162. Memorandum From the Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Personnel (Barnes) to the Deputy Under Secretary of State for Management (Read)1


  • Reluctance to Take Assignments

Reluctance on the part of Foreign Service personnel to accept the assignments offered or proposed to them has probably grown in recent years, but it is still a problem of modest and manageable dimensions if one views the Service as a whole. It is only one factor in the assignment equation and, with few exceptions, does not seriously impede the assignment process. An analysis of the various causes of the “reluctance factor” is attached.

The basic question is how much effort we need to put into the business of assigning employees to jobs that are not only appropriate (in terms of grade, qualifications, experience, etc.) but which more or less satisfy the employees’ personal and professional desires as well. There is no doubt that assignments could be made more expeditiously if we paid attention solely or primarily to the needs of the Service. But such assignments, made with little prior consultation and without taking into consideration all the relevant factors as seen by the employee, would certainly result in greater discontent, more broken assignments, expensive transfers, etc.—in other words, significant inefficiencies as a (delayed) consequence of greater efficiency in the assignment process itself.

The “open assignments” system makes the employee more fully a part of the assignments process and provides a technique for overcoming the reluctance factor. In some cases it entails significant prior consul[Page 627]tation between counselors and employees. Occasionally it means that the employee, after lengthy discussions, has to be brought to realize that the available options are very limited, that his top choices are simply not available, and that he must reduce his expectations. This approach is particularly important now, given the congested conditions in the Service which most employees are aware of in general terms but which they do not understand in detail and in all their implications.

Statistics are not fully available but we believe our record for assignments kept is markedly better under “open assignments” than under previous systems. Further evidence of success is that by the end of the assignment cycle we have made very few forced placements and there are virtually no unassigned employees in the staff and officer corps up through the intermediate grades. (The senior problem is of course compounded by a surplus of officers over positions.)

Not surprisingly, reluctance tends to be a more serious problem in areas where career structure seems deficient and where promotion opportunities and new and more challenging jobs appear to be lacking. This relates specifically to certain classes of staff employees. However, as the Service profile lengthens and promotions become less frequent, the reluctance factor could come to affect officer placements more adversely. At present, officer “reluctance” is as often fed by competing opportunities or by overly solicitous supervisors as it is by unrealistic expectations on the part of officers.

In short, this problem is one of many we grapple with in making assignments but one we believe “open assignments” and other techniques keep within manageable dimensions.

Attachment 1

Paper Prepared in the Bureau of Personnel 2

Reasons for Reluctance

The reasons for the reluctance of Foreign Service employees to accept jobs are so various that it is difficult to generalize about the problem. Still, a few widely applicable observations can be made:

(1) The policy of “open assignments”, now in its third year, has misled some employees to think that they have a right, if not to choose [Page 628] their jobs, at least to turn down those they don’t like. PER has taken great pains to make clear that this is not the case—that “open assignments” means no more than (a) better information about available jobs than has existed in the past, and (b) a right to be heard and considered by a rationally organized personnel system.

(2) Reluctance to accept assignments appears to be a more serious problem among staff and support personnel than it is for the FSO Corps. There is an obvious reason for this. While hardship posts frequently offer significant professional compensations for FSO’s—for example, a middle grade officer can be DCM at a small embassy in Africa when he could not even be section chief in a large Western European post—there is no corresponding incentive for staff personnel. Moreover, these people do not generally believe that the sacrifice involved in going through with a hardship assignment enhances their presently limited promotion prospects to any great extent. This means that for most of them the pay differential is the only attraction of a hardship post and often it is not enough.

(3) Among officers the severity of the problem varies from one cone to another, but administrative and consular officers may be a bit more inclined to resist assignments than those in the political and economic cones. Again, the lack of adequate professional compensation at hardship posts probably plays a role. So far as the consular cone is concerned, the fact that there are more jobs than officers at certain levels no doubt makes it harder to persuade individual officers that a certain hardship post or unattractive job are the only ones for them.

(4) The growing atmosphere of humanitarian concern in our society has made itself felt in the traditionally disciplined ranks of the Foreign Service. On the whole, considering the size and complexity of our Service and of the systems that have been devised to operate it, we have been remarkably successful in taking account of special needs, whether related to children’s education, working spouses, health, compassionate factors, or whatever. Our very success in doing this, however, has nourished the tendency of employees to assume that their personal requirements will be honored as a matter of course.

(5) In a period of slow promotions, officers are especially sensitive to a job’s potential for moving them ahead in the Service. This means different things to different people, depending on grade, cone, specialty, etc. For example, almost all officers from the middle grades on up are concerned to get supervisory experience, believing (with reason) that demonstrated ability to manage the work of others will improve their chances of reaching the highest levels of the Service. (This is particularly true in the political and economic fields, where supervisory jobs at the lower and middle levels are very few and far between.) It is not surprising, therefore, that officers are occasionally inclined, during the earlier stages of the assignment cycle, to resist jobs that seem [Page 629] deficient in promotion potential while holding out, as long as there seems to be any hope, for ones that clearly have it. On the other hand, many officers appear reluctant to accept out-of-agency assignments (details or Pearson program3) which often include substantial management responsibility. It appears this attitude is due to a feeling that at a time of slow promotions it is dangerous to be out of the mainstream of Foreign Service assignments.

(6) PER and the employee who is up for transfer are often not the only players in the assignments game. Quite often employees get strong support, from their post overseas or the bureaus in the Department that are interested in them, for their own notion of what their onward assignment should be; this support occasionally encourages them to resist the more modest—or at least different—plans which PER has in mind for them.

