A Traveler In The Foreign Service: The World Of Foreign Service Nationals

photo of u.s. embassyImagine working in an office where all of the most experienced employees with the most seniority and institutional knowledge were the underlings. And what if all the chiefs were foreigners, many with a dodgy command of the local history, language and culture? That’s a bit what it’s like to work at an American embassy overseas.

State Department Foreign Service Officers, (FSO’s) generally spend two years each in their first two overseas assignments – unless it’s a danger post, in which case they spend just one. After that, a typical assignment lasts three years. In many cases, it takes at least a year to really acclimate to a new country, so it’s often almost time to leave by the time an FSO really begins to feel at home in a place. And you usually have your onward assignment a year or so before you leave a post, so mentally you’re already in the next place before you leave post.

The system is set up this way for good reason – the U.S. government doesn’t want FSO’s to “go native” – essentially adopting the host country’s interests over those of the U.S. But the flipside of all the moving around is that embassies have a merry-go-round of Americans hopping on and off all year round. The local employees, called Foreign Service Nationals (FSN’s), are in many ways the foundation of each mission, because they tend to stay in their jobs for decades, if not their entire working lives.FSN’s help FSO’s acclimate to the local politics and culture, provide institutional knowledge, and serve as de-factor representatives of the U.S. government, even though they aren’t U.S. citizens. FSN’s are very much like local mentors – an odd dynamic because it’s unusual to be in the position of having to teach a new boss every few years. If they like their bosses, they’ll warn them when they’re making mistakes, but if they don’t, they might just stand by and let them fail.

For FSO’s, the challenge is figuring out how to manage people who know a lot more than you do. In Budapest, for example, I managed one woman who had been with the embassy for 43 years, dating back to the Communist era. Thankfully, she was a wonderful person to work with, but even so, it’s a bit odd to have 20 somethings managing people who have decades of seniority.

FSN’s can progress in their careers with the embassy, but only to a point, because FSO’s run each mission. In most countries, FSN’s make considerably less than FSO’s, but the U.S. government is still considered a great employer, particularly in developing countries where good jobs are scarce. During the two years I worked at the U.S. Embassy in Skopje, for example, I don’t think a single FSN voluntarily quit their job. My section had ten local employees and a decade after I first arrived, they’re all still working there. How’s that for stability?

Every American embassy has areas where only “cleared” Americans (that is, Americans with security clearances) can go. The practicality of this is that FSN’s can spend their entire working lives in a building they’ve only seen fractions of. They can wonder what’s on the floors they can’t visit but they’ll never know. (In reality, they aren’t missing much in most cases.)

In countries where stable, good paying jobs are scarce, FSN’s are often some of the most talented, best educated people in the country. It is not uncommon to find people with master’s degrees or Ph.D.’s willing to work as security guards or drivers at U.S. embassies in developing countries where good opportunities are scarce. Some are able to work there way up to professional positions at the embassy but even those who stay where they are are often grateful just to have a job where the paychecks arrive on time twice a month.

U.S. embassies have to comply with local labor laws and in many countries that means that FSN’s have a remarkable amount of leave. For example, when I lived in Macedonia, women could take a maternity leave of up to two years, much of it paid. That has changed, but the system is still very generous by U.S. standards.

I viewed my FSN’s as a kind of local family. They were more than just co-workers to me because when you arrive in a new country you’re a bit like a child. You’re a witness to all kinds of things happening around you, but most of it goes by in a blur and you only comprehend a fraction of what’s going on. Good FSN’s will help you understand more.

I was particularly close to my group in Skopje. Often times in life, you can’t appreciate a situation until its gone, but as my time in the country started to wind down I realized that I might never see some of them again. It’s an out-of-the-way country that is expensive and inconvenient to get to, and besides, it’s hard to go back someplace where you have so many memories – everything changes and you feel lost in nostalgia.

On my very last day of work, after saying my goodbyes, I decided to walk home from the embassy. I’ll never forget that walk because I shed a few tears for the first time in many years. In leaving my FSN’s, I felt like I was leaving family members behind. Thanks to the magic of Facebook, I’m still in contact with most of them. But I still miss them and some of the other FSN’s I worked with in Trinidad and Hungary.

After working for the U.S. government for 15 years, FSN’s are eligible to receive green cards. I always told my FSN’s that someday, my dream is for them to come to the U.S. because I want them to start their own businesses so they can get a taste of what it’s like to boss an American around. They deserve to have that feeling, if only once.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.