Employers can react in a variety of ways when one of their employees is recalled from the National Guard or Reserves. Presently 3,700 reservists are expected to be recalled for up to one year for peacekeeping operations in Bosnia. They will join more than 20,000 active-duty personnel. The congressional debate is under way, and once again we hear the rallying cry “Support Our Troops.” We usually empathize with the full-time military, but what about the part-time citizen soldier? Owing to significant downsizing in the military in recent years, there are not enough active-duty personnel to cover routine global commitments, much less the unexpected duties of Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, and Cuba. Like any business, the government must hire temporary workers when it finds itself short handed. In the military, the temporary helpers come from the National Guard and Reserve. These people are equally as dedicated, self-sacrificing, and talented as full-time military.
As a reservist, I always knew that I was subject to recall and was up front with my employer about this issue. It was a complete surprise to be recalled for Operation Sea Signal during Christmas, 1994. There was no war or national crisis. There was only a shortage of military personnel for the mission. Explaining this to my family and employer was difficult, but they were very supportive. When 40,000 Haitians and Cubans began fleeing their countries, the U.S. government decided to place them in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, until they could be processed or returned. Reserve and National Guard personnel were recalled to supplement their active duty counterparts. This mass of refugees on a few square miles of land had to be fed, sheltered, and clothed—virtually overnight! Almost 90% of requirements for the refugees and military had to be delivered by sea. This included food, shelter, clothing, hospitals, sewage treatment plants, and everything in between. Applying skills honed in the private sector, my group of seven reservists, in conjunction with full-time military and Department of Defense civilians, coordinated the timely and safe delivery of 40,000 tons of seaborne cargo for six months, reduced operating expenses for the government by $1 million per month, and increased the quality of services provided to our military, civilian, and refugee customers. These are skills that employers constantly seek.
Companies can respond in different ways to the challenge of losing an employee for these types of operations. They can ignore it, fight it, or support it. Ignoring this impact on business operations is not the usual response. Employees who contribute to success of the company are valued and their loss will hurt. Few companies have excess personnel. This is not a planned downsizing: the position must be gapped because the employee will return.
The company can fight it. This has happened and continues to happen. They can lower an evaluation; take away earned pay raises and bonuses; demote the employee; hire a replacement; eliminate the position; allow insurance to lapse; and offer an opportunity in a remote location upon the employee’s return. Termination is not usually considered an option, but watch out for some companies to start doing just that. They may refer to service as a “vacation.” They will not ask what was done or how well. It doesn’t count toward goals and objectives for the year, and—by the way—projects are now at least six months behind. They may consider themselves good, caring managers—even patriotic. “This is a problem created by the employee and clearly demonstrates that his priorities do not include the welfare of the company.” By following such courses of action, employers are violating federal law. Employees can file a complaint with the Labor Department, and, if warranted, will lead to a suit by the Justice Department. For these efforts, the employee will collect a few thousand dollars and a detrimental reputation in the industry. The time expended on this negative reaction saps the strength of all parties involved.
Another way to handle this problem, is to acknowledge the commitment of the employees. Normally, employees do not solicit recall; rather the government calls them because of special skills they possess. Employees have advanced in the military for the same reasons that employers have advanced them in the workplace. They can get things done which makes them a valuable asset to the company and the military. After the initial shock, employers should plan the transition to turn over projects quickly and adequately. Details have to be discussed, not dismissed. Recognize that the employees’ lives have been suddenly turned upside down. Ensure that human-resource specialists are on board to keep in touch with family members and quickly smooth over any transitional glitches. Check on their families while employees are gone, even if only by phone. Upon the employees’ return, talk to them about their tour. Managers might be surprised and find transferable skills that were previously unrecognized. Publicize the employees’ achievements. It’s good feedback to employees, a positive signal to other workers, and a public-relations dividend for the company.
Pursuing a positive course of action will create grateful and loyal employees who are assets to the business and community. In addition, the employers will have personally demonstrated support for all our troops.
Commander McCaffrey is a project manager for MINTEQ International. Inc., a subsidiary of Minerals Technology, Inc., an international minerals, mining, and refractory company. He received the Meritorious Service Medal for his tour of duty in Cuba.