In our first conversation, Coming Home: Veterans Readjusting to Civilian Life, our contributors — including veterans, family members of veterans and members of organizations that support veterans — share their own stories, offer insights on the challenges facing returning veterans, and provide tips and resources on the kinds of support that families, friends and communities can offer veterans.
Employment issues can be extremely vexing for many veterans trying to readjust to a civilian life. This readjustment may be a long process for some veterans, who may have ongoing issues like physical and mental disabilities. Using my own employment experience as an example, and compressing 40+ years into a few paragraphs, there are a few things that do stand out — perhaps sharing them will help add to the veteran's understanding of how to navigate the civilian workplace.
In this post, I address my remarks mostly to veterans themselves in an effort to help them readjust to civilian workplaces. Nevertheless, I believe that civilians can also learn a lot from this post, not only by deepening their understanding of what veterans go through, but also because employment issues around disability and discrimination affect us all.
In my first civilian work experience, all employees were specifically trained in the same way, and worked off the same page. Everyone was on the same track. This was very technical job with an insurance carrier, and aside from dealing with some occasionally grumpy individuals, all went really well for me. There were no issues whatever.
Later, I worked with a federal contractor in a factory where there was a strong former military presence. Supported by other former military employees, I successfully used an out-flanking tactic to achieve real and lasting results with the largely civilian labor union leadership and the plant's management. Other than gripes from the factory's management, all went well for me. Again, no issues.
After that, I worked in a large, laboratory-style operation with another federal contractor. The company was heavily populated with engineers. Engineers think analytically and methodically, in an almost-military manner. Their attitudes were: If you're right, you're right. At that workplace, there were no mind games or "interpretations." For my work, I always asked the engineers short but good questions, like "Can you explain this to me?" or "How does this work?" I began to acquire a vast reservoir of information, which I then used to map over the rules that needed to be followed, and arrived at solutions that solved my issues and allowed the engineers to work within a seamless program. It was a win-win situation for everyone. My military paradigm was satisfied, and I accomplished some neat and lasting achievements.
My last employment experience was at yet another federal contractor's corporate headquarters. This corporation transformed during my time there: everyone began to speak in an odd, acronym-heavy language, and gray or white hair was not considered to be the "in thing." The corporation's new approach seemed to be all about "team building" and "going global." All of this, in my opinion, seemed very peculiar, and rather self-serving. It was in this corporate environment that things went haywire. There was conflict between my thought processes and inclinations, as a disabled veteran, and the corporate environment. Here, the military-civilian gap was about as far apart as one could imagine. My issues in this workplace became daunting.
To address this problem, I decided I needed to learn what resources were at my disposal to resolve the issues I confronted. There are a number of laws and agencies that regulate these employment issues — not just for veterans, but for all employees. At the end of this post, I will go into a more in-depth exploration of what I found, and how veterans and civilians should approach conflicts in the workplace.
But for the moment, I want to move away from all the regulations laws, and agencies, and talk about interactions between veterans (some of whom might be disabled, whether with PTSD or with another condition) and their co-workers. Many disabled people are embarrassed, ashamed, or frightened of other people's reactions to their disabilities. They may also be afraid of the discussions that might be taking place "behind their backs." It's normal and human for the disabled person to feel this way — I experienced these emotions when I was formally diagnosed with PTSD. Back then, I was pretty much a mess; my diagnosis made me feel very different from the rest of the people with whom I worked.
So I took a look at myself and my co-workers, and I came to realize that if there were any problems between us, the problems were most likely caused by inadequate or mistaken information about PTSD. I decided that an upfront, no-fear approach was needed. I stifled my anxiety, got lots of PTSD informational pamphlets from the VA, and proceeded to talk to my co-workers openly about my PTSD diagnosis. I passed out the informational pamphlets to them, and told them that they should not hesitate to speak with me if they had questions, wanted to discuss their observations, or felt that there were problems lurking about. Except for a few self-centered people, most of my co-workers responded well. My proactive approach was a success. It cleared the air for everyone, because everyone had the proper information. I overcame my fear of discussing PTSD, and although I have no concrete proof, I believe my open discussion of my diagnosis went a long way towards my harmonious relationship with my co-workers.
