Reader: I just started a new job about six months ago. It's my first "real" job coming out of college, and the people, environment and benefits are really great. Before taking this job, I had been planning to enter the military, but now I've decided to join the reserves instead.
My HR department told me they comply with rules allowing members of the reserves to take time off for training or deployment. But as a new enlistee, I would need to take off several months for basic training, interviews and physicals.
Should I wait a certain amount of time at my current job before pursuing this? How should I inform my supervisor and employers?
Karla: Your service plans are admirable — and you're smart to be mindful of how they will affect your civilian employment.
Under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA), U.S. military veterans and members of the active and reserve components of the armed forces are entitled to job-protected leave to complete training or serve active duty. Employers are prohibited from denying "initial employment, reemployment … or any benefit of employment" to an employee or candidate because of that person's "membership, application for membership … or obligation for service" in the armed forces or reserves. For their part, employees are required to provide advance notice, have a cumulative absence of no more than five years (with exceptions), return to work within a specified period and avoid disqualifying circumstances such as dishonorable discharge.
So, assuming you meet those criteria, it would seem your plan to join the reserves and return to your job after enlistment and training is legally protected under USERRA. But since I'm not a lawyer, you should start by consulting the experts at the Defense Department's Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (esgr.mil). ESGR volunteers can educate you on your rights under USERRA and help you craft a strategic, diplomatic leave request to management.
After consulting ESGR, your next step should be to reach out to any co-workers who are reservists or veterans to get a realistic picture of how military-friendly your company is.
Finally, even with the law on your side, you should still use "courtesy and common sense" to avoid blindsiding your employer, says Bob Cartwright, a CEO of a Texas HR consulting firm who volunteers on veteran hiring campaigns. Try to time your enlistment to avoid leaving your employer in the lurch during a busy season. If problems arise, ESGR can help mediate and resolve conflicts between you and your civilian employer.
Ideally, clear communication and mutual goodwill will lead your employer to support your enlistment and training. As my friend Kimberly Kolb Eakin, a retired Army sergeant and former reservist, says, "Who wouldn't want a more team-focused, responsible, self-confident, organized, disciplined person to work for them?"
PRO TIP: For more information on civilian employment rights and resources for veterans, or to file a formal complaint about USERRA violations, contact the Labor Department's Veterans' Employment and Training Service at dol.gov/vets .