Employers need to step up and rally around the nation’s military community by enhancing efforts to attract, recruit, support and retain veterans and their families in a proactive manner so all can better meet their responsibilities at home and at work.
That was the message that Col. David Sutherland, special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and director of Warrior & Family Support for the Department of Defense, gave Nov. 10, 2011, to attendees of the Work-Life Focus: 2012 and Beyond conference held in Washington, D.C.
The conference, sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Families and Work Institute (FWI), served as a forum to support HR professionals’ efforts to learn strategies and gain insights into building more effective and more flexible workplaces.
Sutherland gave an impassioned address on the importance of hiring military veterans in the civilian workforce and adopting flexible work policies that may be necessary to accommodate transitioning service members, especially those returning from combat.
“This generation of veterans is wired to serve, and they just need a little help with transition and reintegration,” he said. “They will thrive and they will continue to serve but after accomplishing missions on the battlefield and you can’t find a job … that disconnect has got to be defeated.”
Unemployment among recent veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grew to 13.3 percent by June 2011, more than four percentage points higher than the national average.
Department of Veterans Affairs statistics from October 2010 are more striking, with 18.8 percent of veterans who served after 2001, 21.3 percent of veterans separating in 2006 or later and 28.5 percent of veterans ages 18 to 30 reporting that they were currently unemployed.
High rates of unemployment among veterans stem from a number of issues, including the challenge of comparing military experiences to civilian job requirements and connecting employers to available veterans. According to a June 2010 SHRM survey, 60 percent of responding HR professionals viewed translating military skills to the civilian job experience as a challenge to employing veterans. Over 70 percent of HR professionals indicated that they want assistance in identifying and reaching out to qualified veterans.
It can be done, Sutherland said. He told the story of Sgt. Daniel Ware, who was grievously injured in Iraq, medically discharged and returned to civilian employment. Ware felt like he didn’t fit in. He had trouble keeping a job. He told Sutherland that no one took the time to onboard him into the organization or mentor him, but directed him “to make money.”
“After the establishment of a veterans’ network, they trained their staff on how to work with veterans and set up a cultural integration program, [and] Ware started to thrive,” Sutherland said.
They put a mirror in Ware’s cubicle, so he could see co-workers walk up behind him. “You get blown up, see if you’re not hyper-vigilant,” Sutherland said.
“Society needs to adapt to our needs, instead of we adapting to society’s,” he added.
Making Work ‘Work’ for Veterans
SHRM and FWI found that many employers have made the effort to adapt, addressing an issue that both organizations see as crucial to the country’s economic success, in a report released at the conference Nov. 9, 2011, Employer Support for the Military Community.
To this end, the employer application of the 2011 Alfred P. Sloan Award for Excellence in Workplace Effectiveness and Flexibility included questions about the special efforts employers are making to support veterans and military families. “Their responses were simply remarkable,” Kenneth Matos and Ellen Galinsky wrote in the report.
“Fortunately, a number of employers go beyond the legal requirements to develop innovative and responsive ways of supporting the military community,” the authors wrote. They found that many of the needs of the military community—veterans and their families—parallel those that civilians face, such as access to medical care, a flexible work environment, solutions to financial hardship and the need for additional training or education.
Initiatives employers use to support veterans include:
• Enhancing employee assistance programs (EAPs) to include specialized support for veterans, including issues surrounding post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), managing stress, caring for a veteran after an injury or psychological trauma, and dealing with reunion and subsequent deployments. For example, Cornell University is currently restructuring its Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (an EAP) to include a counselor who will have special training in issues facing veterans, including PTSD.
• Providing veterans benefits to enhance their financial well-being when they experience setbacks or to adapt to changing circumstances. Capital One maintains a Disaster Recovery Grant that can help employees deal with sudden misfortune. After employees file an application describing their needs, Capital One usually responds and provides any awarded funds within 72 hours. The granted funds are not a loan so recipients do not need to worry about paying the money back.
• Offering workplace flexibility programs. Veterans seeking treatment for injuries or readjusting to civilian life may need to work flexibly. Booz Allen Hamilton offers job-sharing, flexible scheduling, part-time employment and child care services to veterans returning from deployment so they can better manage their work and family responsibilities.
• Offering additional sick and vacation leave that can be used for separation and reunion events. Homefront Health Care, based in Providence, R.I., offered an employee extended leave to provide care for his son, injured during military service.
• Starting veteran resource groups to provide forums for veteran employees to help one another. These groups are tasked with identifying priorities for veterans in the organization and developing plans for addressing them; developing resource guides to help veterans as well as their co-workers understand the policies and benefits that apply to employees with military experience; and developing business relationships and strategies that capitalize on employees’ military experiences.
Organizations profiled in the report also created volunteer networks to assist veterans; engaged in mentoring activities; instituted phase-in programs allowing veterans to begin working part time and slowly increase their hours as they transition into civilian life; educated staff about military issues through training and presentations; and partnered with veteran support organizations in order to attend job fairs and take part in community service.
Employers are also supporting military families through the use of workplace flexibility programs. Work-flex initiatives give military family members more options about how they get their work done in the face of increased caregiving demands, managing multiple benefits systems, and the emotional and physical stress of meeting those demands. Options like part-time work, flexible schedules and telework all help military families care for their family members while still doing a good job, the report found.
For example, an employee at SunGard Public Sector temporarily relocated from Florida to Georgia to care for her grandchildren while her son was deployed. She retained her position and managed her team remotely. “It was SunGard Public Sector’s willingness, understanding and flexibility along with their technology that allowed me to care for my grandchildren in a time of distress for my family and effectively continue in my role as a team leader,” the employee said.
“The more employers continue to actively support the employment of our veteran population and their families, the more these highly skilled individuals will be able to contribute to America’s well-being, both on the battlefield and in the marketplace,” the authors wrote.
These entries and all the other Sloan Award winners are profiled in the 2012 Guide to Bold New Ideas for Making Work Work, available at the SHRMStore.
Roy Maurer is a staff writer for SHRM.
2012 'Bold New Ideas' Guide Highlights Workplace Flex Success, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, November 2011
Dan Heath: Find the ‘Bright Spots’ to Generate Change, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, November 2011
Flexible Work Policies Help Families and the Economy, White House Aide Says, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, November 2011
Misperceptions Hinder Flexibility, FWI-SHRM Report Shows, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, November 2011
SHRM Online Benefits Discipline
SHRM Online Workplace Flexibility Resource Page