all those who are eligible for tenure review. Thus officially starts the waiting period.  As the months tick by with no further word, we begin asking each other: 

"Did you hear anything? I haven't heard a peep.  Should we contact someone? What's taking them so long? Does anyone remember when the news was delivered last year?"  

Someone inevitably does some kind of search to find last year's cable, and then reports back to the group something along the lines of: "Okay, last year the results came out on the third Wednesday in December, so that will either be Dec 23rd or maybe they'll wait until after Christmas because people are on vacation, or because of that bad snow storm last year maybe it will be earlier this year? And did you hear that...." ad nauseam as we wind ourselves into a frenzy of email and BlackBerry checking, of which I must admit I was most certainly a part.  Then someone remembers that they send out personal emails first to those who did NOT make tenure and request an acknowledgement of such news before sending out the official "good news" cable. Therefore as we get closer and closer to the (mythical) results date that the group decided was most likely, we realize that an empty inbox is a happy inbox.  But NOW we wait for word from those who opened their gym locker to find the dreaded red ribbon staring them in the face, informing them they hadn't made the team.  We wonder suspiciously who among our peers will self-report, and who will stay silent.  

And then it starts.  Someone breaks the silence with a humble message saying, "Best of luck to you all; it wasn't me this time."  A few more of these announcements trickle in and as the days go by, we realize (while knocking firmly on wood) that perhaps we did make it through.  We check the Spam inbox a few more times to be sure we didn't miss the "sorry" letter, and then finally the results cable comes out.  We scroll down the long list to find our name and revel for just a moment in the satisfaction and pride. 

I can't speak for the others, but a moment later when I see whose names are missing - I feel guilty and confused and figure it's all just a crap shoot anyway.  

Later a congratulatory message arrives stating that we will soon be contacted with information regarding our "transition into the mid-level Foreign Service."  And THAT'S when it hits me.  I'm going to be a mid-level officer.  I'm not just the new kid anymore. I've never had a mid-level anything kind of job, have I?  It sounds so, so, so adult.  Am I up to the additional challenge when I feel like I'm already swimming as fast as I can in the entry-level pool?  I suppose like the proverbial frog in warming water, everything will heat up around me and before I know it and I'll be boiling.  

In fact 2016 will bring a number of new professional challenges: a first review for promotion, a first open-market bidding cycle (no more directed tours) and about this time next year, knowledge of my first Mid-Level Assignment. Capitalization added for emphasis as it scares me just a bit.  But it's a good scare.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations! Knowing you just a bit, I daresay you fully deserve tenure.