Updated: Apr 24
‘The mountains are high and the emperor is far away’
To me, this Chinese proverb summarises the posting experience for many diplomats: what’s said and done in headquarters can look and feel markedly different in a diplomatic mission. While the expectations of performance and behaviour remain the same when we are on a posting as they are in headquarters, the distance away from headquarters and the particular human dynamics at play in each diplomatic mission means that they’re their own little microcosm.
This can make for a positive experience for all working there. It can also make for a truly terrible experience: an experience characterised by bullying, harassment and discrimination.
Let’s courageously explore the negative experience of bullying, harassment and discrimination that we can experience and witness in our workplaces while on a diplomatic posting.
Our Human Resource departments have very clear definitions of bullying, harassment and discrimination as well as policies and procedures in place to address them. In many countries, our employing agencies must have these policies and procedures to comply with relevant workplace laws. For an example of a clear definition of bullying, harassment and discrimination, please refer to this from the New Zealand Government.
While there are clear policies and definitions in place, the topic of workplace bullying, harassment and discrimination remains subjective: One person’s tough love and setting of clear boundaries and expectations and performance management is another’s nightmare situation of being bullied, harassed and discriminated against.
I want to be clear from the beginning: Bullying, harassing and discriminatory behaviour is never OK. Never OK.
What’s the problem?
I want to look at the different aspects and peculiarities that can characterise a diplomatic workplace.
All workplaces are political. Workplace politics happens wherever there are two or more people working together. There is a hierarchy. There are power struggles. There are perceptions of favouritism. There’s gossip and intrigue.
In a diplomatic mission, this kind of workplace political environment is overlaid with actual politics. Diplomats work on behalf of their country’s governments to further its interests in the host country. This is, by nature, political.
Further, we work within our own country’s political and governing structures as well as those of our host country. We work within at least two political systems. Politics dominates our work.
We serve political masters. We work within political systems. Appointments of senior diplomats – Heads of Mission and, sometimes, Deputy Heads of Mission – are made by government. We’ll be revisiting these political appointments below.
Working within the political sphere means that everything is changeable. Government’s priorities change. These ever-changing priorities and demands can be exhausting and stressful. Budgets are cut or reallocated accordingly. Resources – including time, financial and people – can be scarce. There never seems to be enough time or money to get what needs doing done, does there?
Honestly, being so close to the political action is a real buzz and can be thrilling and addictive – until it’s not. Still, we swim in political waters whether we like it or not.
Hierarchy in diplomacy is important. Hierarchy in a diplomatic workplace is important.
Indeed, the Head of Mission (the catch-all term used to describe an Ambassador, High Commissioner or Consul-General for those unfamiliar with diplomatic nomenclature) is the public face of our countries in our host countries. They have significant responsibility for the work being done in their diplomatic mission AND for the people doing the work and their families. The responsibility is enormous.
Within the mission, there can be teams devoted to the different aspects of the work being done across a range of agencies within the government. There are a lot of moving parts to coordinate and serve.
Heads of Mission do not do this work alone, of course. Responsibility for different, specialist aspects of the mission’s work lie with different people – likely you if you’re a mid-career diplomat.
To make it all work, there are clear lines of accountability and reporting.
Linking back to the political nature of diplomacy, there’s intense pressure to consistently deliver high-quality work within almost impossible deadlines over which we have little control (as they’re politically or event driven).
There can be little respite between crises, visits and emergencies. We can spend our entire postings responding to emergencies and very little time doing longer-term work. The relentless urgent work crowds out the important.
This is exciting, until it’s not.
I’ve written extensively on the competition that can dominate our employing agencies’ organisational cultures, both within my blog (see below) and in my book (link also below).
We compete to get ahead. We compete to get attention. We compete to get postings. We compete against other high-achieving and qualified colleagues who also want to get ahead, get attention and get postings.
A way to get ahead is to cultivate a reputation of being good at our jobs and being able to get things done; to deliver results. A good reputation helps get our name’s known back in headquarters, so we’re a known entity when we do apply for postings, promotions or want to get that career-making opportunity.
Sounds harmless, right? What happens when there’s a mindset of progression ‘at all costs’?
