HR on 'The Ice'

By Ann Pomeroy Jun 1, 2004
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HR Magazine, June 2004 In the extreme conditions of Antarctica, there is no place for weak HR practices.

The workweeks are long—at least 54 hours, often more. Many of the jobs involve hard, even grueling manual labor. And the living conditions are rudimentary. Two employees share a room with bunk beds. In the most luxurious accommodations, community bathrooms are down the hall; in the most primitive living quarters, they are in the building next door. Outdoor temperatures range from cold to bitter cold with whiteout conditions. In the summer, the sun never sets, making it potentially hard to sleep. In the winter, it is dark 24/7 for months on end.

These kinds of conditions—and the very name of this place, Antarctica—might lead you to believe that recruiting for jobs here would be impossible. You’d be wrong, though. Job applicants—a certain kind of applicant, to be sure—scramble for the chance to live and work at the end of the earth.

If convincing individuals to work in Antarctica might be easier than you’d think, that doesn’t mean that staffing and working with employees at the Southern Pole is a cakewalk. In this harsh environment, employee selection and training—as well as working to maintain good employee relations on—site—are vital tasks that leave little room for error.

‘How Cool Is That!’

Lori Boruch, senior manager of human resources for Raytheon Polar Services Co. (RPSC), remembers when she first saw her job advertised in the Denver Post. “The ad said there was the opportunity to travel to Antarctica,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘How cool is that!’ ”

Boruch landed that job and now works at the Denver headquarters of RPSC, a business unit of Raytheon Technical Services Co. LLC and the government contractor that handles operations and support for the U.S. Antarctic Program headed by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Although no country owns Antarctica, the United States and other nations that have signed the Antarctic Treaty conduct scientific research on the continent and its surrounding islands. To support its scientists in the field, the U.S. Antarctic Program maintains two ice-strengthened research vessels, several field camps and three research stations: Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Palmer Station and McMurdo Station, the largest of the three.

During her interviews for the job, Boruch repeatedly asked: “How hard is it to get hundreds of people to do this every year?” Not as hard as you might think, she was told. There are plenty of people who are attracted by the difficulties and hardships of working on the harsh continent, she learned.

The key is selecting the individuals with the best chance of working successfully and diligently through the term of their contracts—as well as providing effective employee relations that can create a successful working environment.

That is challenge enough during austral summer, when planes leave McMurdo Station every other day; it is a much stiffer challenge for those who winter over for the duration. When the last plane takes off in February, round-the-clock darkness begins to descend on the continent. At that point, McMurdo Station closes and leaving is not an option until the first planes arrive in August, heralding the approach of spring.

Why would individuals choose to isolate themselves (nonworking dependents are not allowed) in such a remote, hostile environment? Who are these people?

A Breed Apart

Polar workers are adventurous, well-traveled, well-educated people, Boruch says. “Many people have decided to make this a lifestyle.” Applicants are a self-selecting group. Many are in the process of making major life changes. “Maybe they are leaving corporate America; some are newly divorced,” says Boruch. “They need to be at the right place in their lives and in their careers.”

Some applicants are simply looking to “check off the seventh continent,” she says. “They want to do it once for the experience and then move on.”

RPSC recruiting manager Tamesha Johnson says, “We have doctors who apply to be janitors and lawyers who will work in the kitchen, just for the experience. And, unless you’ve got $30,000 to spare [for an Antarctic cruise], this program is the only way you’re going to get down there.”

Some husband and wife teams work on “The Ice”—always capitalized by those who live in this harsh and unforgiving climate. Bella Patel, HR project lead at McMurdo during the past summer season, says that in some cases, parents and children 18 or older work together. “We had a father and son who worked together in McMurdo. The son said he learned so much about what his father really did, things he hadn’t known before.”

Many who apply to work on The Ice have definite preferences for where they are stationed and when. “People either really want to go to [South] Pole [Station], or they really want to go to McMurdo,” Boruch says. For some, McMurdo is “too big,” especially during the summer, when the population reaches about 1,200. “They say it’s too much like a big city. They prefer the solitude of Pole.” Others would never go to Pole, she says, but love McMurdo. Some only want to go for the summer season, while others choose winter.

The Screening Process

Candidates for the polar program must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents and have a valid passport. Other than about 300 permanent employees who work primarily in Denver, most program participants are contract employees who must pass stringent medical and dental exams to qualify.

In addition, those who winter over on The Ice are required to pass a psychological assessment.

Dr. Ron Shemenski, RPSC’s medical director, says the company contracts the psychological testing out to a Denver firm that conducts a similar program for the city’s fire and police departments. The test company administers the MMPI-II (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) and the 16PF Questionnaire from the Institute for Personality and Ability Testing, followed by a personal interview with each candidate.

Drug and alcohol screenings are also required, since drugs and alcohol are the biggest problems associated with the Antarctic jobs. “A couple of DUIs will keep someone out of the program,” says Shemenski.

His office receives a pass/fail notice for each candidate, but no other details. NSF and RPSC refer any questions they may get from candidates who fail the exam directly to the test company. NSF sets the guidelines for the medical, dental and psychological screening programs, and reserves the right to audit the polar program, but is not involved in the details. Shemenski works hand in hand with an NSF contact to keep the agency informed about the program.

