Photo by Alexandros Phlippides — Used with permission from N. Vatopoulos
“Get a job at the American Embassy,” was the answer everyone gave whenever I was unemployed or mentioned wanting to change jobs.
Local friends, along with family and friends back home, thought that working at the American Embassy in Athens was an easy solution to finding a familiar work environment surrounded by fellow expats, a good salary and a little prestige thrown in. It’s a great — if obvious and old — idea, but reality is not that simple. In fact, most people who make this suggestion do not understand what it requires.
In addition to the visa and work permit issues that American/non-EU citizens face as described in “How Americans/non-EU citizens can move, live and work in Greece,” which I suggest all non-EU citizens read, getting a job at an embassy of any nationality (American, Canadian, Australian, British or otherwise) is no easy task no matter who you are and where you come from.
*Article last updated on June 17, 2013
This article was written with the intention of passing on the wisdom I gained through first-hand experience and advice given by embassy personnel to help you understand the reality of working for an embassy. Deciding to apply/work there is a unique personal choice found within yourself, depending on your goals, principles, qualifications and connections. I am not a job placement agency, I do not represent the embassy or consulate, and this website is not a forum for gathering a census.
Names were changed to protect the privacy of those referenced.
These facts apply to most embassies and consulates in all countries:
1. Being a citizen of the country operating an embassy isn’t enough
2. Candidates must already live in the country AND have a work permit AND possess fluency in the local language
— Embassies, like any other institution, must adhere to local laws and regulations, thus making it difficult to secure sponsorship of a new residence/work permit
— All job vacancies request that applicants already have work authorization
— Proficiency or fluency in the local language is usually measured by administering a written and/or oral test
3. Positions not requiring the local language almost always require security clearance
— Acquiring security clearance involves taking a Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), achieving a certain score, passing an oral examination, going through an intensive background check and interview process in Washington DC, serving your first diplomatic post in a “less desirable country” for four years and transferring every four years to a new post with no guarantee of being awarded any of the countries you’ve chosen. See “Careers representing America” for more information.
4. There are fewer vacancies each year
— In the 14 years I’ve lived in Athens, I’ve seen a progressive drop in vacancies and know people who have been laid off. I cannot speak intelligently about whether this is a worldwide trend or for a specific local reason in Greece. It is most likely due to economic reasons (i.e., budget cuts) or shifting priorities to another region.
— Temporary or short-term positions have been few, with just as much competition. They don’t necessarily lead to more permanent full-time positions, although it is good experience and good for a CV.
5. There is a lot of competition
— Diplomatic personnel, usually descended from a diplomatic family, who already have seniority, security clearance and the ability to transfer
— Family members of embassy/consular officials
— Veterans and other military personnel who get an advantage over other candidates, and their family members
— Locals with dual nationality, who turn out en masse
6. Embassy salaries reflect a local standard
— People wrongly believe that American salaries are paid to locals and U.S. citizens from abroad, when in fact salaries are scaled to the local standard and converted to euros, which sometimes amounts to a lot less with the U.S. dollar being weaker
— Only diplomats are tax-exempt; non-diplomatic and/or local residents are still obligated to pay tax
— Salaries are based on government classification and scale, as stated in the job announcement
7. The Embassy is not a job placement agency; it is a diplomatic mission
— The Embassy does not have job listings for employers in Greece and does not offer assistance in placing Americans since Greece is an EU country and America and other non-EU countries are not. You compete with everyone. There is no distinction between nationalities (aka, there is no such thing as “Jobs for Americans in Greece”) and the fact you are a non-EU citizen with permit issues makes it more challenging unless you can stake a claim to EU citizenship through an ancestor.
— It is not the Embassy’s job to dispense accurate or current information on visas for Greece, residence or work permits for Greece or other local bureaucracy. Their mission is to provide services having to do with the homeland, meaning U.S. passports, U.S. visas, U.S. citizenship, Social Security benefits, U.S. notary services. All consulates and embassies are diplomatic missions and guests in the host country, not authorities, and cannot override local laws.
Embassy employees I know
Serving your country abroad entails a different lifestyle and set of compromises, according to friends and relatives. Many families choose to live apart, and those that don’t sometimes suffer the strain of changing countries and culture every four years.
Of course there are diverse groups of people who work for the Embassy, but absolutely everyone I know comes from a diplomatic family.
— Ektor’s father has worked as an Ambassador his whole life, and Ektor is a local bodyguard here in Greece. Please note that he is highly educated, holds special security clearance, speaks three languages and is an ex-championship boxer; he’s not a musclehead.
— Deborah’s father was a diplomat before she herself became one; she’s now in Iraq.
— Erica’s father is also a diplomat, and she served in Athens like he did before moving to Switzerland.
