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When Active Duty Calls IBM'ers

With the possibility of war with Iraq and the buildup of the new Homeland Security Dept., more and more reservists are being called to active duty. Today, because of dramatic defense downsizing during the '90s, nearly half of U.S. military members are reservists, many of them specialists in operations, strategy, and intelligence.

That means changes for Corporate America too. Increasingly, those reservists called up to active duty are managers and senior execs -- key people companies can ill afford to be without. Many companies are now trying to strengthen their policies for reservists (see BW Online, 2/10/03, "The Plight of White-Collar Reservists").

IBM (IBM) boasts one of the most comprehensive military-reservist policies in the country, from benefits to ways to keep in touch while on active duty. BusinessWeek Staff Editor Jennifer Merritt spoke about the policy with IBM's vice-president for talent, Donna Riley, and IBM business consultant Michel Ellert-Beck, a reservist just back from active duty. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: Many companies have developed policies for reservist absences only in the last year, and many are struggling to decide how much to pay, what benefits to keep up, and how to keep workers in the loop. What has IBM done?

Riley: We've had our policies in place for years, so it hasn't been such an issue for us. We give a military pay differential for the entire duration of the call-up. There are no changes to benefits coverage, though sometimes the soldier goes to army insurance, but the family stays under IBM's plan. Employees are still able to contribute to their 401(k), and we keep up contributions. Military time is credited for service as far as length of service for IBM. And employees still accrue vacation as if they've never left.

When they return, we reinstate everyone to their position. We keep you whole as you go through this, and we're ready to take you back as soon as you're released from active duty. We didn't scramble and dream this up, this is where we've been for quite a while. We want our employees to both serve our country and then come back to us.

Q: That's a pretty generous policy. It can't be inexpensive. Why do it?

Riley: Right now, we have 66 employees in the U.S. on active duty. In the fourth quarter last year, had more than 100 employees on active duty. Our employees are our best asset. It's a good business decision to keep them with us.

Q: What about the clients IBM serves. If consultants leave for active duty, what happens to the projects they're working on?

Riley: It's rare that only one person is assigned to a project, we work in teams. Most of our clients understand when someone gets called up, and frankly, the client's biggest concern is usually about that person. But the client sees little difference because the team will come together and pick up the slack for the missing reservist.

In most cases, for the employee, they'll have access to the Dynamic Workplace, our intranet site [with team rooms for work assignments, links to health benefits, instant-message capabilities, and other company information]. For the employee, it means that they might be off in God knows where, but they're still staying in touch with their work unit and team.

Q: Michel, you've just returned from a year on active duty, working in military intelligence at the Pentagon. What was your experience with IBM's policies and the Dynamic Workplace?

Ellert-Beck: I had some concerns about pay issues, health benefits, and whether I could come back to my job. I did a search on the Dynamic Workplace on the company's policies with my boss. We immediately learned of the pay differential, about keeping up contributions to my 401(k), and about health insurance for whole family.

The pay differential was 40% to 50%, and IBM made up the difference. I have heard some horror stories, some people are really hurting because salary isn't made up. But the warm fuzzy for me is that my family was taken care of in terms of health care and my salary being made up.

Q: Did you stay in touch while you were working at the Pentagon?

Ellert-Beck: While I was away, I was able to kind of keep in touch, via e-mail and the team rooms on the Dynamic Workplace. I worked all hours, and sometimes I was home during the day after working all night, and I was able to keep up that way.

Q: While you were away, IBM absorbed the PricewaterhouseCoopers consulting division. How did you make the transition from afar?

Ellert-Beck: Before coming back, I was able to introduce myself and set up a meeting with our practice leader, who was new. With the PWC integration, there was a reorganization of consulting practices.

During the year I was away, by February or March that transition had already happened. I tried to keep up with it through the different intranet messages and contact with my teams, and quickly realized I had a new practice leader. It would have been harder if I hadn't gotten the updates and been able to stay connected.

Q: Coming back, was there a lot to refamiliarize yourself with?

Ellert-Beck: The day I came back, they had a place for me to go, and I was able to hit the ground running. I had the Dynamic Workplace while I was away, so there was always this common familiar thread, and that it made it relatively easy. IBM made it easy to access benefits and to keep this thread to the culture. You could always have one foot in the other world and not really feel cut off at any time.

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