About 95 percent of those who took the psychological test this year passed. “This year, 17 people flunked out of a total of about 350 applicants,” says Shemenski. The failure rate used to be higher, and he attributes the improvement to the fact that RPSC now conducts background checks on all applicants before they reach the psychological testing stage.

Candidates who fail the medical or dental exams can apply to NSF for a waiver; if it is approved, they may be allowed to work on The Ice. However, “There is no waiver for the psych exam. Sometimes a candidate is found to be suitable to go for the austral summer season, but not in the winter,” says Shemenski.

Employees headed to South Pole Station must undergo an even more rigorous process, starting with a team-building course in the mountains around Denver before deploying. After a couple of months on The Ice, a team of psychologists goes in and re-evaluates the employees. “The psych team makes several trips to The Ice and conducts a debriefing after the season ends,” Shemenski says.

RPSC tries to hire on a year’s contract, especially for South Pole Station positions. Although they sometimes have to hire at the end of the austral summer season, this is not ideal, says Shemenski, because “people haven’t been able to bond.”

Alternates are selected for most positions, and, in some cases, more than one alternate is lined up, since each job is vital to the program’s success. “We’re always processing applications,” says Boruch, who stresses that polar employees are “passionate about the science that we are supporting. Everybody realizes that, whether their work touches a scientist or not, they are there in support of science.”

Polar employees know that their work makes a difference on another level, too. Because they work in such a difficult environment, they depend on each other to sustain life on The Ice.

“If the power plant goes out, for instance, that’s a major problem,” says Boruch. “Success depends on every person doing his or her job well.”

That’s a message given to applicants early in the process. The voluminous “United States Antarctic Program Participant Guide” given to each new employee spells it out in plain language: “At times everyone will be expected to work a longer than usual work week, assist others in the performance of their duties, and/or assume community-related job responsibilities. Everyone will do his or her share of the menial tasks, such as floor scrubbing, washroom cleanup, dishwashing, snow shoveling, etc. Due to the challenges that work in Antarctica presents, no guarantee can be made regarding the duties, location or duration of work. This is not an attempt to paint an overly bleak picture that will discourage all but the stouthearted. Rather, it is an effort to present work … realistically.”

The guide continues: “The objective is to support science, maintain the station and see to the well-being of all station personnel. All are expected to work as long and hard as necessary in obtaining this objective.”

To further drive home the point that working in Antarctica is a serious commitment, the Participant Guide includes this ominous sentence: “In the event of a major accident that will make news headlines (e.g., plane or helicopter crash), U.S. Antarctic Program management will advise the emergency contact of those participants involved.”

While the harsh Antarctic conditions can be potentially frightening, they also can crystallize the mission and purpose of each individual’s work.

“There’s very little hierarchy on The Ice,” says Shemenski. “We all do whatever is needed. The power plant manager is probably more important than the doctor, and the cook is the most important of all!”

An HR Microcosm

New employees have been through a lengthy process by the time they land at McMurdo Station and meet Clarissa Weir, SPHR, head of HR during the austral winter season (February to October). After flying to Denver for the necessary medical and psychological tests, successful applicants receive their offer letters, wind up their affairs back in the States and fly to Christchurch, New Zealand, where they pick up their Extreme Cold Weather Gear and go through orientation before flying on to Antarctica.

“This really is the greatest place to practice good HR,” Weir says. “I have a group of employees who are in excellent health. They have free housing, free medical care and very good nutrition provided to them. I have no issues with illegal aliens, attendance problems, language barriers or accommodations for disabilities.”

What’s more, it’s a controlled environment, and the potential HR problems are narrow in scope, she says.

But they can be deep.

Weir says that managing employee expectations is a serious issue in an environment as harsh as Antarctica. “It’s important to have good pre-season expectations and to set them up up-front—it saves disciplining after the fact,” she says.

Expectations are communicated from the outset. During their first 10 days on station, new employees sit down with their supervisors to discuss expectations for the job to be done. This is the pre-season evaluation. A midseason evaluation is mandatory for winter employees and optional during the summer season, and the post-season evaluation determines the amount of employees’ performance bonuses.

“For some people, I think we have missed their expectations,” says Weir. “This is a work camp. Some people thought it would be more like a working vacation.” Last summer, says Weir, there was a woman who couldn’t physically do the job and had to go home. “She just didn’t know how hard it would be.”

When Weir arrived for her first season at McMurdo, she found that the HR department had a reputation as a “bad place,” one where employees went only when there was a problem.

To right that, Weir instituted team-building exercises and began working to improve communications. For example, she started a popular newsletter in which she profiled a department and an individual each week.

Another well-received idea was a series of employee lunches. Each week, she and the station manager met with a group of about 10 employees over lunch. The employees liked having the opportunity to talk with the station manager and express any concerns they had or ask questions, she says. “Then I made sure to act on anything that could be done. There is a huge rumor mill here, and this helps quash some of that.” Weir also worked to improve supervisor training. Last year she had to deal with someone who was a “good mechanic but a poor supervisor,” she says. She managed to “nurse things along” until the season ended, but the experience pointed out the need for good supervisory training. As a result, Weir instituted a self-review, which gives employees a chance to tell their supervisors what they believe they have accomplished.

