How Employers Can Bridge the Communication Gap With Veterans

Military service imbues people with the values employers prize but getting vets to talk about themselves is often a challenge.

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By Lida Citroën


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Imagine as a young adult you moved from where you grew up to a place where everything was different: the language, culture, dress code and how people behaved. Nothing is what you are used to but you spend years working in this new place, testing and refining your skills, talents and mental stamina. Then, one day you return to where you grew up but now you feel like a complete foreigner, unfamiliar with everything around you.

For military members separating or retiring from service, this is a real experience. They volunteered to step out of their civilian lives and into a subculture with its own rules, dress code, language and protocol. Reintegrating back into the civilian workforce can feel overwhelming, frightening and sometimes demoralizing for our nation's veterans.

Smart employers want to attract employees with high standards who are loyal, dedicated and resilient. Often times, employers seek out veterans because they are known to have these qualities, but the challenges of communication, cultural fit in the company and skill transference cut short the hiring process.

Related: 5 Key Lessons Every Entrepreneur Can Learn From 'Unbroken' Louis Zamperini

The differences between military and civilian life.

There are many differences between the military and civilian work environment, language and protocol. For instance:

Civilians can confidently articulate their value proposition. They know how to navigate an interview, highlighting their best qualities and helping recruiters see them as a fit for the employer. On the job, civilians know that to compete effectively, they need to build relationships and stay focused on adding value to the organization and getting credit for it.

To someone leaving the service, saying "I" can be challenging. Veterans tell me that speaking about their accomplishments feels like they are taking credit for those who served alongside them. Instead, veteran candidates express humility in a civilian interview or on the job. This is often mischaracterized as lack of confidence or standoffishness, instead of pride.

In the military, jobs are classified by codes, not descriptions. The Army and Marines use MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) classification, the Air Force calls it AFSC (Air Force Specialty Code), and the Navy refers to their jobs by NEC (Navy Enlisted Classification). For a civilian hiring manager unfamiliar with this coding system, a military resume can be blinding and appear irrelevant.

Jobs in the military are often relatable to civilian careers, but because they are performed in a much different environment, they are hard for recruiters to understand. A sharpshooter in the Army might not look like an obvious candidate for a construction manager position unless you look at their unique skills and training: focus on a mission, calm under pressure, team leadership, and capacity to perform under stress with multiple unknown variables.

Protocol in the military is built around respect, hierarchy and pageantry. While some businesses follow rules and systems, there is typically no consistency. A tech firm in Silicon Valley might interview candidates on the beach, whereas a financial firm in New York interviews in their boardroom.

The lack of consistent rules is challenging for veterans who try to be relatable and show that they fit in. This often leads to feelings of awkwardness and formality, such as answering questions with "Yes, ma'am" or "No, sir."

To the soldier who saw combat, the technician who managed complex systems or the airman who brought supplies to "hot zones" around the world, stress has a different meaning. When a business owner talks about high expectations, business pressure and deadlines, veterans imagine life or death situations. Business challenges pale in comparison.

Understanding that stress and crisis are different in military versus civilian environments is part of the transition process. With time, veterans learn that deadlines are still real in business, but no one's life is at stake.

Promotions and career advancement in the military is more predictable. They don't "interview" for new jobs. To advance in rank, integrity and reputation matter, but HR Command handles the promotion for the soldier. In the civilian workplace, networking and relationship skills, as well as technical skill and experience are important factors in considering someone for advancement.

Related: 10 Lessons from America's Greatest Military Leaders

How to bridge the communication divide.

For companies seeking to engage and grow veteran employee, the most important thing is to acknowledge that there is a cultural difference between the civilian and military work environments. By training hiring managers, recruiters and managers to recognize those differences and leverage new language and tools to embrace the veteran employee, it ensures long term success for both the civilian employer and the veteran. Here are some tips:

Ask the veteran about their service. What did they do in the Marines? What meant the most to them about their work in service?

When asking about their background, refrain from asking about their detailed military training unless that training will obviously transfer to the work in which you're hiring. Instead, ask them to relay examples of their responsibilities and tasks while in service. Were they in charge of people, process and budgets? What risks or opportunities impacted their ability to succeed, and how did they handle them? This can help you identify abilities that can come across to their civilian work.

Share your personal connection (if any) to the military. Even a family member who served in WWII gives you insight and can help you build rapport with a veteran. Don't compare your experience or connection to the veteran's, but show yourself as relatable.

When discussing the company priorities, always tie goals to values. Veterans are very values-focused (consider their last employer!), and they will relate the job to a larger mission if you can articulate the company values. This also helps when on-boarding a veteran to a lower position than they might be used to in the service. If they can see the path to a greater sense of purpose for their work, veterans are typically patient employees.

Help the veteran onboard by providing a sponsor or ally. In the military, buddy-to-buddy support is at every turn. They appreciate that level of care in their civilian job.

Let them know it's okay to ask for help. As an employer, you want employees to succeed, and veterans might need to be reminded that they don't have to go at this alone.

While the communication gap between veterans and civilian employers may feel large, it is manageable. Successful businesses – large and small – are attracting, on-boarding, and retaining veteran employees in large numbers because of a commitment to tap into the skills, talents, and passion of this unique workforce.

Related: How This Army Vet Found Camaraderie in a Burger Franchise

Lida Citroën

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer

Reputation management and personal branding expert

Lida Citroën is an executive personal branding and reputation management specialist, a TEDx and keynote speaker, instructor on LinkedIn Learning and consultant working with global business leaders and military veterans to enhance their position and reputation in strategic markets.

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