With all the events this weekend in remembrance of the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001, I couldn’t help but think about not only those who died on that day, but the military members who were subsequently called to respond.
By September 2001 I had completed a transition from active military duty to civilian employment, and elected to continue my service as a member of the Army Reserve. Ironically, one of the reasons I left active duty was because I was feeling burned out from all of the deployments I had been on throughout the 1990’s (Gulf War, Somalia, Bosnia, and Saudi Arabia at the time of the Khobar Towers bombing).
I had been with my employer just one short year, and in those last few months finally felt as if I was adapting well to the cultural change that came with being a civilian. On the morning of September 11th I was scheduled to deliver some training to employees in our Birmingham office. I heard about the first plane from the radio station I was listening to as I was entering the parking garage. At that time, there was still much confusion as to what kind of plane and whether this was a freak accident or something else. By the time I made it up to the training room, every TV in the building was turned to CNN and all of the students were following reports on their BlackBerrys and telling me that a second plane had struck. We attempted to start the class, but the continuous updates of increasingly horrifying news made it impossible to continue. The students were distracted by the news, and I was becoming increasingly distracted by the knowledge that my reserve unit was certain to be one of the first called up in response to this tragedy.
At the time, the unit I served with supported a major Army headquarters in Atlanta that had responsibility for planning responses to crises (domestic and international) and for supplying and training the units and individuals who would be the responders. Whatever was going to happen in the weeks, months, possibly years to come, was definitely going to be the main focus of my headquarters. My reserve unit was trained to augment the full time military and civilian staff, so I was not surprised when I received the phone call just a few short hours after dismissing the class. I was sitting in my hotel room, transfixed on the TV and alternating between a sadness I had never felt before and rage. “I was expecting your call,” I spoke into the phone. “When do we start?”
I share this story because it is not an unusual one for those who serve in the National Guard and Reserve. The details may change, but the immediate shift in focus upon receiving that call does not. I want to highlight what my company did when I informed them that I would be taking a leave of absence for an undetermined amount of time. I hope it serves as an example of an employer being truly responsive and supportive of a Guard/Reserve member, and ask that you take a look at your policies and support programs and see if you are as Guard/Reserve “friendly” as you could be.
- Just before I notified them of my alert, I checked the company’s HR policy on military leave. At the time, it did have a separate leave category just for military duty, but it only reflected the standard two-week annual training commitment. My company also offered differential pay, where the company pays the difference between military base pay and the employee’s salary (if the military base pay is less than the civilian pay). But, again, this was only offered for the standard two week training period. I knew I would be gone for much longer than two weeks; I knew I could possibly be away for a year or more. I brought this to the attention of my HR rep and asked if the company would consider revising the policy on military leave and also consider offering the pay differential for a longer period of time. I provided her with a sample policy letter from the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) website. Amazingly, within three weeks, the company was able to rewrite and gain approval for both policy changes. Ultimately, I was mobilized for a total of 2-1/2 years and the company covered me the entire time. And, before you send me emails about USERRA (Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act), USERRA says employers have to let us go serve and have to place us in a job of equal or greater responsibility upon return. It specifically does not require employers to pay salary differential or benefits while we are gone. The first military leave policy addressed our retention of benefits while absent in a military leave capacity for up to two weeks. The revised policy actually became two policies: one for short term military absence (two weeks) and one for long term military absence (i.e., mobilizations).
- While I was gone, the company asked for my permission to post my picture and name in a common area where the rest of the employees could see those from the company who had been mobilized/deployed after 9/11. This allowed employees an opportunity to acknowledge our service and to keep us in their thoughts.
- During my mobilization, the company did not have an employee resource group (ERG) for veterans. By the time I returned to work in 2004, the first fledgling one was standing up. I joined it and took on a leadership role, and we made it our mission to continue to push for more support of our Guard/Reserve employees. Our ERG created a newsletter to inform the group of our efforts and to recognize those who were mobilizing/coming off of mobilization, those that had been promoted in the Guard/Reserve, and those that were doing great work in the community serving veterans and military families.
- The ERG also convinced our company leaders to send out a letter to all veteran employees and Guard/Reserve employees in advance of Veterans Day, thanking them for their service and sacrifices. This letter was hand signed and mailed to the home address of each employee. It fell to the ERG to find the veterans and military members in the employee base, as HR had no record of who had self-identified as a veteran upon hire. The leaders also acknowledged our service and sacrifice every Memorial Day and Veterans Day thereafter in a statement that was emailed to all employees.
- The last change I was attempting to enact before I left the company to start The Value Of a Veteran was a change to the short term military leave policy. It covered the standard two weeks of leave for annual training. Our ERG members let us know that they were increasingly being asked to do additional training requirements in the course of a year. We polled the group and the average was 4-5 weeks of military training a year had become the “new normal”. Our members had been taking the 2 week military training absence, and then using vacation time in order to retain pay and benefits or take the remaining 2-4 weeks as unpaid leave.
If you are looking for additional ideas as you develop your military recruiting and retention program, please consider downloading a free copy of my employers guide to recruiting and retaining military veterans. Use coupon code HireMilitary before checking out and the cost of the guide will be deducted.