October 13, 2017
Theodore F. Figinski | Harvard Business Review
Prior to 9/11, the obligation of the military’s Reserve Component servicemembers — more commonly known as reservists — was typically limited to training one weekend a month and two weeks during the summer. In support of the extended military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, reservists have been required to serve as full-time members of the military for prolonged periods of time. A rough calculation suggests that in about half of all cases, reservists spent a year or more serving on full-time military duty, with the average duration lasting eight months. The military has relied more heavily on reservists than at any time since the Korean War.
This increased reliance has strained many aspects of reservists’ lives, including their civilian careers, because activation to full-time military service requires reservists to be absent from their jobs for extended and unplanned periods. Legal protections exist to limit potential adverse effects, in the form of the Uniform Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) of 1994, which prohibits employers from discriminating against reservists in hiring, retention, reemployment, and promotion due to their military membership. It also requires that employers allow reservist employees unpaid leave for military training and, when required, full-time military service.
There is evidence, however, that USERRA may not always be effective. Stories from majornews outlets have reported on the difficulty reservists have experienced in finding civilian employment, indicating that employers may be hesitant to hire or invest in employees who might be absent from the workforce for extended and unplanned periods of time.
To learn more about the effect of current service in the Reserves on hiring in a systematic way, I conducted a résumé study. Virtually identical fictitious résumés were submitted to employers, with the only difference being membership in the Reserves: One résumé indicated current membership, while the other indicated completed membership. Because the military is overwhelmingly male, the fictitious applicants were assigned male names. To avoid introducing possible discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or religious affiliationinferred from the applicants’ name, the fictitious names selected were absent of such associations. Informed by the most common civilian occupations of reservists, job openings for positions in sales, customer service, and general office positions were used. In all, my sample included nearly 8,000 résumés sent to employers from August 2012 to August 2013. To isolate the effect of current service in the Reserves, I compared the number of requests for interviews received by résumés indicating current service to the number of requests for interviews received by résumés indicating completed service.
My findings suggest that there is a negative effect associated with current service in the Reserves. Compared with résumés indicating completed Reserve service, résumés indicating current service were 11% less likely to be called for an interview. One explanation is that employers may be weighing the cost of losing a reservist employee to full-time military service for an extended period. They may also be weighing the cost of hiring and training a replacement. For example, what should the employer do when the reservist employee returns — expand the workforce to include both the returning reservist and the replacement, or choose to lose the investment made in the replacement employee? Employers may simply choose to hire fewer reservists to avoid confronting a potential issue like this one.
While this 11% gap is significant, the negative effect associated with current service in the Reserves is likely to be greater for jobs involving specialized skills or requiring significant on-the-job training. Finding temporary employees to replace reservist employees in these jobs is likely more difficult. As a result, employers are unlikely to invest in a temporary employee to cover for the reservist in the event of an absence due to full-time military service, making hiring a reservist in the first place potentially costlier to the employer.
In total, my findings suggest that USERRA’s antidiscrimination provisions may actually be ineffective in eliminating discrimination in the hiring phase, an unintended consequence. It’s also an issue that may be difficult for reservists to combat. Relative to violating other provisions of USERRA, like firing or refusing to promote a reservist employee, discrimination in the hiring phase is more difficult to prove. Unsuccessful applicants are not generally able to observe the entire pool of applicants or the successful applicant, and because there are a smaller number of reservists in the labor market than other groups, it may be more difficult for reservists to prove systemic discrimination against an employer.
Despite this problem, I caution that my findings should not be used to justify elimination of the law. We do not know how large the negative effect associated with current service in the Reserves would be in the absence of USERRA. Furthermore, without its protections reservists would have to rely on benevolent employers to allow them time for military training and to rehire them should they be called to full-time military service. As a result, it is possible that the negative labor market effect associated with current Reserve service would be greater in an environment without USERRA.
Going forward, however, the negative effect of current service in the Reserves is likely to persist. There are no serious efforts to bring back the draft, and another crisis or conflict will likely require extended deployments of reservists. During these times, and even before, it is important to find ways to support the civilian career opportunities available to those who have volunteered to fight our wars.