Attachment 2

Paper Prepared in the Bureau of Personnel 4

Discussion by Category

Staff and Support Personnel

An increasing number of secretaries and of communications personnel are objecting to their onward assignments and fewer than in the past are volunteering for hardship posts. The C&R panel tries to take account of personal preferences, but it has had to resort fairly often to forced placements in order to meet Service needs. These usually end up working out one way or another but the struggle is inefficient and time-consuming. The secretarial panel, on the other hand, has made forced placements only very rarely, preferring to accommodate and adjust wherever possible.

One of the difficulties with C&R assignments is that there are only about 150 supervisory positions in the C&R field overseas but approximately 200 senior communicators (R/RU–6, S–4 and above). Often these people have to be assigned to positions lower than their personal grade. Junior communicators, too, are unhappy over the [Page 630] dearth of supervisory opportunities for which they feel they are qualified and which they think would help them to advance in rank.

Secretaries also balk occasionally over the grade of the job they are assigned to. However, the reasons for their reluctance to take jobs are so various that one hesitates to generalize.

Junior Officers

Junior Officers present little difficulty, in part because there are more jobs than people and in part because first-tour officers are not permitted to negotiate for their assignments (although they may express preferences). The results have been good in recent years; while these assignments are certainly directed, there have been virtually no instances in which it would be appropriate to call them forced placements.

Middle Grade Officers

In the political and economic cones, there have been almost no assignments in recent years that could properly be called forced placements. During every assignment cycle there is a period during which fairly large numbers of officers are reluctant to accept certain jobs until they are satisfied that the more attractive ones they have put at the top of their preference lists are beyond their reach. So long as it does not take too long or become too unwieldy, this scaling-down of expectations is a good thing: it means that our officers accept jobs which are less than their top choice with a better will and with more understanding than if they had been assigned arbitrarily at an earlier stage.

It is quite clear, all the same, that some areas of the Department suffer from persistent and deeply ingrained unpopularity with FSO’s. This is especially true of the functional bureaus (with the exception of PM) and, in particular, of INR and CU. Indeed it has not been uncommon for some positions in INR to go unfilled for fairly long periods of time.

Variations in the popularity of the different regions of the world constitute much less of a problem for political and economic officers. It is true that a large majority of officers yearn for Europe at one time or another; but we seem to have enough enthusiasts for all parts of the world so that political and economic positions rarely go begging for candidates.

There may be a growing problem with labor-political positions overseas. FSO’s, including officers with labor as a primary or secondary functional skill, are more inclined than they used to be to view the labor specialty with skepticism, believing that it almost guarantees a slow rate of advancement in the Service.

The problem of reluctance exists in the consular area but is limited in scope. The reluctance of employees to go to a post with a bad [Page 631] reputation is quite often mitigated by the career opportunities such posts offer. Sometimes officers are able at these posts to go into positions higher than their personal rank.

Occasionally there are management and supervisory responsibilities that would not be found at a more attractive post. This has meant that there have been few forced placements of consular officers: three in 1976 and none in 1977.

One problem which may be peculiar to the consular cone is a modest shortage of officers, at certain levels, in relation to the positions that have to be filled: it is a “deficit” cone. This gap is met in part by excursion tours of officers from other cones. It does tend, however, to persuade officers who are members of the deficit cone that they should not or need not let themselves be forced in the direction of a single unattractive option. Obviously, where several offices or posts are bidding for the services of a single officer that officer is in a better position to bargain for the assignment he views as most desirable.

Counselors for the administrative cone in PER/FCA regard the problem of reluctance to take assignments as a serious one. They have not had to make many forced placements, but there is a great deal of reluctance on the part of their officers to go to undesirable posts and officers often have to be led and cajoled into accepting them.

Senior Officers

Seniors require rather delicate handling. They derive a certain amount of (real or imagined) leverage from their experience and maturity as well as from the fact that the Department regards them (by definition) as people who have excelled. Since there is a shortage of appropriate funded positions in relation to the numbers of senior officers available, their assignments often call for a reduction of inflated hopes and expectations. Some of them have to be persuaded to go into positions which, even though graded at senior levels, have in the past been regarded as more appropriate for grade 3 officers. For example, it is often close to impossible to find a senior officer willing to accept assignment to O–2 political or economic counselor positions. Another complication results from the fact that a fair number of senior positions are still held by middle grade officers—usually FSO-3’s; a senior officer cannot properly be assigned to a position, even though it may be graded at the senior level, which would make him subordinate to an officer of lower rank.

The senior assignments office in PER estimates that 15 to 20 percent of senior officers have rejected specific assignments during recent years and that a larger group, perhaps as much as 25 percent, have been “deft enough to decline assignment proposals without a negative word”. The senior officers who demonstrate reluctance to accept assignments [Page 632] tend to fall into the middle group in each class—not the stellar performers and not those rated in the lower deciles by the selection boards. A significant factor in this attitude is the expectation of successive transfers to positions of increasing responsibility as measured by the classification attached with specific positions. In general, senior officers find it difficult to accept that after twenty years or so of advancement through positions of ascending responsibility they are faced with the prospect of moving laterally to assignments which offer no more psychic gratification than the jobs they have already done—and carried out to the fulsome praise of their past supervisors.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of the Under Secretary for Management (M), 1977–1978, Box 9, Chron April 1978. No classification marking.
  2. No classification marking.
  3. The Pearson program was the Department of State’s domestic assignment program that aimed to broaden a Foreign Service officer’s skills by temporarily assigning him/her to work for a member of Congress or a congressional committee.
  4. No classification marking.