Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Informational Interview Red Flags

It's bidding season, also known as the time of year when Foreign Service members "bid on" (i.e., apply and compete for) their next assignment. Even though it's relatively early in my career, I have had the opportunity to bid mid-level a few times due to my previous broken assignment to Baghdad and my early bid for my next job in Washington, DC. I thought I would do a few blog posts consolidating some of the best advice I've received and tips for folks who are bidding or just applying for jobs in general who might benefit.

When you're preparing to bid, you need to search projected vacancies and narrow down the jobs you're interested in based on location, timing, language requirements, supervisory potential, and of course the work itself. Once you do that, the next step is to reach out to incumbents, the people who are currently in that role, and request more information than you can find just by reading online. The incumbent can confirm whether the information online is up to date and offer you more detailed insights on everything from their typical workday to what kind of experience is most relevant to the role (and even sometimes how competitive the job is).

I always ask the incumbent not only to send me the job description for bidders (as they usually have some standardized text to share prepared in advance), but also to let me know if they are available for a call. The informational interview call is to me one of the best ways to gather vital information that can help me determine if I would be a good candidate for the job, whether I want to bid it at all, and if I bid it where it would rank on my list. I've found incumbents are often willing to offer more nuanced and detailed answers on the phone or over a video chat than they would put in writing.

I once heard that a job interview process should be considered two-way: even as the employer is evaluating you as the applicant, you should be evaluating them. In the case of the Foreign Service where we have the luxury of more secure, regular work and the alternative is not unemployment, I think this is especially true. In that vein, I wanted to share some informational interview and incumbent red flags that have led me either to rank a job lower on my list or even decide not to bid it altogether. These are specific to me, but if you're in the bidding or job application process right now it might be helpful to think about what your red flags might be so you can look out for them (or in some cases, ask the necessary questions to find out what you need to know). Here are my red flags in no particular order:

  • They don't seem invested in DEIA work: I always ask about the office's DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility) efforts. There has been a big push from Department of State headquarters to expand diversity work to encompass all aspects of DEIA, and it's even a requirement for our annual performance evaluations now. In my opinion, there's really no excuse not to know about DEIA and not to be involved. In one awful informational interview I did recently with an incumbent, they didn't know what "DEIA" was and couldn't give any examples of how post was improving DEIA in the workplace besides the extremely vague "our leadership cares a lot about it." That's a major red flag to me.
  • The pitch for the post leads with the airport: If someone is telling me about their post but leads with the fact that the international airport allows you to go anywhere else and gives no examples of things that are interesting or rewarding about the work or the location, that tells me people don't really want to be there and are just looking to escape.
  • The incumbent is unprofessional: What does it say about the job if the person they previously hired to fill it is unprofessional? Examples I have experienced include receiving emails full of mistakes and typos that made me think hiring their replacement was an afterthought, being interrupted and talked over during an informational interview, and being talked down to for knowing less about the post and the portfolio than the incumbent who had served there for years.
  • They use coded language for overwork: When an incumbent uses a lot of coded language that usually means they and the entire team are overworked (e.g., "dynamic, fast-paced office looking for a resilient team player who can respond to the requirements of an actively engaged Front Office on high priority issues for Washington and responsible for staffing post's many high-level official visits..."), I start thinking their management does not do a good job of protecting their team's time. I am personally a strong believer in the idea that if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. If you expect your people to regularly work 12-hour days and be constantly available by email on nights and weekends, you have nothing to ramp up to if there is an actual crisis or major visit. Everyone will be too burned out to do much other than put out fires. I love my job, but I also love my life outside of work. So I'm looking for positions that won't make me choose one over the other.
  • They use outdated or offensive language: I have heard folks at work use the r-word or expressions like "off the reservation", and if they're still using expressions like this today it shows me that they haven't done a lot of listening to marginalized people and/or they don't exist in a work environment where people feel empowered to correct problematic language and behavior. I think one of the biggest institutional problems we face is a culture of conflict avoidance instead of accountability, so I'd much rather work in an office where people are open to constructive criticism. I want to work with people who change their behavior and language when they learn it's hurting others.
  • The incumbent doesn't get out much: What's the point of sending us overseas if we spend all day at a desk anyway? When an incumbent mentions a large amount of paperwork, whether that's drafting Congressional reports or documentation for grants management, that's a red flag that the job might be less interesting to me personally. (Who knows? Maybe someone else would see this as a plus.) I want to be out of the office meeting people, getting to know the country and the issues I cover better, and reaching out through events and programs as much as possible. In at least one case, I even heard from someone that they were mostly stuck at their desk because their boss kept all the interesting outreach to themselves and stuck this poor subordinate with all the paperwork. That's not the kind of leadership I need in my life!
  • They don't respond at all: I don't know why some incumbents never seem to respond even after multiple follow-ups. Do they struggle with inbox management? Is hiring their replacement not a priority for them or their office? Do they not know how to set an out-of-office message? It's a mystery to me, but when there are so many jobs out there I prefer to rank ones higher where I know there's some mutual enthusiasm. Put another way, I am a straightforward person and I don't like it when posts play hard to get. If I receive no signals of interest from even my first attempt to reach out to a post, it seems like my chances of being a top contender for the job are slim and it's not going to be worth a ton of my time and energy fighting for it.

These were the red flags I've seen in my bidding experience so far, and I hope they're helpful to readers who are bidding or applying to jobs or preparing to apply to jobs. We all have our own preferences and requirements, so I find it helpful to do some soul-searching and thought beforehand to determine what might be a negative or even a dealbreaker for me at that stage in my life and career. I wish everyone reading the best of luck in their bidding/applying journey!

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