Why Veterans and Civilian Employers Have So Much Trouble Communicating

Why Veterans and Civilian Employers Have So Much Trouble Communicating
Image credit: Kate Gardiner | Flickr
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In his 2015 State of the Union address to Congress, President Obama encouraged American employers to "hire a veteran" if they want to get the job done. Veterans bring high levels of integrity, commitment, loyalty, flexibility, skills and talents learned in high risk, high stress situations, plus the ability to navigate cultural narratives not taught in most business schools or university environments. So, why aren’t veterans getting hired? 

The problem is that the two sides don’t know how to speak to the other. The tools and information shared with veterans leaving service are inadequately preparing them for the civilian conversation. Corporate hiring managers often feel confused on how to successfully recruit and onboard former military, leading to a disconnect in hiring from this powerful workforce.

The challenge starts with the narrative.

For several years I have worked with transitioning military, from those who enlisted for four years of service to highly-decorated senior military officers in the Pentagon. The consistent comment I hear is, “I feel unprepared for a civilian career.” Some officers leave the military and quickly assume new careers in the defense and security industries, having been courted for those positions long before they retired. For the majority of the veterans looking for a post-military career, the transition is fraught with confusion, fear and a lack of knowledge and information.

As a civilian, I believe the problem starts with the narrative: How do you describe yourself, what you’re looking for and where would you like to work? The military teaches specific skills and values: be self sufficient (i.e. don’t ask for help), service before self (take accountability but give credit and praise to others) and commitment to values (defend and protect the Constitution of the United States).

Similarly, I work with corporate hiring managers and recruiters who voice frustration at the lack of civilian understanding veteran candidates greet them with. From the resume, to the interview, to onboarding and training, managers say they do not understand how to bridge from perceived the military style directives to work styles that are more team oriented and relational, where collaboration, buy in and ideation are celebrated and rewarded.

Related: Starbucks to Hire 10,000 Veterans and Military Spouses in Next 5 Years

Difference in online positioning.

Another difference comes in how we communicate online. Civilians use social media to build robust and compelling promotional platforms for their job candidacy and career growth. They use personal branding tools available to position themselves as relevant and compelling to potential employers; from highlighting strengths, to empowering others to sell their value through testimonials.

Transitioning veterans, on the other hand, are taught to upload a resume to LinkedIn and wait for the phone to ring. Most former military are not shown how to properly position themselves to be interesting and attractive to potential employers through basic online reputation management and personal branding techniques. Without insight into the power of social networking tools, many veterans are invisible on platforms where recruiters and hiring managers search for job candidates.

The Veteran Experience

While no two veterans are identical, but having worked with thousands of former military, I've seen patterns.  While active, military personnel are trained for one thing-- to be combat ready. In preparing for the civilian transition, programs and systems run by the Government have a wide myriad of issues to address, one being the job transition. Ask a veteran and most will tell you this preparation is not adequate.

Veterans disconnect with recruiters in three general ways. First, they struggle with talking about themselves and their successes, often saying “we” versus “I”.  Hiring managers aren’t looking to hire a squad or platoon; they want to hear about successes and accomplishments in first person. Instead, if veterans can be empowered with the narrative and confidence to clearly and concisely articulate their skills, talents, offer and vision, they can position themselves to recruiters and hiring manager who will quickly see their value. 

Second, military service trains for adaptability and resourcefulness. Ask a transitioning veteran what they want to do after their service and the likely response is, “I can do anything. What do you need?” This is not the narrative civilians use when competing for meaningful jobs. Civilians are trained to be concise, direct and intentional in their career strategies. Hiring managers are accustomed to this. When a veteran is too vague in describing their goals, it makes it hard for hiring managers to see where they can add value to the company.

Having a focus and personal brand strategy enables that veteran to identify the opportunities to pursue, align their passion with their work, and specify the roles and companies for whom they want to work. This is a change in mindset, but when veterans are exposed to the power of personal branding, they take control over their career and perform with more focus and satisfaction, thus making themselves more attractive to employers.

The third veteran disconnect is that the military resume looks vastly different from what a civilian hiring manager is used to. Terms, jargon, certifications and accomplishments don’t often translate from a military role (MOS) to a civilian job. On the surface, this might look like an easy fix -- demilitarize the resume to resemble civilian language and descriptions -- but it’s not that simple. 

I’ve worked with many veterans who have had their resume “civilianized,” and they can’t speak to what it says in an interview. The resume, in my opinion, is is not a good indicator of potential and capability. For instance, a medic in the Army will have a technical resume pointing to that experience. If that individual wants to coach high school football, or work in journalism, their resume will not be the ticket to that interview.

Hiring managers and recruiters can help by reminding military veterans that the resume is simply a tool in the toolkit of the transition. When veterans support their experience and work history with examples of their passions, vision and talents, the resume becomes more a reflection of who they are and where they can add value in the company.

Related: Veterans to Get Business Help With 'Fast Launch'

The company experience.

While the military is a very values-driven organization, civilian business culture often endorses diverse and sometimes contradictory values: Profit is paramount, brand is everything, corporate culture is what we hire for, relationships are how you get ahead. Business happens because people form a relationship of mutual benefit and value and they transact: How I feel about you and your company or product often drive whether I want to buy from you, hire you or promote you. Businesses put great value on the brand, the “emotional expectation of an experience,” to drive sustainability and differentiation within target markets.

When you have an environment that recognizes relationship interacting with a workforce that values loyalty and obedience, there’s bound to be a disconnect and misunderstandings. 

Civilian hiring managers tell me they would like to hire more former military, but the gaps in communication and understanding are often paralyzing and frustrating. The interviewer doesn’t know what to ask/not ask, how to dialog about the military experience, or where to refer the candidate in the company. As long as the veteran is not able to promote or “sell” himself or herself and their values, the hiring manager has to do all the hard work. 

For companies interested in recruiting, onboarding, and retaining veteran employees, here are my recommendations for success:

  • Learn about the veteran experience. Ask veterans in the company or in your network how they felt about the interview, hire and onboarding process. 
  • Train and incentivize your hiring managers to understand the challenges of the veteran candidate and develop best practices. When the applicant answers in “we” for instance, rather than first person, don’t perceive this to be evasive. Learn to ask more specific and comfortable questions to draw out their confidence.
  • Look at military profiles on LinkedIn. Read past the jargon. Look at who the person is and what they seek in a civilian career.
  • Retool the application process. Show veterans and Guard and Reservists how to apply for positions in your company. Make your application veteran friendly.
  • Tie to values whenever possible. In your marketing and recruiting efforts, show veterans what your company values are and how they can attach to them in the company. 
  • Enlist current veteran employees in an onboarding and mentoring process. 
  • Create buddy-to-buddy mentoring programs to grow your veteran employees. The military does a great job of this! Veterans are used to mentoring programs and will feel comfortable in the arrangement.
  • For your veteran employees, show them a career path. Give them a mission.
  • Encourage them to ask for help if they need it. This is not encouraged in the military, but it is part of our civilian culture.

My work with former military has taught me of the creativity, intelligence, adaptability and generosity of this community of workers. Business leaders should recognize that veterans bring the experience, cultural diversity, integrity and stability to build today’s workforce and the visioning and leadership to grow our companies into the future.

Related: New Google Resource Aims to Help Military Veterans Become Entrepreneurs