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48

SEPTEMBER 2017

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THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL

The Concerns

Employees’ concerns regarding the assignment restrictions

process were plentiful: it was unfair, lacked transparency and

was based on ethnic origin or family heritage. Our advocacy to

the State Department on the issue began in 2009 and continued

in earnest through 2016.

The case was framed by input from countless numbers of

employees who came to us expressing real frustration, disillu-

sionment and anger over the lack of transparency and account-

ability in the process. In some cases, the department had

prioritized hiring these officers because of their language skills,

only to turn around and

preclude them from using

those valued language

skills overseas.

While assignment

restrictions affect many

State department employ-

ees of different back-

grounds, we accumulated

substantial anecdotal

evidence that it has dis-

proportionately affected

employees of AAPI

descent. Our data sug-

gested assignment restrictions were levied with race as a factor,

with disregard for mitigating circumstances and even based on

incorrect facts.

This seemingly disparate impact of the adjudicative process

on AAPI employees was harmful to morale, restricting employ-

ees from using their language and cultural expertise to further

diplomacy, diverting careers and hindering the full use of the

department’s diverse workforce. This also created the per-

ception that assignment restriction decisions were based on

ethnic origin and ill-defined concerns that AAPI employees

may be vulnerable to foreign influence or preference, or that

the employees themselves were threats rather than the targets

of foreign influence. For example, some employees were

prohibited from serving in China, even though they did not

have close and continuing contacts there. Meanwhile, AAFAA

observed that employees of other races who did possess such

connections were not barred. Such disparate treatment fueled

suspicions of bias, unconscious or otherwise, against AAPI

employees.

The lack of oversight and transparency for assignment

restrictions exacerbated the problem. Working with the Ameri-

can Foreign Service Association, we discovered that the process

for restricting employees from assignment in certain countries

was not grounded in any regulation or guideline, and thus

lacked an adequate appeals process. In other words, employ-

ees affected by assignment restrictions had no opportunity to

appeal that decision.

We also found that the department did not maintain demo-

graphic data related to assignment restrictions, even though

such information is essential for evaluating the fairness of

these programs. Without such records, it is unknown who faces

assignment restrictions, for what reasons, and to which ethnic

and racial groups they

belong. Such information

gaps rendered transpar-

ency and oversight for

these programs impos-

sible.

The impact of these

procedural deficiencies

was serious, for both the

State Department and

AAPI employees. The

department recruits many

AAPI employees to draw

on their abilities in super-

hard languages and cultural expertise. Unwarranted assign-

ment restrictions deny such employees the opportunity to

contribute these abilities, thereby hindering the department’s

efforts to utilize its diverse workforce and better use limited

resources. Ultimately, these issues damaged the inclusive pro-

fessional atmosphere the department seeks to foster and that

remains essential to its mission.

Constructive Dissent Resonates

To remedy the above-mentioned problems, AAFAA worked

diligently over the years to advocate for increasing the trans-

parency and fairness of assignment restrictions and to bring

this matter to the most senior levels of the department in

an effort to seek a resolution. We pushed this issue forward

despite concerns about possible detriment to our own profes-

sional career advancement, but with the greater good of all our

colleagues and the State Department in mind.

Successive presidents of AAFAA consulted with lawyers

and senior leaders in the department to try to work within the

system to advocate for change. Mariju Bofill first raised the

issue with the Secretary of State in 2009, after consultations

In some cases, the department

had prioritized hiring these

officers because of their

language skills, only to turn

around and preclude them from

using those valued language

skills overseas.