It starts with controlling information, and information is power in diplomacy. Need to know principles apply. Being in the know can show just how important and trusted we are. Being in the know shows that we’re aware of the whole situation and can offer better solutions rather than offering solutions based on incomplete information. Controlling information, such as how much we share with colleagues (who are your competition), can give us a competitive edge, can’t it?
Being important and trusted feels good, right?
I’ve also written extensively on the psychological resilience the diplomat’s need. Again, this has been in other blogs (see below) and a chapter in my book.
Diplomats must be psychologically resilient. We must be able to cope with the demands of the job and the life that comes with it. What happens when we’re being placed under pressure to deliver results – or have somehow failed to deliver - and that pressure moves into bullying, harassing and discriminatory behaviour? Does a resilient diplomat ask for help and risk the perception – risk their reputation – of not being able to handle it? Does this diplomat ever get promoted? Do they ever get another posting or opportunity?
Or do the promotions, postings and opportunities go to those who have shown that they can deliver?
From the other perspective, what if we’re so frustrated with someone in our team’s inability to deliver the results that are needed? Do we doubt their ability, mindset and attitude to do the work? Can we be absolutely sure that we would never vent our frustrations in a way that would have someone in our team feeling bullied, belittled or somehow damage their reputation by venting to a friend or colleague?
A diplomatic mission is an outpost of one country’s government in another country. Being an outpost, it is removed from that country. Isolation comes with the territory.
This isolation, despite modern communications and the ability to travel, means that each diplomatic mission is an island. Each develops its own way of working, its own organisational culture. Each mission has a different feel, even if they're diplomatic missions from the same country (ie: a country's embassy in London would have a different feel and organisational culture to it's embassy in Dublin).
This isolation can be both liberating and exasperating. Some missions achieve a great balance between work, play and alignment to purpose, and others can really struggle. Some distance from headquarters can be a good thing at times, and terrible at other times.
Feeling isolated from others – even in our workplaces – can be a very lonely experience. There’s a limited number of people with whom we interact in our days. There’s very little room to hide if we’re having a tough time with one or more of our colleagues. It can feel like our every action is exposed and open to criticism and adds more grist to the gossip mill.
Isolation can bring people together or divide them. The isolation can create a closed circuit. This is a concept introduced by my friend Dr Dougal Sutherland in a blog on home (see link below), and relates to how we can – in the workplace and socially – become enmeshed in a closed circuit. We can be closed off to new ideas, ways of thinking, people and influences. We need fresh ideas and fresh ways of thinking otherwise we operate in a stale, and potentially toxic, environment. This is hard to do if we’re operating in an isolated environment in a state of scarcity.
On top of all this, we are removed from the comfort and support offered by friends and family. We’re not able to sit and chat about issues that are troubling us and get a needed hug. We all know that we can keenly feel physical distance even when modern communications help keep us connected.
While we can know this conceptually before we embark on a posting, the lived reality of a acutely felt sense of isolation can come as a surprise.
Bringing it all together
This is quite a list of factors that can be at play in a diplomatic mission, isn’t it? When these factors combine in just the wrong way, it makes for a stale and toxic environment characterised by bullying, harassment and discrimination.
Keep that stale and toxic environment in mind as you read on. We’ll revisit it later.
For diplomats and those living the diplomatic life
After reading my words above, are you thinking of specific examples from your career where you’ve been subjected to bullying, harassing or discriminatory behaviour from your boss or someone to whom you report?
Are you thinking of specific examples from your career where you’ve witnessed bullying, harassing or discriminatory behaviour?
I’m sure you have. You may have been subjected to, or witnessed, overt or covert examples of bullying, harassment or discrimination.
I asked my readers to share their stories of bullying, harassment and discrimination in their diplomatic workplaces with me. As always, I’m deeply grateful for the trust those who shared their experiences with me placed in me. It was an honour to hear their stories.
I was shocked with what I learned from the responses. There were stories of harassment both in the office and in the home (when living on a compound). There were stories of power plays and psychological games being played by senior members of diplomatic missions. There was casual racism, sexism, homophobia, generationalism, institutional or educational elitism, exclusion and character assassination through spreading malicious gossip.
I received stories where victims were harassed and humiliated in front of their own families and the families of their colleagues during informal gatherings in residential compounds. I received stories of victims hiding in their offices, in their homes and online and being afraid of being seen in case they did something wrong.
