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HR Magazine: From Workforce to Armed Forces

By James Pethokoukis  4/1/2003
 

HR Magazine, April 2003Vol. 48, No. 4

Members of the National Guard and Reserve face unique challenges when duty calls, but HR can help ease the transition back into the workplace.

These days, the U.S. military is increasingly counting on citizen soldiers to fill in on the home front for active duty troops who have been sent to potential war zones, and, in many cases, to fight alongside regular troops in combat situations. While the military is attempting to remain sensitive to the needs of members of the National Guard and Reserve, deployment can be highly stressful—personally as well as professionally.

Thousands of men and women, as well as their employers, are feeling that stress: A record number of reserve troops have been called up since Sept. 11, 2001. By mid-March this year, nearly 200,000 members of the Reserve and Guard were on active duty.

That number was likely to rise as the United States geared up for a possible confrontation with Iraq. So even if you and your employees haven’t yet faced this situation, you may not be able to escape it. (See “ National Guard and Reserve Troops Called Up.”)

These vital members of the armed services may have to leave behind their civilian jobs—not to mention their families—when they are deployed. Many of the reservists mobilized since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington have been on duty for more than a year, and these tours could last up to two years. While many employers are taking steps to help support these workers, often going beyond what is mandated by law, others may be struggling with how to balance the needs of the troops with those of the business and the workers who remain on the job.

To illustrate the hardships of being called to active duty and the special steps that companies can take to help deployed employees, HR Magazine interviewed four worker-warriors who were called to active duty after the Sept. 11 attacks but who have since returned to their everyday lives and jobs. Their stories show that continuing pay and benefits is only one way that concerned companies can ease the transition from civilian to military life and back again, and they also show that it doesn’t necessarily cost a lot to help your patriotic employees get back in step at work.

Communications Expert

Nancy Wong really doesn’t like taking orders. If she did, she wouldn’t have ended up pursuing two very different careers: working in employee communications at EDS, the information technology services company in Plano, Texas, and as a major in the Air National Guard, serving in airmen communications for the Air Force at its base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

See where a little teenage rebelliousness gets you?

Wong’s reluctance to take orders was highly evident in high school; her father insisted she go to school at the University of Kentucky, but “I said forget it, and I joined the Air Force because I didn’t have any money to pay for school otherwise.”

That move paid off for her.

After serving a four-year hitch and going to college at the same time (eventually getting a journalism degree from the University of Arizona), Wong bounced back and forth between the military and the private sector. In 2000 Wong landed at EDS, where she keeps employees informed through the company’s intranet web site.

“Then, this past summer, I was called up,” she says. “First, in May, the Guard called and said I should tell my employer that it was a possibility. And then they said you’re going but we don’t know when. But the company was real flexible and didn’t demand a definite time or anything.”

Wong’s employer was also supportive while she was away, she says. “We went through a reorganization, and my new manager kept in touch and kept me up-to-date by sending me e-mails, so I didn’t feel totally out of the loop.”

The personal touch also helped. Her team back at work sent her huge care packages. “I was always complaining that my tent was dark and cold, so they sent me a lantern,” she says. “They also sent lots of food and some shower gels and stuff. I would have felt a lot more apprehensive coming back had I not heard from anyone while I was away.”

EDS also helped Wong get a referral for a company that provided reliable house sitters. “I was really worried about my house,” says Wong, who lives in nearby Allen, Texas. “I don’t have any family around here and didn’t want to have to rely on friends to check it out all the time. So that service was great.”

Wong’s transition back to the civilian world was also eased by the reception she received when her 90-day Air Force stint was up. “I work in communications, which also serves as our corporate graphics department. So when I got back, I saw that my cubicle was decorated with ribbons and crepe paper and confetti. There wasn’t a single inch that wasn’t decorated. It made me feel really good and very comfortable being back—and certainly a lot more comfortable than living and working in a tent.”