If you are a disabled veteran or a disabled person, I suggest that you try talking openly with your co-workers and providing them with information about your condition. It cannot hurt anything. If there are co-workers who become sensitive to your disability, you may find that you have new friends who are there to help and provide support without reservation.
And now, with regards to some legal issues and resources for the disabled in the workplace:
I have found that for the most part, the federal agencies have done a remarkable job in providing clear Internet resources for employment-related issues (including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), equal opportunity, discrimination, wages and pay, and more). The federal government has tried to assure that all employers follow laws and regulations, and that workers are treated fairly.
The United States Department of Labor (DOL) is the leading federal agency in employment regulations and employee issues. You can visit their website, where there is a concise and comprehensive "A to Z" index. Although the website refers to and quotes regulations, there is enough plain language there to make understanding the regulations easy. I suggest that veterans and others who have employment issues begin at the DOL website so they can explore the employment and training resources there, and understand potential problems. Keep in mind, however, that though many state agencies and programs dovetail with the DOL, it is also wise to learn how things work in your own state. Check your state's governmental website for additional resources.
Employers who have one or more federal contracts are further scrutinized by the DOL Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP). You can find out more about the OFCCP at its website.
As for specific job-related situations that might arise, I recommend that the disabled person concentrate on getting the job first. To that end, employers' websites usually have excellent job opening sections, and I direct people to visit those sites directly to learn about opportunities. Once you have been extended a job offer, you can then explore the company's policy towards the disabled and other information that's important to you. Usually, on an employer's website, they'll affirm that they have equal opportunity and/or affirmative action policies. I suggest that you look into the programs behind the statements to see if they are real and effective. One way to do this is to search the Internet for information concerning discrimination, disability, and other legal actions that might be an indicator of things not going well internally with your prospective employer. If the prospective employer is really interested in you, then you might ask to see their policies and procedures relative to what concerns you, so that you can be better informed in making your decision. It is always better to ask first, rather than not asking, and getting stuck with a problem later.
Once you have been hired, and If a conflict arises between a disabled person and his or her employer (that happens to have federal contracts), then the OFCCP is supposed to step in and resolve that conflict. Unfortunately, based on my personal experience, the OFCCP is not very effective at resolving conflicts.
Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is a system of resolving issues between employees and federal contractors, but in practice, this system can work to the disadvantage of everyone, including veterans. The process puts the veteran at odds with the employer, while another employee serves as the investigator of the complaint under the ADR. There is also an arbitration component to the process that sometimes involves an attorney. Additionally, the ADR makes it seem as though the OFCCP only wants to speak with the veteran when the veteran has a complaint, and only after the ADR process with the employer is deemed unsatisfactory and has been abandoned.
The ADR process doesn't measure any regulations that may have been broken, nor does it hold anyone accountable. I've used the ADR process twice, when my own thought process as a veteran conflicted with the expected norm of just keeping quiet and swallowing things I didn't agree with in the workplace. I found the process without merit. Under the ADR, the employer had a psychological advantage, and was not afraid to use it to gain control. Furthermore, I saw an ADR process degraded when it was announced that the process could not be used until the employee discussed the conflict with his/her manager — a serious problem when the complaint involved the actions of the manager. The DOL would be well advised to rethink and reconsider the ADR process, which, as far as how I saw it working, was just an empty promise.
Another point of curiosity in the federal contractor world is that ethics are for doing business with the customer, and are not applicable to employees. That is an interesting paradigm. You could be discharged for not being ethical with customers, but not for unethical treatment of employees. In my opinion, that is another serious point of contention. Veterans, disabled veterans and other workers could all be adversely affected by this discontinuity.
In my opinion, the bottom line for any veteran, disabled veteran, or disabled worker who is gainfully employed, and who has issues with his/her employer, is to study the processes outlined on the DOL website, contact an attorney well grounded in labor law, and seek legal advice on how to proceed. Some of the regulations are very convoluted and require expert assistance. No one can casually understand enough to completely deflect corporate attorneys whose sole purpose it is to get you to give up on the issues that concern you. In the ordinary world of non-federal contract employers, my advice is the same, even though some of the rules may be somewhat less rigorous.
Vietnam veteran. On coping with PTSD and lessons from Vietnam.
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