Says Weir: “I hate to see people brokenhearted, their spirits crushed,” when, for instance, they get a bad evaluation they didn’t expect, and maybe didn’t deserve. In past seasons, she learned, there had been a lot of “writing up” of employees for various infractions. Weir changed that. Last winter there were only three disciplinary actions, she reports, and “more than 2,000 ‘attaboys,’ ” a system she set up to reward people with cash prizes for being “caught doing something right.”

It’s a system that can help boost morale, which is critical, Weir says. “If morale goes down the tubes, we’ve got a big problem on our hands.”

When Leaving Is Not an Option

Although occasional conflict is inevitable when people work together, it can be exacerbated when they live and work in such tight quarters. In such a setting, personal problems tend to spill over into work.

Weir wears a pager, and if there is a problem involving an employee during the night, both she and the worker’s supervisor will receive a call, and she will investigate the incident the following day.

“It’s a particularly hard HR job on The Ice,” says Boruch. “Here in Denver, I get to go home and decompress. On The Ice, you are on duty almost all the time.”

Getting into a fight is grounds for termination. However, Weir can’t simply fire someone and send him home when no planes can land or take off, so she is forced to work harder to help employees resolve problems.

“I practice pretty standard conflict resolution measures,” she says. “I try to soften up both sides, and then I get them together and say, ‘OK, this is what I heard.’ ” Peer counseling groups are available as well.

“I am convinced after working in this environment that you can reduce employee turnover,” she says, “because a lot of things can be resolved, but it takes energy and commitment to do it. I think too many people take the easy way out and let people quit or terminate them.”

Serious problems are rare at McMurdo, Weir says, but they have happened. During one past winter season, an employee was caught with illegal drugs, which is automatic grounds for dismissal. The employee agreed to continue doing his job, and did so successfully. He was paid for his work, but lost his bonus. When the first plane arrived, he was sent home. In another case, an offending employee was virtually grounded, spending most of his time in his room until he could be sent home.

The hardest time, all agree, is the last six weeks of a season, when a kind of “Ice fatigue” sets in. By that time, people are physically tired, tired of each other and ready for a change of scene. It’s the time when little annoyances can assume major proportions. (“If he tells that same story one more time …!”)

Most people stick it out, though. “There is a [financial] risk for people who resign,” Boruch says. “It doesn’t happen often.” Failure to complete their contracts means that employees forfeit their bonuses and are flown directly home.

“Last summer there were five to seven employees who were terminated or resigned before termination,” says Patel. There were only two terminations this summer season, and Patel believes newly instituted background checks helped screen out some potential problems.

Employees who successfully complete a contract season are eligible for a performance-based completion bonus that averages 22 percent of base salary. Evaluations are based on a five-tier system, with the maximum bonuses going to those who earn the top rating.

In addition, those who work for consecutive summer and winter seasons receive a bonus of $1,000 at McMurdo and $1,500 at South Pole Station.

Another big perk is the fare credit for the amount of the ticket home that can be used toward the purchase of a ticket around the world with stops on three to six continents. “If people leave The Ice” prematurely, says Boruch, “it’s generally because they have a family situation back home.”

A Cold Addiction

Most people who complete a season on The Ice are hooked. The rehire rate for these individuals is high—about 60 percent.

One possible reason for these retention rates is expressed in a popular saying among individuals who choose the Antarctic lifestyle: “The first year, people go to Antarctica for the experience, the second year for the money. The third year they go because they no longer fit in anywhere else.”

But the interpersonal connections employees forge on The Ice is perhaps a more likely reason.

If the hard conditions of Antarctica can potentially lead to frayed nerves and interpersonal conflict, they also can build deep friendships. Some who travel to this inhospitable climate find lifelong friends here, people with whom they share a special bond.

“Many people come back year after year,” says recruiting manager Johnson. “And when they go home, they hold retreats back in the States.”

Network administrator Dennis Hoffman returned this year to spend his 11th winter at McMurdo. He previously spent six summers on The Ice. What drew him back again and again, he says, were the friends he made and the camaraderie he shared. “I have more friends here than back in the States.”

Ann Pomeroy is senior writer for HR Magazine.


Web Extras


Articles

Home Is ‘a Storage Shed in Spokane’

Dr. Ron Shemenski, former doctor at South Pole Station, had to attend survival school (known as “Happy Campers School”) and still remembers the first day his group met.

“We sat around in a circle and were asked where we were from. ‘I’ve got a storage shed in Spokane,’ said one. ‘I’ve got a storage shed in Atlanta,’ said another.” Since many people travel extensively when they are off The Ice, he says, home for them may be wherever they are at the moment.

Network administrator Dennis Hoffman is an exception to this rule: He spends the winter at McMurdo planning renovations for his house back in Arizona. Then he goes home and gets the contractors in. For him, it’s the best of both worlds. “It works out to be about six [months] on and six [months] off [work],” he says. “Most people work 50 weeks to get two off.”

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