Sunday, March 10, 2024

Tips for Acing the DEIA Question in Foreign Service Interviews

Image by Nick K from Pixabay

This year, I have the luxury of not bidding (i.e., what we call applying for our next post of assignment) and somehow I find it easier to be reflective and think about the best bidding advice I've received and learned when I'm not under the pressure of finding a job just yet myself. I've previously shared my informational interview red flags and green flags, as well as how M and I narrow down our bid list. I even did a miscellaneous bidding advice roundup. But something I've been asked a lot recently and haven't yet done a post on is how to ace the DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility) question we all expect these days in interviews. The question is usually some variation on "What does DEIA mean to you?" or "How have you supported DEIA?" or "Tell me about how you've advanced DEIA in your current role."

This is not a purely cynical question I'm hearing from people who don't care about DEIA and want to fake it 'til they make it to their dream post. DEIA questions can be difficult even for the most dedicated employees because it's hard to know what's admissible versus inadmissible, what hiring managers are looking for, and how you can stand out from all the other candidates answering this question. With the caveat that this is merely one mid-level Foreign Service officer's opinion and it should be taken with a grain of salt, I wanted to consolidate my personal advice for answering this question effectively after a few rounds of mid-level bidding experience, lots of practice with others both more senior and junior to me, conversations I've had with hiring managers including regional bureau DEIA advisors, and sitting in on interviews including with some Chief of Mission (i.e., Ambassador) interviews. Here's my advice roundup in no particular order:

