Incentives Help State Departmet Fill Postings in Baghdad

By Mark Jr.

Dec. 13, 2007

Diplomats recently demonstrated that the Iraq war is no more popular with them than it is among the general U.S. population.

    Members of the Foreign Service resisted when the State Department indicated in late October that it would use mandatory assignments at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, a policy that hasn’t been instituted since the Vietnam War.

    If a diplomat declines to go to Iraq, it could result in disciplinary action—including being fired.

    But since the original announcement, nearly half of the 48 vacant positions have been filled voluntarily. That means that about 90 percent of the 252 Iraq openings for next summer have been staffed, with seven months remaining to find more volunteers, according to John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association.

    By Thanksgiving, it should be clear how the State Department will fill its slots in Baghdad. One obstacle is getting people to serve in a country where duty can be perceived as a “death sentence,” in the words of a diplomat who spoke in an internal State Department meeting and was quoted by the Associated Press.

    Dangerous postings also can be common in the private sector—and companies use some of the same incentives that the State Department has in its repertoire to entice workers to take jobs in unstable regions.

    Depending on career level, a Foreign Service professional who takes a one-year Baghdad assignment could receive a 70 percent boost in base salary, premium pay for overtime, support for family members left behind, 10 weeks off and preference on the next assignment, says Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokesperson.

    Oil and industrial companies offer rich incentive packages for employees they send to volatile African countries like Angola and Nigeria, according to Fran Luisi, a principal with Charles¬ton Partners, an HR executive placement firm in Rumson, New Jersey.

    “They really are trying to recruit people to exotic locations,” Luisi says.

    The draw is more than money. Just as important is the opportunity to develop skills that will enhance careers.

    International experience on the ground “really adds value to your marketability in the corporate environment,” Luisi says. “There will be promotional opportunities. That tends to play well.”

    But much of the time, expatriate assignments in the private sector are not so exciting. They’re to more traditional—and safer—places like Europe and Asia.

    “Most companies aren’t going to be putting employees in harm’s way,” says Steve Kueffner, an international consultant at Watson Wyatt.

    When they are sent away, it’s usually for one or two years. That keeps costs down but provides enough time for cultural enrichment, Kueffner says.

    “The length of assignment is shorter than it was five or 10 years ago,” he says.

    At the State Department, the time frame for postings may vary, but the need to send senior officers with the right language and skill sets to threatening regions will remain constant.

    “Going into countries that are in transition is nothing new to the department,” Thompson says. “It has been done many times in the past, and we’ll continue to do it in the future.”

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