— Georgia served in Athens before being transferred to Brazil, much like her mother before her.
— Nathan has worked for the government since his early 20s, served two terms in Athens and is now retired.
These families also have something else in common — divorce. All of my friends not only have parents who are divorced but are also divorced themselves. Of course, there are many successful diplomatic families whose marriage survived, but the few couples I know with two careers and children achieved this using their considerable wealth to hire a staff of housekeepers, nannies and drivers to assist them. (Note: I am not saying this is true for everyone, only the people I know).
When I hear that Ektor picks out gifts and plans surprise parties for the Ambassador’s wife “from her husband,” it just confirms I made the right choice to stop the process of becoming a Foreign Service Officer. Perhaps if I’d started when I was younger with more tolerance for instability and discomfort, this would have been a solid career filled with exposure to different countries and cultures while serving my country.
American Embassy in Athens: My experience
One reason I chose to leave my country was I disagreed with the elected president at that time and his government policies, so for me to even consider working for an embassy should speak volumes about my disdain for Greek bosses and my passion to build a bridge between Greece and the United States.
First attempt: The first time I applied for a position at the embassy, I was rejected for not attending “one year of secretary school,” despite my B.A. and five years experience actually working as an executive assistant for a well-known multinational.
Second attempt: My second application was successful and secured me an interview, arranged at the last minute by the man who would be my potential boss. While I was impressed he would personally call and apologize for the lack of advance notice, his reason was less impressive — “I decided to leave for vacation early, and HR told me I had to hire someone before I go.”
With only two hours notice, I rush back home to put on my best suit and head to the Embassy, where the portraits of Bush, Cheney and Colin Powell smiled down on me in the bulletproof waiting room. A few minutes later, a man swung open the door and a young Greek girl with heavy makeup, overprocessed hair and kitten heels walked in. As she passed, the man cruised her up and down without discretion, and she turned and thanked him.
“Are you Kat ____?” he asked. Oh, dear. The guy who cruised this girl’s backside was my interviewer and potential boss. A bit too friendly in our interview, I’d decided to sabotage my answers to avoid any chance of working for him and be thankful for my current job. He transferred out of Athens in 2002. I would only remember this day as the day I lost the sweater I wore to my mother’s funeral.
Third attempt: In another interview for a different vacancy, I was one of 500 people competing for five, three-month positions during Athens 2004; nearly 90 percent were young Greek-Americans who knew each other and arrived in groups. We were called to take a competency test about consular affairs and the Greek language. I felt hopeful before the test because a woman from HR pulled me aside to talk, but after the test it became clear I may not make it to the next round, especially when a Greek woman sitting next to me remarked that she found it difficult.
Final attempt: The last interview I was invited to attend was for a position that fit my qualifications perfectly. I could barely contain my enthusiasm. After waiting an hour passed the appointed time and finally sitting down to speak with a Greek-American woman who mirrored the Ann Taylor look I was wearing, she told me I was not only an impressive candidate, but an impressive person. She was ready to hire me but needed to finish the next three interviews. As I was leaving, she spoke to me in Greek, to which I answered at length, and then told me my fluency was the worst amongst everyone she interviewed. Sorry?!? When I politely stood my ground and confirmed that the ad requested “a native English speaker with rudimentary Greek,” she agreed I was more than proficient but clammed up and escorted me out. Friends believe she intentionally built me up so she could tear me down. Whatever her motives, I did not care to work for someone like that and considered it a blessing.
An acquaintance named Nick claims his girlfriend was called and offered a job by the embassy after she sent them an unsolicited CV. The HR woman I spoke with at the embassy says this is highly unlikely because they only accept applications and CVs for posted open vacancies.
To read about a local Greek woman’s experience with working for several embassies in Greece, I encourage you to read about Christine in “Comments.” It’s eye opening.
The food in the commissary is deliciously authentic, there are countless resources, and the majority of people I’ve met have all been accommodating, efficient and extremely nice people both professionally and socially. But I decided it was no longer important for me to continue pursuing a job there.
My favorable impression of the embassy has since been blemished by a Greek-American woman in the consular section who regularly plagiarized my website and Twitter feed in 2011-2012 — even after I warned her to stop — taking credit for informing citizens of strikes and starting an informational section covering the same topics I do (something never done in embassy history). I filed an informal and formal complaint, but no disciplinary action has been taken to date.
Work for the American Embassy
Still think you have what it takes to work for the Embassy? Click “American Embassy in Athens Job Opportunities” or “U.S. Consulate in Thessaloniki Employment Opportunities.”
Please be aware there are no American Embassies in Crete or anywhere else in Greece, just diplomatic missions in Athens and Thessaloniki.
In the News
“U.S. Embassy in Athens security. Not in my experience” — Star Tribune