  • Don't confuse DEIA with affirmative action. One hiring manager told me, "You'd be amazed at how many men proudly announce in response to the DEIA question that they have hired a woman and therefore they are champions of DEIA." This not only demonstrates that you don't know what DEIA really is but also makes an insulting implication that women can't be hired based on merit. Crucially, it is illegal to make a hiring decision in the Foreign Service based on protected categories like race or sex. This is an unacceptable response.
  • Don't feel like your example only matters if it's about race or sex; use the best example you have. Too many people think about DEIA only in terms of race or sex when your best example of what you've done to advance DEIA might be advocating for better accommodations for people with disabilities or ensuring equitable policies for LGBTQIA+ people or whatever it might be.
  • Some people say they are so overwhelmed with their basic day-to-day essential tasks that they don't have time to invest in DEIA initiatives that are worth talking about in an interview (or even in an EER). I think this is a mistake. Although it's wonderful if you can volunteer on your post's or office's DEIA Council (what were previously called D&I Councils), that's not a prerequisite to doing DEIA work. The best employees incorporate DEIA into their regular work anyway. If you're a press attaché, you could look at including journalists from outlets with different perspectives than the safe, U.S.-based ones you already know well. If you're a cultural affairs officer, you could conduct outreach, prioritize grant proposals, and seek out exchange applicants in marginalized geographic areas. If you're a reporting officer, you could make sure your contact lists and invitation lists include more people from underrepresented groups and your meetings with friends and allies include more than just the stereotypical Western European diplomats. If you're a management officer, you can make sure all religious holidays and observances are respectfully and appropriately accommodated with policies such as floating holidays or ensuring employees have a private place for prayer and meditation. If you're a consular officer you can use norming sessions (i.e., meetings where you make sure all interviewing officers are on the same page) and validation studies (i.e., research the Department does on consular outcomes for those who receive and travel on U.S. visas) to advocate that visa decisions be made on substantiated evidence and not unconscious bias.
  • Try to talk about the outcome of whatever you did. Instead of just saying you invited more women to a reception, you can say, "As a result of my efforts to diversify the economic section's contact list, we gained insights from women entrepreneurs who underscored additional barriers they faced obtaining capital in country. Our team wrote a front-channel cable reporting on the discrepancy and incorporated talking points about empowering women entrepreneurs into all engagements with the Ministry of Economy, which increased host government outreach and programs for women and other marginalized business owners. In addition, our initiative inspired other posts in the region to investigate and identify gaps, as well." It doesn't always have to be that grand, either. For example, sharing that people who attended your event said they never realized how much the language they were using hurt people from rural areas or that people with invisible disabilities contacted you later to say they were thankful you stood up for people like them in front of the team makes your example more meaningful.
  • If you have the opportunity to show DEIA leadership, do it - but it's not necessary to share if you are a member of an underrepresented group. For example, you can say something like "As vice president of one of State's largest employee resource groups representing x individual members spanning the globe, I learned that many of our members faced discrimination and harassment in the workplace for their identity from managers and colleagues who misinterpreted U.S. opposition to certain countries and governments as antipathy for entire ethnic groups. As a result, I spearheaded programs to set Department-wide policy on inclusive and precise language, including the first-ever ALDAC on the subject, that empowered people to have official guidance to point to when pushing back on discrimination in the workplace. Many employees have written to me in the months since expressing their relief and gratitude for official guidance that gives them the top cover they need to feel empowered and effective at work. Y% of employees from this demographic said in the recent Stay Survey that they struggle seeing a future for themselves in the Department, and although we have a long way to go I'm proud that initiatives like the one I made a priority will help to change things for the better." (An ALDAC is a cable sent from Main State, what we call Department of State headquarters in DC, to all diplomatic and consular posts around the world.) Notice in this example the actual identity of the person talking is unnecessary. The hiring panel shouldn't be hiring you because you're a member of a marginalized group; they should be hiring you because of what you've accomplished. It's worth practicing highlighting your accomplishments without referencing your identities, if possible. They're important in the real world but incidental to the hiring manager's decision.
  • Always think about how what you've done can build the institution. One of my examples was I pushed for my post to have newsletters accessible to people with visual impairments for the first time. How can I take that benefit even further? I can share the results with others through employee resource groups or with a cable so other posts that don't yet have accessible newsletters can make the switch, too, and learn from what we did. That not only makes a better interview example, but more importantly it actually benefits more people.
  • Stay away from topics of reverse discrimination or underscoring historically privileged identities. I wish this could go without saying, but I've heard Foreign Service people complain to me that the real victims of modern DEIA efforts are straight, white men and that they should be the priority. I've also heard complaints of reverse racism, accusations that bidding and promotions are now skewed in favor of underrepresented groups, and that it's so hard to be Christian nowadays. People have a right to their personal opinions, but these hot takes have no place in a professional interview of any kind and definitely not in response to a DEIA question.
  • Use specific examples of your accomplishments, regardless of the question. Sometimes the question is so abstract and general (e.g., "What does DEIA mean to you?") that people are tempted to give an abstract and general answer. This is never as effective as an answer backed up by specific examples. You can say, "DEIA is the very foundation of the strength of the United States, and I support it not only because science has demonstrated over and over again that DEIA is more creative and effective and productive but also because it's the right thing to do. That's why when I was a section chief and learned that women and Muslim entry-level officers at my post felt left out and disadvantaged because the DCM would host whiskey and cigar nights with only their male, alcohol-drinking counterparts, I decided to take action..." This is just a hypothetical example, but I wrote it out to illustrate how you can address the abstract question very quickly but make it a stronger answer by backing it up with a concrete example.
  • The best DEIA examples take personal investment and courage. (Warning: this is probably my most controversial piece of advice here.) If you want to stand out from other bidders, I don't think it's usually enough to say you organized a webinar or made a flyer or planned a single event on a very safe DEIA topic that everyone who attended already agreed was good and important. Our institution changes very slowly, and there are a lot of necessary and overdue DEIA changes that will require some friction. If you stood up to your boss on a DEIA issue, that shows you were willing to take a level of personal risk for integrity that a lot of Foreign Service personnel wouldn't. If you stood up to your boss and it was successful and you got the change implemented and an apology, that shows that you're not only brave but diplomatic and effective (and I think it speaks volumes about the professional maturity of your boss, as well). This is just my two cents, but I think DEIA leadership requirements are moving in this direction because our organization sorely needs this level of commitment. I've had countless mentors since I joined the Foreign Service tell me when I was going through something discriminatory or unfair and say, "That's really horrible. But if I were you I'd put my head down and not make a big deal about it. I'm conflict averse and the Department doesn't reward people who go against the grain." With all due respect to those mentors, I think many of us newer folks are not willing to spend the rest of our careers putting our heads down and accepting the work culture this attitude fuels. As I've said before and will say again: more often than not I've found entry-level cowards become mid-level cowards and mid-level cowards become senior-level cowards. Courage has to start somewhere.

I hope this is helpful advice, but remember I'm just one person with one opinion. Best of luck to everyone bidding, and I hope you work hard to move forward DEIA not just during interview season but all year round!

Saturday, March 2, 2024

How I Manage Too Many Emails, Not Enough Time

A Foreign Service mentor of mine I really admire once told me, "You'd be amazed how far you can get in this career just by responding to emails." As an entry-level officer, I didn't understand what she meant but now that I'm hitting my mid-career stride I completely agree. Like most modern office workplaces, the State Department is overflowing with emails: newsletters, administrative automated emails, meeting and event invitations, requests for clearance (what we call required approvals on documents or courses of action), networking messages, missives from mentees or mentors or colleagues or friends who need advice or are hoping to catch up or are responding to you - some of which require your attention or approval but some of which are just for your information. Of the ones that need action, some have deadlines and some are open-ended. Either way, I have yet to meet someone in the mid-level Foreign Service and above who isn't sick of the overwhelming number of emails.

In this environment, it is very tempting simply to relinquish control of one's inbox and give up. I have met plenty of people - including those in essential jobs where a missed email literally could alter someone life - fall into this camp. Alternatively, some let Outlook rule their lives, spending every night and weekend combing through emails to make sure they've read every word of every email that comes through just in case they are needed. I don't think either of these extremes is healthy or contributes to a positive work culture. I also don't think there is a one-size-fits-all solution for every person or every job: people need to find the email management system that works best for them.

