Why Foreign Service EER Season Is Awful

To every thing there is a season. There’s the traditional spring/summer/fall/winter rotation of course – or in Conakry, wet and dry – but the Foreign Service as an entity has seasons of its own. There’s budget season, strategic resource planning season, and the frenetic spending spree that marks the of the End of the Fiscal Year. Today is the final day of EER season, a period of several weeks during which the entire service withdraws to semi-hibernation in their offices to produce and push around the mountain of paper that is the annual Employee Evaluation Review. I could explain the EER process to you, but fortunately the internet has already stepped up in that department so you can read all about it here. But for the lazy, here’s the quick and dirty:

The report consists of: the rating statement- prepared (in theory) by the supervisor for employees at or below the rank of 02 and by the rated employee at 01 and above, the review statement- prepared by the next level of management, the dreaded “room for improvement” box and the rated employees final statement, affectionately known as the “suicide box.” Each report has to address issues such as leadership, management, communication skills, intellectual skills, job knowledge and of course EEO [equal employment opportunity].

The process of writing the report is intended to be collaborative and transparent, with the rated employee, the rater (immediate supervisor) and the reviewer (usually next step up the chain of command) working together to produce a report that places the rated employee within the organization and measures his or her performance against the work requirements of the position.

In reality, for all but the most junior of officers and the total screw-ups, the employee writes at least the first draft of his or her own rating statement-it is a simple matter of time and wanting to have the best report possible. Combine this with the unwritten policy of “damn by faint praise” for the screw-ups and it becomes extremely difficult to tell who is actually a standout employee. It is only with slight exaggeration they 
[sic] I say some reports use phrases like “when Dick is not walking on water he is busy turning it into wine.” Smiley wrote a bout [sic] visits recently- when the Secretary of State visits your post everyone of any elevated rank ends up with credit for the success of the visit- whether the visit was indeed a success or not. Much like grade inflation in our colleges, relative worth of an employee’s contribution is inflated to help that person stand out among a group of peers who all have basically the same job.

So basically my annual performance review is a joint essay project for me, my boss, and my boss’s boss, with the goal of convincing my future promotion and tenure panels (who most likely have never met me or seen any of my work) that I am not merely awesome, but the most awesomely awesomest with an extra coat of awesomesauce. Awesome. As a low man on the totem pole I only have to be concerned with my own EER, but the DCM has to come up with two or three glorifying paragraphs for almost every single person at the embassy, so you can see why this takes some time.

There is also mandatory section to list and briefly explain an area of improvement, but I’m learning that even this is precisely gamed to make the rated employee look as good – or as least bad – as possible, rather than addressing any actual professional shortcomings. Some areas of improvement are informally considered to be worse than others in certain career tracks and at certain points in one’s career and are therefore strategically avoided, with “Interpersonal Communication” widely rumored to be the universal kiss of death.

Since I haven’t been at post a year yet my EER isn’t due until next month, but my boss and I have already started work on it, picking out my greatest accomplishments since I arrived and polishing them up for that extra shine. I haven’t started my personal statement for the “suicide box” yet. I don’t really know what to say. I’ve never been especially good at tooting my own horn, despite being told by any number of teachers and career counselors and other mentor-type figures that this is a – if not THE – vital professional skill. But if I have to compete with all those other gilded lilies out there I guess I’d better have my sparkliest gold paint ready.