From Consulting To Military Intelligence

After graduation from the University of Maryland and 13 years of service in the Air Force, Michel Ellert-Beck, 40, rejoined the civilian world in 2000, becoming a business consultant at IBM in More than Air Force	27,737 have been called up for service in the Air Force. Bethesda, Md. But at the end of September 2001, Ellert-Beck, a major in the Air Force Reserve, was given two weeks’ notice that the Air Force again needed his specialized services: He would be serving at the Pentagon as an intelligence analyst.

“I called my boss, and we just sort of scratched our heads about what it all meant for my job,” Ellert-Beck recalls. But the two quickly realized that it wasn’t necessary to call IBM’s HR department right away. “Instead, we went on the company intranet and found that all the policies were spelled out right there. So we didn’t have to make 20 phone calls or anything about my pay or 401(k) or health care,” he says.

Unlike many called-up reservists, Ellert-Beck was able to continue living at home—in Bethesda, with his wife and son—but his schedule was hardly routine. “My hours were really weird,” he says. “If I had to prepare an intelligence briefing, I’d have to get into the office at 2 in the morning to get a slide presentation ready by 5 [a.m.].”

While such a schedule was murder on his sleep patterns, it did have at least one upside: Ellert-Beck’s military workday was over while his colleagues at IBM were still in the middle of their day. That meant he could keep tabs on all the happenings in his civilian office in real time. Through an IBM online program called Dynamic Workplace, Ellert-Beck had a virtual workplace right on his laptop. After dialing up a local access number, he could use the system for instant messaging and to work on documents simultaneously with co-workers. The latter capability was especially important when he went back to his job and had to complete lingering IBM projects.

The system also centralized information, such as the names of doctors in IBM’s health plan. “One day my wife called me at the Pentagon, and I was quickly able to locate a doctor for her,” he says.

In addition, Ellert-Beck was able to take an organizational management class through the system. “It helped me keep up with what was going on in the consulting world,” he says.

Keeping up with the goings-on at work was especially critical for Ellert-Beck, as IBM was absorbing the consulting arm of PricewaterhouseCoopers. “I had different bosses, but the one thing that remained constant was the [Dynamic Workplace] cockpit and my ability to interact virtually with people,” he says.

A little face time didn’t hurt either. About three weeks before his hitch was over last October, Ellert-Beck set up lunch with his new boss “just to make sure they all remembered me and to let them know I was still interested in working there.”

Tora Bora Fireworks

You probably don’t know Denis Heinz, but you may know of his work. Not his civilian work as a sales representative for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc., but his military work in the skies over Afghanistan.

It was December 2001, during a pause in the American bombing of Tora Bora, the mountain stronghold of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Television images showed B-52 bombers circling slowly high overhead, their exhaust trails creating long smoky loops in the sky. Heinz, an Air Force Reserve major from Shreveport, La., was a navigator in one of those B-52s. “After our missions, we always go and look at the network newscasts and try to figure out what time they were filming based on the sun and figure out if that was us in the reports,” he says.

Heinz, 37, was called up Oct. 16, 2001. His orders came as no surprise, given the attacks on New York and Washington the previous month. He got the word on a Sunday and headed out on Thursday.

First, Heinz notified his district manager, who had never dealt with a call-up of an employee, so “he got the regional office on the phone, and they simply put a code in the computer saying I was on active duty,” Heinz says. “They also wanted me to provide a copy of the order to prove I just wasn’t taking vacation or something.”

Some vacation. After a 28-hour flight from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, including four mid-air refuelings, Heinz arrived at Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean. From Diego Garcia, where he was stationed for 90 days, it was a six-hour flight to get “in country” over Afghanistan.

Although his commute to work had changed drastically, one aspect of his life remained the same: his reliance on a laptop computer. At home he used it to plot sales calls; in the Air Force he used it to plot bombing coordinates.

