Wednesday, September 22, 2021

What's Corridor Reputation?

I was surprised when writing my previous blog post on my recent promotion and referencing "corridor reputation" to realize that I hadn't done a blog post explaining it yet. So for those who are unfamiliar with how things work in the Foreign Service (or who are just very new), here's a brief introduction. Corridor reputation is kind of what it sounds like: what people know and say about you and whisper to each other in the literal and metaphorical hallways of the Department of State.

Where corridor reputation comes most into play in the Foreign Service is for bidding, or getting your next job. For decades, hiring managers have used corridor reputation to help determine whom they select for a job (and whom they avoid like the plague). Applicants do the same thing: for example, when I learned I was heading to Seoul for my second tour a friend of mine warned me about a particular manager at the Embassy there who had a terrible corridor reputation. Specifically, this manager was known for making inappropriate comments, picking on their subordinates, and overlooking the forest for the trees. And honestly, I saw for myself that that particular corridor reputation was well earned.

People tend to feel very strongly one way or another about corridor reputation. I've heard multiple experienced Foreign Service Officers say things like, "Promotions and awards are unfair, but bidding and corridor reputation are usually spot-on." At the same time, many officers - especially women and minorities - have pointed out how a process that relies on something as opaque and schmoozy as corridor reputation perpetuates networks of "old boys' clubs" and is rife with unconscious bias. Some argue it is no better than gossip subject to the same whims as any high school popularity contest.

I have conflicted feelings about it. I see the real damage it has caused but I've also seen people dodge bullets thanks to corridor reputation. I'm sure there must be a better way to keep the good parts and mitigate the bad, and there have been several very thoughtful pieces addressing this issue recently. This year, there are also several pilot programs ongoing with Department of State Foreign Service bidding that aim to explore alternatives to the existing, corridor reputation-dependent system.

So what do you think? Does corridor reputation help or hurt? Is there a better way we should be doing things? Let me know in the comments - I love hearing people's thoughts and new ideas about it!

Saturday, September 11, 2021

20 Years Since 9/11

I can't believe it's been 20 years since 9/11. Every American who was old enough to know something was going on remembers where they were on September 11, 2001. For me, I was in elementary school. I remember that suddenly everything that day stopped. My school cancelled classes and the teachers turned on all the TVs. All of the adults around me were crying, and I wasn't old enough to really understand why but I didn't think I'd ever seen so many grown-ups crying all together before. Growing up in northern Virginia, there was an extra fear among some of the families that a loved one might have been killed in the Pentagon attack.

I remember sitting, confused and sad, with all the other students as we waited for our parents to come and pick us up. I don't recall much else from that day. After that, though, things would never really be the same. So many people in my community came together to comfort and support each other. That experience didn't extend equally to everyone, though. Later, I learned that some of my friends who were Arab or Muslim or looked Arab or Muslim to others were treated very differently from that day all because some people decided they were the enemy.

There is no excuse for heinous terrorist attacks, and there's no justification for discrimination and violence against marginalized groups, either. Whenever I write or see or hear #NeverForget, of course I think of how we must not forget the enormous human cost of that day: the lives lost, the physical and mental health permanently harmed, the friends and family with a gaping hole where their loved ones should still be. We also must not forget the goodness of the first responders, of those who helped others trying to escape, and the people all over the country and world who came together to mourn with us. We must also never forget the temptation embedded in the worst parts of human nature to blame someone just because they are different from us.

If you have time today, I highly recommend listening to the latest episode of a podcast I love called The Experiment: What 9/11 Did to One Family. With an excellent combination of strong reporting and compassion, they interview the family members of Bobby McIlvaine, Jr., one of the almost 3,000 Americans who died in the attacks 20 years ago today. I loved an analogy of grief referenced in the episode: grief is like everyone affected being at the top of a mountain with a broken leg. They all need to make their own way to the bottom of the mountain, but they can't rely on each other the same way they otherwise would because they all have the same problem: the broken leg. Everyone needs to make their own path down in their own time.

I hope everyone reading this post is making their own way down the mountain of grief, whatever form that's taken. If you or someone you care about is struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other adverse mental health effects, which research shows can increase around anniversaries of traumatic events, please don't hesitate to talk to a grief psychologist or other mental health professional. Let's take care of ourselves and each other.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

I Got Promoted to 03!

I was so thrilled to wake up on Saturday morning to a flurry of congratulations text messages and emails letting me know I was promoted! All Foreign Service Officers are hired somewhere between the grades of 06 and 04. They count up in reverse order, and regardless of where you started everyone progresses automatically to 04 by the time you're up for tenure. Every promotion after you get tenure is competitive and based on your Employee Evaluation Reports (EERs).

Going up a grade makes you competitive for higher-level jobs and comes with an increase in pay. Like the vast majority of U.S. federal government salaries, our pay scales are public and you can see them online. So I just went from 04 to 03! (The levels above that are 02, then 01, then the Senior Foreign Service. There aren't as many grades as you would expect.) Something unique about these promotions is that cables (basically special emails) go out to the entire Department of State announcing the full list of people who were promoted at each level. That's how so many friends and colleagues found out I was promoted even before I did. (I was fast asleep here in Seoul when the cable came out worldwide.)

I know some people really hate the public nature of tenure and promotion lists, but I personally love it. The past few years I haven't even been eligible for promotion, but I enjoyed seeing colleagues and mentors on the tenure and promotion cables throughout and sending them congratulations. It's a great opportunity to catch up, maintain your network, and share in the joy for people you care about and respect. I received congratulatory messages from people I haven't seen in years, and it was great to reconnect.

If I have any advice for people who are trying to get promoted from 04 to 03, it's to try to focus on doing the most interesting work you can get with the best bosses you can find. If you're passionate about your job and surrounded be great mentors and people, you'll have plenty of opportunities to shine (and the EERs are so much easier to write). I didn't get tenured on my first look, but that didn't stop me from getting promoted at the first opportunity. All I had this year were three EERs, one of which was only about six months long instead of the usual year thanks to COVID 19-related delays. But I was fortunate to do fun, fascinating work with an array of great managers who valued my contributions and with whom I'd be happy to work again.

Talking to my entry-level peers, I realize that is not the case for too many of us. And of course, you have limited control earlier in your career when your assignments are directed. But if you don't get promoted in your first two tours, the greater power you have at the mid-level to decide your next steps might be just what you need to blow the socks off the next promotion board.

Honestly, this promotion felt so validating at a time when I've been shedding some of the meekness and fear of taking up too much space I had when I first started public service. My latest career motto is "Some things are worth burning a little corridor reputation for" and I have been trying to stay true to it in my second tour. (I'll do a whole post on corridor reputation at some point, but to sum up it's the professional reputation that determines so much of your fate in the Foreign Service.)

I couldn't picture myself ignoring inappropriate comments and putting my head down even when I shouldn't have to for the next 10-20 years, so I've started speaking up more. And although it puts some people off, I've found it's also brought me many new connections and allies. I'm so grateful for the mentors who blazed the trail and made a better institution for me, and I want to make sure I do the same for those who follow. And today it feels like even in this notoriously rigid, bureaucratic, resistant-to-change organization that there may be space for people like me. (Or that we can make it ourselves.) And that is something worth celebrating!