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Returning Reservists: Aiming for a Smooth Re-Entry

Monday, March 10, 2008   (0 Comments)
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“Since September 11th, one and a half million of our servicemen and women have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, and more than 630,000 members of the National Guard and Reserves have been mobilized. Our forces have now been in Iraq for four and one-half years—longer than our military was engaged in World War II.”

Statement of Edward M. Kennedy

“Protecting the Employment Rights of Those Who Protect the United States”

Senate Help Committee - November 8, 2007

Your Reservist has courageously served his or her country and he or she should be able to return to the workplace confident of receiving a well-deserved hero’s welcome. In some cases, re-entry is a decided success. In other cases, depression, anxiety, withdrawal, and a determined struggle to readjust takes place.

You and your staff struggle to help, to better understand, and try to adjust to the situation. Unfortunately, in some cases, the situation deteriorates to the point that a workplace action occurs. According to a November 2007 CBS News report, “Formal complaints to the Labor Department by Reservists hit nearly 1,600 in 2005 (latest reported data)—the highest number since 1991—not counting the thousands more cases reported each year to the Pentagon for resolution by mediation.” With the continuing return of thousands of troops, this number is likely to soar.

What is fair treatment for the returning soldier? For your company? Your workforce? How can you best prepare—as a company and as a returnee—for a positive re-entry experience?

Welcoming Back Your Soldier/Employee

· Know Your Obligations. Make sure that you understand your obligations under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) of 1994 that covers virtually every individual in the country who serves in or has served in the uniformed services and applies to all employers in the public and private sectors. The law seeks to ensure that those who serve their country can retain their civilian employment and benefits, and can seek employment free from discrimination because of their service. A good general resource for information on USERRA can be found at http://www.esgr.org/userrathelaw.asp?p=43. You should remember that changes to the law occur regularly, including as recently as the last quarter of 2007.

· Prepare for your soldier’s return. Apprehension among all parties is normal in this situation. Plan for a positive return event. Allow home-based employees to voice concerns over how the return will affect their war-modified job responsibilities. Outline how their returning colleague’s presence will impact assignments. Stress the importance of a supportive environment as their returning colleague readjusts. Make sure they know about and understand their own support channels during this period of adjustment.

· Brief the returning employee. If possible, brief the returning employee prior to his or her first day regarding changes within the company during their absence. Updates should include company business strategy, personnel and policy changes, as well as job assignments.

· Allow for a readjustment period. The pace of life in a war zone is quite different from that in the office. Your returning Reservist will need time to decompress and regain balance with the day-to-day office routine. Be patient and reassure the employee that support and guidance are available to ease the transition.

· Provide support during a difficult transition. War is traumatic and readjustment can be difficult. Be aware of symptoms signaling difficulty such as combat-related post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Note changes and encourage a dialogue with the employee. First and foremost, reassure the employee that difficulties are to be expected and that the company will stand behind him or her throughout the situation. Reiterate your expectations, listen to the employee’s concerns, and provide ancillary resources to ease the transition. Suspected mental health problems should be referred to a mental health professional. To that end, review your benefits for employees interested in seeking the care of a professional therapist.

Before Returning to Your Workplace

Prior to the Reservist’s return to work, managers should consider actually giving the returning employee a printout of the following suggestions:

· Touch base with your supervisor. Don’t wait until your first day of work. Make an appointment to chat prior to your return. Find out what developments have taken place and how the company has evolved during your absence.

· Go slowly. Don’t rush the adjustment period. Understand that your return will involve a bit of a learning curve to understand what has transpired in your absence. Embrace the process, communicate concerns and needs, and ask for clarification when necessary.

· Resist the urge to assume control. You may have been in a supervisory role prior to your tour of duty. In your absence, others will have taken over that role. You may have had a leadership role during your tour. Please don’t bring that “military” authority back to the job. Upon your return, go easy on coworkers who might misinterpret your good intentions to jump actively back into your job. Instead, understand and appreciate the decisions made in your absence, and make a concerted effort to work collaboratively until you are fully back into your normal office routine.

· Seek counsel via your commanding officer. It won’t be surprising to find that he or she is quite likely to be guiding others from your unit through a similar transition. They may also serve as a bridge between your war experiences and your employer’s situation during your absence. Additionally, you might want to explore transitional assistance programs offered by the military.

· Voice your concerns and feelings. Talking about your experiences, especially with other Reservists, will reaffirm that you are not alone and that your feelings/challenges are normal. Turn to family, friends, and/or faith as sounding boards. Seek out a Reservist support group. If the previous resources are unavailable, enlist the help of your company’s employee assistance program (EAP), if they have one.

· Heed your health. War time stress and readjustment to work and home life can take a toll on your physical and mental health. Eat and rest well. Exercise regularly and find safe outlets for managing stress. Avoid drugs and alcohol.

· Understand your rights. Through a recent public service announcement, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao reminded employers of their obligation to abide by the 1994 federal Uniformed Services Employment and Re-Employment Rights Act (USERRA). It states that it is illegal to discriminate against military personnel, regardless of the length of their tour or their rank, including those in any branch of the reserve or guard forces, and that their same job, or a comparable one, with equivalent pay raises and promotions, must be made available to them upon their return to work. In the event that you can no longer perform the job, your employer must make reasonable efforts to assist you in updating your skills.

Finding Additional Support

Remind the employee that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Quite the contrary. Nearly every military installation offers a Family Service Center, Family Support Center, or Army Community Service Center. These facilities provide information, referral, counseling, and crisis intervention services. These services are offered to all military families, including those of National Guard and Reserve members who are activated for more than 30 days, are eligible for medical and mental health care either at a Military Medical Treatment Facility or at a civilian facility through the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services (CHAMPUS).

As Secretary Chao stated in her public address, “They did their job—now let’s do ours.”

Source: This article was written by Karen Usher of TPO, Inc., a leading provider of human resources outsourcing services based in Falls Church, VA. You can contact her or learn more about the company by calling 703-533-1533 or visiting www.tpo-inc.com.

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