At the same time, I'm happy to shared what has worked for me because it has served me well throughout all four of my tours in the Foreign Service so far. I love my system so much that I use the same one for my personal email and work email: Inbox Zero. Yes, this means my inbox is empty or nearly empty a majority of the time. (And it feels great!) TechTarget summarizes the key tenets of Inbox Zero, which I quoted below followed by my own commentary:

  1. "Some messages are more equal than others." This is the most challenging one for me, because I like to go in order from oldest to newest email by default, but sometimes you have to go through your emails in priority order or the top priorities will fall through the cracks. It's not enough to have a goal of taking care of five emails by lunch: the most important and urgent emails need to be addressed and treating all emails as equal can tempt anyone to do the easier or more fun emails first.
  2. "Your time is priceless and wildly limited...Accept that your workload exceeds your resources." This means saying no, delegating, or asking for help when you need it. In the Foreign Service world, I find this reminder very helpful when I see a cable about a very cool grant program that I might be able to apply for and manage but I really don't have the time or the bandwidth to put in the necessary effort to make the program successful. It's better that I just ignore the cable announcing the opportunity than spinning myself and others up to feel like we need to submit something.
  3. "Less can be so much more." For instance, I used to feel like I needed "thank you" and "you're welcome" responses to emails all the time, but now a simple thumbs up in Outlook or even a quick instant message in Teams does the job without cluttering both our inboxes.
  4. "Lose the guilt." If someone doesn't like your quick or curt response, don't beat yourself up over it. I will add a caveat that in the Foreign Service context it is crucial to be attuned to local cultural communication differences and not to be rude (by the standards of your counterpart's culture) in email communications. Even if you do find someone was hurt or offended by your quick and short response, shaming yourself over it doesn't help. Thank whomever helped you learn, resolve to do better, and get back to work. There are plenty of other ways to streamline efficiency, including in other emails, so don't feel like including all the proper introductions and how-are-yous and flowery signoffs is a waste of time if it's meaningful in that culture.
  5. "Lying to yourself doesn't empty an inbox." I most often see this in bad estimates of how long an email will take to handle. If it needs more time, don't try and dive in five minutes before you have to run to a meeting. If you need to consult with people before responding, consult with them and then respond instead of cluttering everyone's inboxes with unnecessary back-and-forth.

There is a key feature in Outlook and Gmail I find essential for maintaining my Inbox Zero lifestyle: snooze, which allows you to remove emails from your inbox to a "snoozed" category and schedule them to re-enter your inbox at a specified later date and time. I snooze emails with reckless abandon in my personal and work systems whenever I don't have time to respond in the moment or whenever I might need to follow up later. (It's worth noting the snooze feature is more reliably available in web Outlook than the desktop version, at least for State employees.) Did I get emailed tickets with a QR code for an event on Thursday? I snooze it for Thursday evening right before the event. Is there an administrative task I need to make sure gets done? I snooze it to next week as a reminder to follow up if I haven't heard any updates by then. The possibilities are infinite!

Where I differ from the traditional Inbox Zero approach, which recommends aggressively deleting or archiving emails as you go through them, is that I file completed emails into folders due to federal government records retention requirements. I can't just delete my work emails because technically my work emails involving official business are federal government records that must be kept according to specific laws, regulations, and policies. They can be requested due to the Freedom of Information Act, and sometimes historians, political scientists, and other academics use our unclassified or declassified emails for their research. I have periodically archived my emails to assist with storage space, but I don't have the same freedom to archive and delete work emails that I do with my personal inbox.

Alternatives to my system include a long list of automated rules and filters and color-coded labels, which I've seen some people use to great effect. For me, I prefer a few simple rules that are low-stakes enough I am confident I won't miss something very crucial that may require my action. For example, I have a "Roundups" folder in Outlook where my automatic rules put media summaries, political and economic highlights, newsletters from headquarters, and other large-distro items that summarize things that may be of interest to me. These are pretty much never urgent and consolidating them in the Roundups folder instead of cluttering up my inbox allows me to review (or more often skim) them when I have a good chunk of reading time or when I'm in the car on my way to or from a work meeting. My rule leaves new messages in the folder unread so I can see where I left off once I do get reading time, and the rules are very specific (i.e., from a certain sender to a certain distribution list with certain words in the subject) so nothing requiring my individual attention or response accidentally skips my main inbox.

I hope this information is helpful to readers; I think the sooner you transition to Inbox Zero (or whetever email management system works for you), the easier your work life will be. I still think State Department culture has a long way to go on things like calling people for truly urgent tasks instead of expecting them to check emails around the clock, but there are things we can do to make it better and save ourselves from burnout in the process.