Back when TV networks advertised that their shows were “brought to you in living color,” there was an ad campaign to “Hire the Vet.” Vietnam was winding down and the American serviceman was suffering from an image problem. First, there was a hugely unpopular war. Next were the stories – some fair/most not – of drug use, misconduct and problems readjusting to civilian life. The uninformed employer often hesitated to make the hire, typically out of fear of the unknown.
Now, as then, there is nothing to fear and everything to gain by making these great men and women who have served our nation an integral part of your team.
Unless you have a friend or family member who serves, you may be imagining the big screen version of the vet, but the truth is they don’t all look like Tom Cruise and Demi Moore, fight like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, and lead like Tom Hanks and Jimmy Stewart (an actual Air Force Brigadier General, by the way). In short, America’s vets are your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, children, friends and neighbors. They’re the kid who delivered your paper and the coach who taught you about sports and life.
Lesson 1: Stop believing the movies (except the looking like Tom Cruise part). Vets are simply fellow citizens who have chosen a particular career path.
The "Skills Match" Myth
The misconception that vets don’t have formidable skills can be excruciatingly frustrating for applicants. Even employers with respect for the military often have no real understanding of their skills. Recruiters spend agonizing hours trying to find a match without ever understanding core competencies. A typical, albeit completely fictitious, interview sounds something like this:
Employer: So, what did you do in the Marines?
Candidate: I was a Tank Company Commander.
Employer: Well, we have a forklift. That’s kind of like a tank.
This may seem silly, but it’s not unusual. This employer is missing the fact that this 29-year-old has a Master’s Degree; was entrusted with the care, training, morale and lives of over 100 men and women and millions of dollars in equipment; is experienced in the three-dimensional maneuver and employment of all supporting arms and elements in the battlespace; and was responsible for commanding 14 tanks.
This misunderstanding is found even among corporate veterans’ hiring specialists who might wonder why this young vet is pursuing a position in management. Well, the reason is because he is skilled beyond what appears on MOS charts and, beyond obvious leadership skills and intellect, he presents additional desirable characteristics precisely because of his service:
- He is highly adaptable.
- He is team-oriented and understands that leaders can give the “what” and encourage their team to determine the “how.”
- He is collaborative, assumes responsibility, is decisive and takes action as needed.
Lesson 2: Look beyond the forklift and see the smart, educated, motivated, adaptable, mission-oriented leader and team player who would rather eat bugs than fail in his assignment or act unethically.
The Cultural Divide
Every successful company has a customized onboarding program. Vets will both expect and value your efforts to help them understand job company culture, as well as job requirements and responsibilities. In the military, every job is important, regardless of rank. You may have to suffer your vet arriving on time and using an occasional “Sir” or “Ma’am,” but that should only improve your culture.
Lesson 3: If you challenge the vet, show him how he fits into the whole of the organization and demand excellence, he will adjust and strengthen your company’s culture.
What if active duty calls?
In most cases, service members are informed of their pending leave date. If Mary is a team member, she will have time to train her replacement. If she’s leading a team, she will have trained her people to carry on in her absence without missing a beat. Good leaders just do that naturally, and strong companies offer coaching to support pre-recall preparation.
Lesson 4: Don't "what if" yourself out of a good hiring decision.
Veterans are really as familiar to you as family and friends; have fungible leadership, teamwork and communication skills far beyond their narrow MOS; fit with any culture of empowerment and challenge; and look like Tom Cruise. Hire one before your competition beats you to it.