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HR helps workers adjust to life after combat duty

By Kathy Gurchiek   12/7/2006

Employees returning from military duty will need time to readjust to the realities of the workplace, says the chief of the U.S. Army Reserve. The good news for employers, though, is that those workers often return with leadership skills and a renewed vigor for their jobs.

Tapping into that is an employer’s greatest challenge, Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz told HR News.

His Army Reserve career has included deployment to Kuwait in October 2002. He spent 22 months overseas before returning to the United States and his job as operations manager at Procter & Gamble (P&G) in Orlando, Fla.

As a citizen-soldier, he has been employed by P&G for 25 years. When he returned to active duty in 2005 he was an account executive for P&G and managed distribution, pricing, merchandising and new product initiatives.

“In a lot of cases, [when] the soldier comes back, it’s like when he’s reuniting with his family. He’s reunited with his family at work,” said Stultz, who served on active duty from 1974 to 1979 before leaving to pursue a civilian career.

“There’s a lot of emotion and a lot of joy. Everybody’s patting him on the back and he’s telling war stories and all. There’s that adrenaline rush with everybody, and at some point that wears off,” he said.

A month or two after returning from duty, reality begins to set in and the employee settles into the workplace routine, Stultz said. That’s when the employer should be attuned to how the employee is adjusting to post-combat work life.

Part of that adjustment involves the employee becoming reconciled to the business world’s slower decision-making process.

“On the battlefield, we make a decision and move out, and we adjust fire and move out. In the business world, we take a slower approach sometimes,” and that can be frustrating to the returning employee, he said.

The employee also is used to “working at a very high, intense level” and being extremely focused on his or her mission.

Employers should tap into the confidence and leadership employees gained while serving in the military, and never minimize the ideas they bring when they return to the job with fresh eyes, Stultz said.

Process of reintegration

Have a process of reintegration for the returning employee, Stultz advised, including a session to explain what has changed in the employee’s absence and to discuss the employee’s experiences and responsibilities during his or her military service.

Maj. John Morris, deputy state chaplain for the Minnesota Army Guard, echoes Stultz’s advice. He helps train employers and community leaders in Minnesota on how to help combat veterans reintegrate after combat.

Welcome employees home, affirm what they did, support them with patience, encourage them to reengage, and give them opportunities to succeed—these are all are steps employers can take, Morris says.

Some employers make a point to leverage the skills employees gain during their military stint.

Union Pacific, which uses former officers and enlisted personnel in its everyday operations, tops G.I. Jobs magazine’s recent list of 50 military-friendly employers for the second consecutive year.

The fourth annual list, released in November 2006, is from a sample of Fortune 500 companies and based on criteria that include the strength of a company’s military recruiting efforts, the percentage of new hires with previous military service, and company policies toward National Guard and Army Reserve service.

Returning soldiers may have emotional as well as physical wounds, according to Bensinger, DuPont & Associates (BDA), a provider of employee assistance programs. At least 10 percent of returning veterans will have symptoms of post-traumatic shock or stress, it said.

“Common responses seen in these individuals include anger, depression, increased use of alcohol or drugs, difficulty with interpersonal relationships and reminders of trauma such as nightmares and flashbacks,” BDA’s Isabelle Dugay said in a press release.

Symptoms may not surface for weeks or months after veterans return home, she added.

In fact, 30 percent of soldiers show signs of mental health issues four to five months after demobilization, with members of the National Guard and Army Reserve showing the highest rates, according to a presentation Morris gives on reintegration.

Most combat veterans handle their stress well, although “a significant minority” develop post-traumatic stress disorder and require extensive help, according to Morris, an Army Reservist whose military duty has included serving in Kuwait, Qatar and Iraq.

The returning employee needs to be patient and realize that he or she can’t change the world, the Reserve’s Stultz said.

Shortly after returning from one of his military stints, he recalled, he was sitting in on a discussion at P&G about how many toilet paper products to have on a grocery shelf. The concern paled in comparison to having just served in battle, Stultz said. He had to remind himself that it was an important consideration in the world he had rejoined.

What employers can do

Some HR professionals will find a modern-day veteran in their midst.

A small online sampling of 351 human resource professionals conducted the week of July 25-31, 2006, by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 38 percent, or 132 people, were at organizations that had employees on active duty as reservists or as members of the National Guard. The sampling had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

Stultz suggested that HR people learn from military chaplains about what the chaplains do to help soldiers reintegrate into civilian life and apply those lessons to the workplace where appropriate. Employers also may contact James M. Northcutt, director of the Army Reserve Employer Relations & Community Outreach Programs, at james.northcutt@usar.army.mil for guidance in helping employees reintegrate into the workforce.

Also, expect those employees to be ready to lead, to have a deeper appreciation of their jobs, and to have renewed energy for their jobs, he said.

Among tips for employers from BDA to help employees reintegrate into the workforce:

    • If you sense that the employee wants to discuss his or her experience, ask about the environment the person was in. Sometimes talking about and describing an event or situation is helpful.

    • Respect the person’s privacy if you sense that he or she does not want to talk about his or her tour of duty.

    • Let the person know you are available if he or she wants to talk.

    • Recognize that you don’t have to solve all the problems and you may not be able to do so.

    • Believe them. The stories the person may share may be unlike anything you have heard and likely won’t experience firsthand.

    • Provide emotional support as needed, and keep lines of communication open. Be the first to reach out.

    • Understand that people adjust on different schedules. Patience goes a long way.

    • The employee returning from military duty may need more than a friend or family member to talk to; he or she may benefit from professional help such as an employer’s employee assistance program.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News . She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

Related articles:

Labor Dept. updates system for USERRA-related claims, HR News, Oct. 24, 2006.

Employees at war still a challenge for HR at home, HR News, Aug. 10, 2006.

More Employers Look to Military as Source of Job Candidates, SHRM Recruiting & Staffing Focus Area, January 2006.

For the latest HR-related business and government news, go daily to www.shrm.org/hrnews

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