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In conjunction with Women’s

History Month and Interna-

tional Women’s Day, and on

the heels of Black History

Month, I want to bring an

issue to the attention of

our membership and ask

whether you’d like AFSA to

pursue it.

The issue? Unconscious

bias, stereotypes about

certain groups of people

that individuals form without

being aware that they are

doing so.

While often discussed

in the press with regard to

gender, unconscious bias

actually affects a much wider

range of colleagues, particu-

larly those with ethnic names

that might lead to assump-

tions about the employee’s

race, religion or other attri-


In the Foreign Service con-

text, the most addressable

risk posed by unconscious

bias is that members of pro-

motion panels might unwit-

tingly apply it when they see

names on evaluations. For

example, research shows that

memos circulated under a


name tend to be perceived

as having more errors than

when the same memos are

circulated under a “typical”

Caucasian name.

Promotion panels

shouldn’t make assumptions,

positive or negative, when

they read evaluations, but

some impressions can be

unintentional and thus dif-

ficult to avoid.

Unconscious Bias: Share Your ThoughtsWith AFSA



Views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the AFSA State VP.


| (202) 647-8160

The more I learned about

this issue, the more con-

cerned I became that the use

of names in evaluations is a

needless vulnerability.

One AFSA member put

together a comprehensive

paper on the topic, outlining

studies of unconscious bias

in various industries.

The paper also addresses

common arguments against

removing names from evalua-


It concludes: “Using ‘the

employee’ in place of names

is a relatively easy fix to a

thorny problem (and has the

side benefit of meaning that

both Tim and Abdulrahman

have equal characters/lines

free to discuss their actual


The results overwhelm-

ingly convinced not only me,

but also other members of

the AFSA Governing Board,

that name- and gender-free

evaluations would greatly

reduce the possibility of

unconscious bias playing a

real or even a perceived role

in the promotion process,

leaving employees less wor-

ried and more able to focus

on their actual jobs.

We decided that this issue

merits consultation with our

members and, depending on

your response, action from

us in the shape of a formal

proposal to the department.

If you would like to see the

entire paper, please email me



I encourage you to read

more about unconscious

bias, discuss it with your

colleagues, think about it and

write to me before April at

with the

subject line “Unconscious

Bias” to let me know whether

you would like us to pursue

the issue with the depart-

ment and ask them to stop

including names and gender-

identifying pronouns in

Employee Evaluation Reports.

We’re happy to receive

“yes” or “no” emails if you’re

in a rush, but we’re equally

delighted to receive longer

emails with more detailed


We are well aware that

such a change would involve

some hard work and the

commitment of department

resources, but we don’t think

that either of those excuses

justifies non-action if we

determine that it’s the right

thing to do.

As the aforementioned

paper notes: “Possible solu-

tions could include software

that removes names or ask-

ing the employees to make

the changes in their own files.

At the very least, we should

start with a revised policy in

the next EER cycle, so that

five years down the line, files

will all have the identifying

information omitted with

almost no cost.”

Let us hear your thoughts.

As an organization which

describes itself as “the Voice

of the Foreign Service,” we

want to ensure that we’re

fighting not only for what

will strengthen the Foreign

Service, but also for the

issues that truly matter to

our members.

One final note: Choosing

to pursue this issue would

not take time away from

AFSA’s important legislative

advocacy efforts—those are

run out of AFSA headquarters

by the AFSA president and

the Professional Policy Issues


As AFSA State VP, I focus

on labor-management issues,

which require negotiation

with the department. Saying

“yes” to this initiative would

in no way imply saying “no”

to or otherwise affecting our

ongoing efforts on Capitol




MARCH 2017



Promotion panels shouldn’t make

assumptions, positive or negative,

when they read evaluations, but some

impressions can be unintentional and

thus difficult to avoid.