I received stories of readers feeling utterly lost and alone. Many wanted to speak up about the poor behaviour but knew – or perceived – that they would suffer consequences if they did. Most simply shut up and kept their heads down and provided help and support to their friends and colleagues when they could.
Generally, the bullying, harassing and/or discriminatory behaviour was a slow burn. Some responses detailed examples of an episode happening once, and then not again for a long time. The victim would be lulled into a sense of security that proved false when they were surprised by another episode. The victim reasoned and rationalised the poor behaviour away (perpetrator busyness and stress was frequently cited, as was the victim stating that they somehow deserved the poor treatment through their own inexperience or poor performance). Most victims adjusted their own behaviour to accommodate the ever-changing and often poorly communicated demands made upon them.
I was left with an almost overwhelming sense of the sinister. Stories were shared with me of retaliatory behaviour once the perpetrator’s poor behaviour had been reported. There would be smiles and apologies during meetings, and then threats made in private. Those who shared their stories with me said that the issue would come down to the strength of the perpetrator’s reputation over that of the victim.
Sadly, the strength of the perpetrator’s connections and network seemed to influence how the instances of bullying, harassment and/or discrimination were investigated. It’s extremely difficult to investigate and reprimand a perpetrator who occupies a senior position and has strong political connections. Scandals about a publicly known entity are an unwanted distraction, after all.
Some of you, my awesome global audience of diplomats and those living the diplomatic life, have been – and continue to go – through hell.
What are we to do?
When you witnessed or were the target of such offensive behaviour, what did you do?
Of course, there is the ideal answer. But that may not be the answer that you give. The answer you give to that question may make you feel deeply uncomfortable.
You have your own reasons for the actions you took, or didn’t take, in response to experiencing or witnessing bullying, harassment and/or discriminatory behaviour.
It’s hard to remain anonymous when you work in a small office and the good opinion of your boss is needed for your next promotion, a posting or an opportunity. Of course, there are always protections under legislation and policies that are afforded all parties, but where there is any difference between policy and perception, perception always wins. The system can feel like it’s rigged to make it impossible for the victim, witnesses or the perpetrator to emerge unscathed.
The lesser of two evils is for us to live with the perpetrator’s poor behaviour for a few years and move on. That comes at a huge personal and institutional cost.
If you are the victim, please reach out for help and support. Seeking the advice of a trusted friend and having them listen to you is a great place to start.
We are our own best source of comfort, encouragement and support when we experience hard times. A chat with someone who’s being targeted is always a good thing. This lets the victim know that they’re being heard and are not alone.
But kind and supportive chats are not enough. Bullying, harassing and discrimination happens where the perpetrators feel that they can get away with it: in places where they feel that their power cannot be challenged. A place that is away from prying eyes and is a closed circuit. In the shadows. At the fringes.
How does one clear out a stale and toxic environment? Exposing it to light and fresh air.
Abundant amounts of personal and organisational courage are needed. Courage is needed to accept that there is a problem. Courage is required to call out the behaviour as it’s happening. Courage is needed to record, report and investigate appalling behaviour – no matter who the perpetrator is. Courage is needed to talk about it openly. Courage is needed to take action.
This is an extremely vexed issue. But we must address the problem where and when it occurs. I know that many employing agencies do their best to appropriately investigate instances of bullying, harassment and discrimination and have a zero-tolerance policy and work hard to support their staff. I wish to acknowledge this very clearly. Where there is any difference between policy and perception, perception always wins.
Perhaps it’s time to work on fixing any perception that you can get away with bullying, harassment and discrimination if you have a good reputation and are well-connected.
You may already be reflecting on instances of bullying, harassment and/or discrimination of which you have been the victim, you’ve witnessed or have perpetrated during your career.
I invite you to reflect on whether you have the courage to call bullying, harassing and/or discriminatory behaviour as it happens. Know this: Courage is contagious. The work is hard enough without doing it in a toxic environment, your courage can help create the type of environment we all deserve.
Want to know more?
Brene Brown, 'Dare To Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts' (brenebrown.com)
Alison Earl, ‘Tripowerment: The why, the will, and the way of breakthrough change’ (alisonearl.com)
Phil McAuliffe, ‘The Lonely Diplomat: reconnecting with yourself and the world around you’ (amazon.com)
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, competition, resilience, loneliness and connection.
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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.