Hey everyone, I got a pretty interesting question by email last week that I’d like to talk about. One of my employees is looking for bigger challenges, and he wanted to know more about how companies treat their employees working on overseas contracts, and what he could expect going into his first position.
Well dude, you can pretty much expect to get treated like chopped liver!
OK, I might be exaggerating a little, but not very much. Remember that old saying, “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst”? Well, the same thing holds true here. If you go into your first job expecting to be received with open arms and treated with professional courtesy by everyone in your company and the rest of the people in theater, your feelings are going to get hurt pretty quickly. There’s a lot of chest thumping that goes on in security contracting, and all those big egos tend to take up a lot of space! If, however, you go into your first contract wearing thick skin under your body armor, already prepared to take your lumps and deal productively with any roadblocks that pop up, you might just be pleasantly surprised when the occasional “Nice Guy” comes along.
Like with any other job, your results are going vary a little. There are a few companies out there that do their best to take good care of their valued employees, but more often it’s not the company itself but the mid-level managers who give you the most heartache. A defense contractor can have the best ethical training program and a set of lofty standards for employee behavior, but there’s always going to be a huge disconnect between what’s discussed in the boardroom and what happens in a war zone. It’s entirely possible that your on-site manager will be a grade-A jerk who only got his position because he’s been there for years, building his own little kingdom, and he’s too lazy to look for a higher paying job or take on more challenges.
You should probably come to terms now with the fact that your feelings are going to get hurt during your first contract. It’s also pretty much a given that you won’t have to look very hard to find things to bitch about. Really, a lot of that is just part of the normal transition to being a civilian contractor. The good majority of security contractors come from previous employment in either the military or law enforcement, and there’s a big difference in working with a for-profit company. I could go on for days about this, but here’s a couple of major things you should know:
Layoffs are very common in contracting. Unlike a government job, contracts come and go so fast it’ll make your head spin sometimes, not to mention the frequent mergers and acquisitions. When the work is over because the contract ends, your job ends too, even though you might be a model employee! If your company just loses a contract for whatever reason, you might get lucky when the new company hires most of the incumbent employees, but that’s never something you can count on. When it comes to saving for a rainy day, remember that you can never have too much money stashed away in the bank.
Injuries, even the small ones, can ruin you financially. Let’s say a soldier wrenches his back jumping down from an MRAP. He’d be put on light duty with some admin duty on the FOB for a couple weeks while he recovers. At worst, he’ll be sent home to rest up in some VA hospital, maybe even with a medal to show for it. If the injury is serious enough, he might just rate a disability pension for the rest of his life. Sucks, right? But what if that same thing happens to a contractor, or even for an illness that lasts more than a couple days? His company won’t keep him in a war zone if he’s not able to work, so they’d send him home as quickly as possible to avoid paying him. Then he’d be sitting on his rear on the couch, dealing with medical bills and not making any money at all. If it’s a serious injury, like a permanent disability claim filed under the Defense Base Act, the process can stretch out for years before the company cuts any type of check. (If that happens to you, GET A LAWYER QUICKLY!) Plus, just to add insult to injury, if the guy spends less than 330 days outside the United States in a year, then the IRS is going to come looking for their full tax bill on his earnings…
Last, keep in mind that you probably won’t get anywhere with a wrongful termination lawsuit. You better read that contract thoroughly before you sign, because any prohibited behaviors such as drinking can get you canned. Same for grooming standards and professionalism, or even having risqué pictures on your laptop. When folks in the military commit the same infractions, it would cost too much for the government to discharge them, so they usually get a much lighter punishment than contractors. You also need to be very aware of the cliques and “in-crowds” that exist within any company. Get on the wrong side of them and you’ll probably have a very long contract! Work quietly and professionally, always keep your cool, and you might just avoid stepping on any toes and getting your job done.
But don’t just take my word for it. One good site that you should add to your bookmarks is Ms. Sparky’s blog. She’s a former electrician with KBR, and focuses her writing exclusively on employee rights and ongoing lawsuits involving contractors working overseas. She could tell you a lot more about the lay of the land than I can, so make sure to check her out.
Look, security contracting has a lot of challenges and dangers, and the hardships don’t necessarily stop when you come back inside the wire. Keep your eyes open, be aware of what pitfalls are out there, and always look out for your buddies as well.