Heinz spent 280 days on active duty—180 days overseas and 100 back home at Barksdale. When he was overseas, he kept in touch with customers via e-mail, sending them digital camera shots of the action. His wife helped by mailing letters to doctors’ offices that lacked e-mail access. When he was stationed in the United States, Heinz spent nights and weekends catching up on his civilian work, such as keeping current on new products.

But e-mail and the Internet can do only so much, particularly in sales, where personal contact is a must. Once back at his job, Heinz noticed that many of his customers seemed eager to meet with him. “People really want to see the pictures and talk about them and my experiences,” he says.

Although 2002 was an awful sales year for Heinz, Pfizer gave him a bonus based on what was typical for a sales rep. “My boss was just glad to have me back,” he says. But there was a lot of catching up to do. While Heinz was away, Pfizer announced it would merge with pharmaceutical manufacturer Pharmacia, so he had to get up to speed on Pharmacia’s products. “It was tough,” he says, because he had missed the meetings the other reps had attended. But his daily commute is a whole lot easier.

Counter-terrorism Operations

Make no mistake: Michael Britt loves the life of a soldier. Britt, 44, joined the Marines straight out of high school and served an eight-year hitch. Then he served on and off with the Army Reserve for a couple of years before joining the National Guard. Britt, now a first sergeant, says the camaraderie with his fellow soldiers kept him coming back for more.

“I also really love the physical fitness portion of that life,” he adds. And even though he is back to civilian life, Britt still gets up at 4 in the morning to snap off a quick two-mile run.

But even the gung-ho Britt was challenged by his latest stint on active duty, which eclipsed his 90-day tour during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. This time it was more like a lengthy sabbatical from his job as district automotive manager for United Parcel Service (UPS) in Ontario, Calif., except that he was armed to the teeth.

“It was Sept. 11 and I had a scheduled meeting with my district manager at 8 a.m. Pacific time, and the attack had already occurred,” Britt recalls. “He knew I was in the Reserves, so we pretty much chatted right away about me not being there. He told me to get my department squared away and such. But it was the same as when I was activated for the Gulf as far as pay and benefits were concerned.” He had to send UPS a copy of his military pay and earnings statements. The company continued paying him, deducting the amount of his military pay.

That part was simple, but the length of his deployment wasn’t. Britt was called up in September 2001 and didn’t muster out until October 2002. “Fifty-six weeks,” he notes, with almost no time off. “I did take leave for eight or nine days and flew to meet my wife in Hawaii, but that was it,” he says.

Britt served in a counterterrorism unit, helping train his counterparts in the Philippines to handle the Islamic rebels in the island nation. He also worked in security for the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City last year.

All in all, it was a long stretch away from his wife and two children—a son in college and a daughter in high school. In fact, when Britt realized that he probably would be gone a long time, he asked his son to return home from his freshman year at Rutgers to help out on the home front.

Another big help while away: his buddies at UPS. Many volunteered to help the Britt family with household difficulties such as car trouble and a broken garage door. “Every week they called my wife to see if everything was OK,” he says. Britt’s pals even helped hang Christmas decorations.

Britt arrived home on a Saturday and was back at work on Monday. “I was nervous and a bit apprehensive about coming back, but UPS and my new boss welcomed me back with open arms. It was way beyond my expectations. My office was exactly as I had left it even though they had to move it to a different location. Now my time away seems almost like a dream.”

Daunting Transitions

As the U.S. military increasingly depends on reservists and Guard members in both combat and domestic operations, many HR professionals and managers will watch employees march off to duty, then return home to pick up where they left off in their personal and professional lives. That transition can be daunting, whether the employee faced life-or-death situations abroad, stood in for active military at domestic bases or helped locate and safeguard debris from the space shuttle Columbia.

These stories show that keeping in touch and showing support for employees who serve in the Guard and Reserve, and providing assistance at home, can help ensure that these employees—with their unique experiences and insights from military service—can remain valued and productive members of your workforce.

James Pethokoukis is a Chicago-based senior editor of U.S. News & World Report covering business, science and technology.

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