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Effective reservist staff engagement

Chris Jones | 20 Nov 2015 | Comments

Although the benefits of employing Reservists and ex-Armed Forces people are widely known, many organisations struggle to engage with such staff and capitalise upon their skills. Atkins’ Armed Forces Champion Chris Jones shares his insight on how the company has approached this challenge and partnered with Defence to yield results that benefit the business’ bottom line.

Today the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has announced that Atkins has been awarded a coveted Gold Employer Recognition Scheme award. The Gold award could be described as a ‘Kite Mark’ of excellence for employers that have committed to a Military Corporate Covenant and I’m delighted that Atkins has been afforded this accolade.

The Gold Award is presented to companies that have not only demonstrated their ongoing support to their Reservist staff, but are also considered advocates for the Armed Forces community. This may sound straightforward, but by extending our ambition and developing a coherent Partnering with the Armed Forces programme, we believe Atkins has earned the MOD’s endorsement through a particularly innovative approach. This brings together HR, recruiting, learning and development, outreach and skills – as well as Reserves and advocacy – and the experience of aligning these strands has led to some interesting observations that I believe are worth sharing.

At the core of this work is the Military Corporate Covenant. We first signed ours back in November 2014, and the pledges within represent an unequivocal declaration of fair treatment for Reservist staff. With the unique demands on time away from work for military training and deployment, and the family pressures that can bring, the key ingredient that must be in place are the HR policies that support Reservist staff. The required credibility comes from effective employment policies embedded in the company’s DNA, deployed across the organisation and driven by HR at group level.

But this doesn’t mean that the Covenant or partnering should be HR-owned. HR policies allow things to happen, but making them happen and deriving benefit for the business - there has to be benefit to justify the company’s commitment and investment after all - requires a broader approach.

This has to include marketing and communications to bring professional skills to bear on the level of advocacy that you have signed-up to. With both internal and external audiences, our experience has shown that getting the message out is vital to generate understanding, momentum and support.

This is absolutely critical in two ways. Firstly, in order to ensure the relevance of our programme, we had to engage properly with our Reservists. This might appear to be straightforward, but identifying and tracking them and building an internal Armed Forces community has been one of the more interesting challenges. Partly because Reservists are not compelled to reveal their commitment and also due to the dispersed geography of our company. Historically we had not recorded Reservists on our HR system, and many do not readily make themselves known, preferring to ‘hide their light under a bushel’ and maintain separation in their private and professional lives.

Addressing the conundrum required a focussed internal communications effort over six months or so. We wanted to provide centralised support to individuals that often want to remain hidden, whilst seeking to encourage, celebrate and reward the synergies between a career as a Reservist and a career with Atkins. We did this across a network of representatives, backed-up by the incentives of an increased award of time away for Reservists to undertake training and the provision of an outlet or ‘voice’ for their particular support requirements. The effort paid-off, and by demonstrating our commitment to a meaningful conversation and support programme, we have built the trust needed for a self-sustaining community that wishes to be visibly integrated into the company.

The second key strand, is the central tenet of being a Gold status Defence employer – the perception of being an Armed Forces friendly organisation. This attracts employees who wish to combine their careers with Reserve service and opens doors to the opportunities to use partnering to enhance existing corporate functions like recruitment, learning and development and innovation around national skills agendas.

Proactive external engagement with the MOD through their Defence Relationship Management team and the Defence Suppliers Forum, with the Career Transition Partnership for service leavers and with local Reserve units to raise awareness and provide soft skills and ‘stretch experiences’ has paid dividends. We are now extending this approach into cadet organisations through existing Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) school links and also putting a lot of effort into bringing the benefits of partnering into our graduate scheme.

Of course, this is not just about public relations or promoting your Corporate Social Responsibility. External engagement and partnering in this way provides real payback. The benefits are reflected in the personal and professional development of our Reservists (training provided by the Armed Forces but harnessed in Atkins) and in the influence and engagement that our commitments bring. This is increasingly important as the UK Defence enterprise seeks to bring the MOD and industry closer together, through the skilled employees that need to cross the boundaries between the two.

Finally, ownership is key. Given the challenges of identifying your Reservist community, engaging with them and developing your employment policies to accommodate their needs, someone within your organisation needs to drive this work. I was appointed as Atkins’ champion for our Armed Forces staff earlier this year. In this role I’m responsible for ensuring Atkins adheres to its Corporate Covenant pledges to support Reservist staff as well as the promotion of Atkins’ advocacy for the Armed Forces.

Thanks to the support and endorsement of our UK and Europe leadership team, this work has rapidly expanded over the last six months into a programme that integrates activity across the corporate functions that enable effective partnering with the Armed Forces. Sponsored by our UK CEO – himself an ex-Forces member – the approach ensures coherence and ownership at a level that can deliver organisation-wide commitment.

So what? Well, by recognising and investing in the skills, experience and motivations of ex-Armed Forces staff and Reserves, and in looking to develop our overall capabilities and influence through closer partnerships with the military and MOD, we ultimately hope to enhance our competitive advantage. This takes the Corporate Covenant to a different level and applies throughout Atkins, not just to our Defence market. I firmly believe that the benefits we’re enjoying to our bottom line can apply to a wide range of businesses and organisations and part of our commitment is to share our lessons and experience – so that we can all get better in this increasingly important area of support and investment.