Managing Your Expectations of Promotion

State VP Voice


One of the most common issues members raise is promotions—specifically, why they didn’t receive one. To help manage expectations, I want to address the most common promotion misconceptions and clarify how the system works.

Misconception #1: I received MSIs for the last three years, so I should be promoted.

Misconception #2: My last three rating officers have recommended me for promotion, so I should be promoted.

Misconception #3: I served in a Priority Staffing Post or stretch job, so I should be promoted.

Misconception #4: Everyone in my class has been promoted except me, so I should be promoted.

All of these misconceptions can be addressed through a better understanding of the promotion system.

In the first place, a limited number of promotions are available each year. The Foreign Service Act says that promotion numbers are based on “a systematic long-term projection of personnel flows and needs designed to provide (A) a regular, predictable flow of recruitment into the Foreign Service; (B) effective career development patterns to meet the needs of the Service; and (C) a regular, predictable flow of talent upward through the ranks and into the Senior Foreign Service.”

In other words, it is a complicated calculation designed to ensure that the department does not promote so many employees at any given level that there are more employees than jobs at that level.

Further, competitive promotions aren’t guaranteed. Just as the Foreign Service turns away many impressive applicants because other applicants are even more impressive, the selection boards are unable to promote many well-deserving individuals because others are higher on the rank-ordered list.

Promotions are based on demonstrating the ability to perform at the next level.

Promotions are based on demonstrating the ability to perform at the next level. If you are an FS-3 employee who is outstanding at your job, receiving impeccable Employee Evaluation Reports for your work, but your EERs do not reflect your ability to perform successfully at the FS-2 level, you will not be recommended for promotion.

Promotions are designed to move people up to the next level once they have already shown they have the ability to perform at that next level—the system does not want to move people up before they are ready, potentially setting them up to fail.

This forward-looking feature of EERs and promotions is why it is so important that you make sure your evaluation clearly discusses the “next-level-up” work you’ve been doing. Did you serve as Acting Section Chief? If so, be specific in your EER. For example, “Served as Acting Section Chief, an FS-1 position, for a month, successfully leading the section through three VIP visits and a trade negotiation.”

Sometimes a stretch position or a PSP job still isn’t enough to get you promoted. You might be competing against people who served in more challenging jobs, or your skill code might offer more limited promotion opportunities.

So what can you do if you want to increase your chances of being promoted?

• Work with your rating and reviewing officers to make sure your EER emphasizes your proven ability to perform successfully at the next level.

• Talk to your career development officer (CDO) and your mentor(s) about onward assignments that might offer more opportunities to prove yourself.

• Review your official performance folder to make sure that all of your EERs and awards are included. Ensure that there is nothing in your file that shouldn’t be there, such as a discipline letter that should have been removed.

• Look at who is serving on your promotion panel. You have the right to request the recusal of anyone who you believe cannot apply the precepts fairly and without bias in assessing your performance.

Finally, seek out assignments that make you happy—the happier you are, the better you perform and the better your chances of getting promoted. Far too many people take jobs they don’t want because they believe it will get them promoted, only to find themselves unhappy in the position and then bitter when they don’t end up getting a promotion. If you’re in a job that you find meaningful, a non-promotion will be a brief disappointment, not an event that derails you.

Angie Bryan is the Department of State vice president of the American Foreign Service Association.