Military Veterans at Work

Military Veterans at Work

Author: Will Lutz

A co-worker stopped by my office this week and we got into a discussion about diversity recruiting:  the methods employed to diversify the backgrounds of the people we add to our staff. While this initiative is admirable, military veterans never came up in the conversation:


Me:                  “Do we have any strategies for getting more military veterans in the door?”

Co-worker:      “Well, no. Should we?”

Me:                  “Umm, yes! Absolutely.”


Military veterans are not seen as a source of diversity, but they are. They have had wildly different experiences learning and working than their civilian counterparts. They’ve seen and been tested for leadership and management skills in a way most others aren’t and can’t be. And so . . .


Military Veterans Are an Untapped Resource

Veterans have a stigma. When I use that word – veteran – I know what you’re thinking of: the walker brigade section in the Veteran’s Day parade. White hair and goofy looking hats covered in pins. It’s OK, most people usually think of an older generation — often their grandparents. However, that image is inaccurate. Of the military veterans in the United States, approximately 11.5 million are of working age; 3.1 million military vets are under the age of 40.

Belonging to the geriatric age-bracket isn’t the only misplaced stereotype shouldered by veterans. Younger veterans are often assumed to be dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI).

These are serious issues to be sure, but they don’t affect every veteran (about 11% of them, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs). Those that are affected aren’t stuck in padded rooms for the rest of their lives. I have interacted with a number of civilians who assume all veterans are taking heavy doses of psychotropic drugs. This stereotype does a disservice to both those suffering from PTSD as well as to the rest of the veteran community.

What does this mean to you? It means that there is a huge, untapped resource of high-performing talent right at your fingertips. So,…it’s time to get hiring.


Hiring and Engaging Veterans Can Be . . . Different

There is a lot of literature available about how to engage millennials, who are notorious for being the “me” generation. If you’re hiring a military veteran, it’s time to throw the millennial generation playbook out the window.

Military veteran culture is very much the opposite: valuing self-sacrifice for the greater good.

Veterans want to feel and see their contribution to the team. They engage for mission-driven goals. This means they’ll do the difficult jobs with enthusiasm as long as their management can paint a clear picture as to how it helps the overall mission. When pursuing veteran candidates, emphasize your company’s broader mission.

Don’t miss a veteran’s most valuable attribute: learning to do something new fast. There is an old truism we used: “just as I get good at something, the military gave me a different job.” In the service, military members are often thrust into new situations and expected to learn and excel quickly. Expect military veterans on your teams to jump head-first into unknown waters and learn to swim very quickly.


Be Ready for the Communications Gap

If you’ve decided to hire more veterans and have a plan for hiring and engaging them, I have one more bit of advice for you: watch out for the communications gap. All veterans who have re-entered civilian life deal with it in some fashion; some are more successful than others.

At a basic level, there is the obvious vocabulary issue. If I told you that “I’m clearing my baffles” you might not understand that I’m really saying “I’m making sure that I’ve checked everything.” (Baffles is a naval term for the sonar dead spot behind a submarine, which needs to be checked for other ships periodically.) The vocabulary issue is obvious and no surprise; just being aware of it will go a long way.

Of course, communication issues can cut in both directions: there are a lot of civilian ideas that military veterans may initially struggle with. The underlying concepts aren’t new, but the words used to describe them may be.

For example, talk to anyone who has been a Leading Petty Officer in the Navy about what they did when they were in. The description you’ll hear will be strikingly similar to a project manager, but they never learned to call it “project management.” To them it was just their job.


Final Battlefield Thoughts

Veterans of all stripes can be vital resources in a civilian environment. There are a few roadblocks we need to overcome, but when we do the return on investment in these people is incredibly high.

There may be cultural disconnects that require a bit more work to manage. However, when those gaps are bridged, military veterans are often among the best people on your team.



Will Lutz is the CEO and Co-Founder of ForceOwl, a Salesforce job placement company. Will served in the Navy’s Nuclear Submarine Officer corps, and is still a member of the Inactive Ready Reserve.

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