Your financial year end is looming, you are behind schedule and under pressure from the board to release figures early. Then your financial controller gives you 10-days’, notice that he’s been called up to serve in the Territorial Army in Iraq. He is going to be away for nine months, possibly longer.
This may be a hypothetical scenario, but with the call-up of volunteer reserve forces now commonplace, employers are having to face some harsh realities.
It is two years since US forces first entered Iraq, and the war rages on. Amid pledges to reduce the size of the British military force in Iraq from 9,000 to 3,500 troops within 12 months, car bombs continue to rock the city.
Being a member of the Territorial Army is no longer a weekend hobby. For the 38,000 members of the UK’s volunteer reserve forces – the TA and its equivalents in the Air Force and the Royal Navy – the war in Iraq marked the first time reservists were mobilised on a compulsory basis.
‘The role of the reserves is to provide a source of individuals or units of soldiers to augment the regular forces,’ says Captain Simon Barnes, a spokesman for Sabre, a Ministry of Defence campaign to build support for the volunteer reserve forces among employers.
Barnes admits that the TA used to be looked down upon by regular soldiers, but that view has moved on. ‘Generally speaking, the regulars realise they can’t do the job without reservists. They’ve become much more accepted in the last 10 years, and they’re more integrated into the military structure.’
It’s a sentiment echoed by Chelsea Hall, a regular soldier and quartermaster of the Third Prince of Wales’ Royal Regiment.
‘I’ve done two tours with the TA and they’re really motivated – I couldn’t give up my weekends like that. Today’s TA is a very serious business. If you join, you’re going to do operational service.’
As the professional armed forces continue to dwindle in size, the role that reservists play in the nation’s military capability is only set to increase. ‘The regular army has been groaning under the strain – we really need to gain employers’ goodwill,’ says Hall.
That goodwill is all the more important given that, since 2003, more than 11,000 reservists have been mobilised for full-time service, mostly in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and the Balkans.
‘Now there’s political will to use reservists, the legal mechanism is in place to mobilise them,’ explains Captain Barnes. ‘The reserves have skills that regulars don’t have – skills that aren’t in high demand in peace time. It’s an intelligent use of a resource that’s existed for some time.’
For employers, the implications are not to be sniffed at. Most reservists are signed up for a minimum of three years, and while ‘engaged’, are subject to the Reserve Forces Act, which allows the government to take them out of their full-time job and make them a full-time serviceman.
There’s nothing particularly surprising about the set-up. What is surprising is that it’s only since April last year that reservists have been under any legal obligation to inform their employers about their extra curricular activities. Now when you sign up to the reserves or re-engage (renew your contract with the MoD), your employer receives a letter from the commanding officer that spells out exactly what your obligations are and what it could mean for the business.
The reality is that most companies probably don’t even know they have members of the reserve forces on the payroll. But given that most reservists will get probably get little more than a week’s notice of their mobilisation, the chances of employers being left in the lurch are pretty high.
Losing a key member of staff at short notice is never easy. But while a blue-chip giant employing thousands of people probably has the resources to absorb the loss, for an SME the upheaval caused is almost inevitably going to be significant.
With mobilised reservists typically away from their ‘day jobs’ for around nine months (the legal maximum is 12 months continual service within a three-year period), employers are having to find cover for staff in the same way as if an employee took maternity leave.
Already some reservists fear they are being discriminated against by potential employers because of the real risk of being called up. But, as one employer put it: ‘At least with maternity leave you’ll get six months’ notice, rather than a week.’
A mobilisation order isn’t necessarily an open ticket to Fallujah. Both reservists and employers can apply for the mobilisation to be postponed or cancelled. For businesses, exemption or deferral are most likely to be granted if the absence of that member of staff would cause serious harm to the company. Even if companies are not satisfied with the ‘ initial outcome, they can appeal to an independent tribunal.
But employers need to consider the implications of an appeal, particularly when individuals are keen to serve a tour of duty. Captain Stuart Wellman is a project manager whose employer, a company with 150 staff and the subsidiary of a bigger group, was successful in its fight against his mobilisation.
‘They kicked up quite a fuss,’ Wellman says. ‘They’d probably not say it, but I don’t think they’d employ TA members in the future because, frankly, they don’t need the hassle.’
Disillusioned by the experience, he has left that employer and now works as a freelancer, but adds: ‘I think it’s a shame they reacted like that because they got a lot out of the TA.’
Ironically, the Safeguard of Employment Act, introduced in 1995 to prevent companies from making volunteer reservists redundant while on tour, has only served to fuel concerns that they could be discriminated against because of the cost and perceived inconvenience to business of being called up.
The Act states that reservists are entitled to be reinstated in their old job as if they had never been mobilised. ‘If that’s not possible because of changes, they must be given a similar job on the same terms and conditions. Otherwise the employer must pay them compensation. Their employment is protected for 12 months after reinstatement,’ Captain Barnes explains.
Even for enlightened businesses, a mobilisation is at best a nuisance and at worst a disaster. But the potential payback to those employing reservists – particularly access to the skills that they bring to business as a result of their military training – is something the armed forces are keen to promote.
‘We’re hugely conscious of the employer/TA partnership,’ says Colonel Tony Guthrie, commanding officer of the Third Prince of Wales’ Royal Regiment. ‘For me, things like physical fitness, loyalty and commitment, a “can-do” attitude and leadership experience are all valuable.’
Other employers are adamant that the extra skills reservists bring to their business more than justify the risk. Major James Humphries was in the regular army for six years before going back to civvie street to run his own financial advisory firm. As both an employer and a reservist, his view is biased but refreshingly frank.
‘Everything in the TA is about managing people, logistics and processes. The benefits for employers far outweigh the drawbacks of losing people. It sounds like a cliche, but they go out boys, and come back men. People are more confident, they find their own weaknesses. We tell people from the start they could be mobilised. As an employer I’m prepared to take that risk.’
Linda Applewhite is one of 17 partners at Streets, an accountancy firm that employs 120 staff with regional offices across five locations including Lincoln, Peterborough and Grantham. Last year, the firm took on a senior manager who was in the TA. ‘He was definitely a good manager, and I think the discipline he brought to the job was directly attributable to the fact he was in the TA. He was the right person for the job, but there is always the worry that they’ll be mobilised.’
To his credit, the individual in question tackled the issue of a possible mobilisation head on and brought it up with the firm.
‘At the time we panicked,’ Applewhite admits. ‘He was in charge of a lot of people. You can’t just recruit someone to do that job. If he’d have been mobilised, it would have been a huge drain on resources. We would have supported him – but, from an employers’ point of view, it’s a big issue. Smaller companies would really struggle.’
The government has responded to concerns about the impact on business with a new package of financial support, due to become law next month, for employers of reservists who are mobilised. For Applewhite, the prospect of compensation does little more than soften the blow for employers.
‘You can’t plan for them not coming back. And there’s always the worry that, when they do, they won’t be able to work. Being in limbo is hard for employers. There’s huge uncertainty – but we’re prepared to live with it.’
For the time being, neither the threat of mobilisation nor fears about discrimination seem to be having much effect on the TA’s recruitment efforts.
Colonel Guthrie explains: ‘We went through a period of adjustment as brown envelopes dropped through letter boxes. For some, it was a bolt out of the blue. Now we attract a different type of person. They’re more aware of the risks.’
But for those reservists who’ve experienced a tour of duty, it certainly puts the stresses and strains of a desk job into perspective. And it brings a whole new meaning to ‘being in the firing line’.