Best Defense

Here’s a personnel fix: Pay the bottom 10 percent to leave at the end of basic training

As a leader, 90 percent of your problems are caused by 10 percent of your subordinates, or so says the old wisdom.

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By Major Hank Waggy, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist

As a leader, 90 percent of your problems are caused by 10 percent of your subordinates, or so says the old wisdom. A lone service member on the wrong end of the performance spectrum can monopolize multiple leaders’ time. In extreme cases, young, disgruntled soldiers can jeopardize lives and risk national security. Sorting out the military’s future problem children would benefit the organization as a whole. Identifying who the problems will be presents a challenge only answerable in hindsight. Fortunately, the private sector provides a ready solution perfectly scalable for the military: pay people to quit very early in their career.

Zappos, the on-line shoe retailer, garnered attention in 2008 when Harvard Business Review detailed what Zappos called “The Offer.” During an employee’s initial training, Zappos offered the employee cash to quit, a sum that grew over time from just $100 to $4,000. The logic behind the offer: any employee willing to forego employment for the payout would likely be a poor fit for the company in the future and lacked the strong commitment to the company’s vision. For a company like Zappos that prides itself on its customer service, a disgruntled employee costs money. Reportedly, about 97 percent of trainees decline The Offer. 

An on-line shoe retailer may not be perfectly analogous to the military, but both organizations benefit from a motivated workforce. The strength of the all-volunteer military is the combination of dedicated volunteers and the elimination of disgruntled conscripts. For military volunteers, the chance to join the military may fulfill a lifelong dream, provide excitement, pay for school, continue a family tradition, acquire marketable skills, build discipline, or any of the practically innumerable reasons folks join the military. But for a (hopefully) small cohort, joining the military is a decision they soon regret. Perceived as trapped by their initial enlistment contract, the disgruntled trainees soon bring bad attitudes and poor performance to their first duty station. Their organizations will soon pay the price.

The military currently provides no easy way for disgruntled trainees to leave the military, even if that decision is reached in the first few weeks of a career. Leaving the military before your enlistment contract expires is seen as a bad thing, with the typical early discharge related to medical, psychological, or disciplinary problems. Some discharges, particularly related to disciplinary issues, could result in curtailed employment prospects after the military. For someone who immediately regrets a decision to join the military, the options for an early exit are indeed limited.

An option for leaving the military following basic training would help address the problem of those who immediately regret their decision to join the military. The military could place the option immediately following basic training, prior to the trainee moving on to more advanced (and expensive) specialty education. A small cash bonus, perhaps equal to one month’s base pay, would provide an incentive and provide a start for moving on with life. For between $1,500 and $2,000, the military could free itself of a portion of its disgruntled workforce. With this earliest of early exits, a recruit would have a clean and complete break from the military, giving up any future claims such as VA benefits or GI Bill access.

Of course, the military’s version of The Offer would certainly not eliminate all disgruntled service members. Many likely become disenchanted long after basic training. But consider two recent cases from the news; some evidence exists that The Offer might have had an impact on Bergdahl and Manning. Bergdahl’s unhappiness started at the outset of his career, with the Washington Post reporting he felt “disgust for the Army that he had begun developing while still in basic training.” As for Manning, the soldier told a judge, “Once at Fort Leonard Wood, I quickly realized that I was neither physically nor mentally prepared for the requirements of basic training.” Both soldiers might have recognized that they were a poor fit for the Army. An incentivized departure would have increased their own well-being as well as that of the Army.

Some would argue that this proposal would undermine the concept of an enlistment contract. After all, at issue here is the early and paid release from contractual obligations. Incorporating a military version of The Offer would require a change to enlistment contracts, adding a provision for the paid release from the military after basic training. Service members would have an option, built into their initial contract, allowing them to step away from their remaining obligation. No contract would be broken because it would be a provision within the contract.

Others may note that drill sergeants and training cadre might be in a better position to determine who should remain in the military, making the decision to leave the military an institutional one rather than a personal one. Aside from the regulatory hurdles, this argument presupposes that drill sergeants can accurately predict future performance, particularly for those least likely to experience success or find fulfillment.   Trainees will know far better than a drill sergeant if the military is right for them. A drill sergeant might guess correctly some of the time, but others will slip through while some valuable service members are separated. With a military version of The Offer, everyone who leaves is better off outside of the military because they made that choice for themselves.

The all-volunteer military is one of the great innovations of the last 45 years, creating “the finest fighting force in history” comprised of people who want to serve. Except, of course, some people change their minds, and some people change their minds from the very outset. We could enhance the voluntary nature of military service, allowing our trainees the chance to volunteer a second time to serve, even when a small cash payout is at stake. At a time when the military is looking to modernize aspects of its personnel system, borrowing a concept from an on-line shoe retailer is a natural fit.

Major Hank Waggy is an Army intelligence officer currently stationed in Colorado.  He’s a veteran of multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. The ideas presented are his alone and do not represent the views of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.

Photo credit: Sgt. Tyler J. Bolken/U.S. Marine Corps/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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