I Say, Old Chap, Can Anyone Join the FO Now? Time Was When the Foreign Office Was the Preserve of Chaps with Stiff Upper Lips and Bowler Hats. Well, Things Are Changing Fast. Nowadays They're Recruiting Women, Ethnic Minorities, Even People Who Haven't Been to Public School. Simon Pease, Head of Workforce Planning at the FO, Reveals All

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Byline: JACKY HYAMS

HAVING worked for 30 years in senior recruitment roles, I'm asked time and again: what skills do you need to work in the Foreign Office?

As one of our previous Foreign Secretaries put it so aptly, people think the art of being a diplomat is being nice to people. The reality, however, is that you must be tough when you need to be, yet to do it in such a way that people find it acceptable - and still want to be friends with you in the end.

Obviously, the person who can do that will have excellent interpersonal skills. We often find we have thousands of people making initial applications for just 35 places. As a consequence, our recruitment process has to be quite strict.

We recruit at three levels; support staff, operational level (executive officer jobs in Home civil service departments, doing the full range of Diplomatic Service work) and Fast Stream candidates (graduates entering the Civil Service's accelerated development programme).

Ideally, the person we're looking for is resilient. A career in the Diplomatic Service can involve working in difficult or dangerous places, for instance Baghdad or Kabul, as well as the more glamorous postings. But good people skills are crucial; a lot of the work involves dealing with people overseas - and putting across Britain's point of view.

Anyone hoping to reach the top in the Foreign Office also needs to be able to analyse and assess political, economic and social issues as well as being a good manager of people and budgets.

They must also be adaptable. One posting can be to a fairly small, out of the way place, the next could be a big one, such as Washington or Moscow.

Overseas postings tend to be three to four years.

You're usually expected to do two consecutive overseas postings, followed by one at home.

We accept that we have an image problem; slightly stuffy, terribly British and, until now, quite elitist.

But that has changed. Our aim now is to recruit a workforce that reflects the full diversity of Britain's population.

We aren't yet hitting the targets we aim for, partly because people still have an image of the FO and don't consider us because they don't believe they are the sort of people we want - and partly because no matter how hard you try to overcome people's perceptions, it takes time to do that.

You can get in with GCSEs for clerical posts, but above that you need a degree. …