July 11, 2017
K. Watson, M. Perry, B. Ripley, & R. Chittum | Harvard Business Review
Up to 360,000 men and women leave the military each year and most are looking for work. Since 2009, over 400,000 veterans have found employment in hundreds of corporate and governmental organizations thanks in part to the work of coalitions and initiatives such as the Veteran Jobs Mission, Veterans Employment Initiative, and Hiring Our Heroes. And hundreds of corporate employers have collectively committed to over one million total veteran hires over the next several years.
That’s the good news. But despite this unprecedented commitment to hiring veterans, nearly half of all veterans leave their first post-military position within a year, and between 60% and 80% of veterans leave their first civilian jobs before their second work anniversary, according to a 2014 report from VetAdvisor and Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families). This means that only about two in 10 veterans will hold their first non-military job for more than two years.
Certainly some of these vets are leaving for better jobs. However, there are a lot of other, less positive, reasons for these figures. According to that same VetAdvisor and Syracuse report, the top reasons veterans report for departing their first jobs include lack of career development/advancement, work that lacks meaning, limited professional development opportunities, or unfamiliar work culture.
It’s clear that employers looking to hire veterans are facing an uphill battle when it comes to retention. For their part, they need to figure out how to help the veteran employee connect and work with civilian coworkers, learn new skills and concepts, and adapt to the civilian workplace within a reasonable timeframe. This isn’t always easy. Our work with companies looking to integrate veterans into their workforce has shown that there are key language differences, misconceptions, and lack of knowledge on both sides.
Veterans entering the civilian workforce are required to make a dramatic shift in the terminology, practices, habits, and expectations. Because they aren’t always familiar with corporate language, managers may see them as less competent or cooperative, and may have trouble connecting with them. And both the managers and their new veteran team members may be unaware of the problem because they often lack an awareness of or appreciation for the cultural and language differences.
Neither side is to blame, of course. While most active duty military personnel with families live in civilian communities, they account for less than 1% of the U.S. population, making relationships between civilians and military service members across the U. S. relatively rare, particularly outside of military towns.
So what are leaders who are looking to hire veterans to do? According to Bart Womack, Veteran Strategy Officer at Randstad and CSM, USA (Ret.) “Veteran hiring is a mindset and a culture shift. The companies that excel at hiring veterans have mastered this shift from the top down.” We recommend four practices based on a study our company conducted with transitioning veterans from all branches of the service, leading practices from the Veteran Jobs Mission, and our direct experience working with active-duty military personnel and veterans.
Educate managers, recruiters, and leaders about military culture and language. You can’t expect veterans to do all of the adapting. Corporate leaders must become versed in military culture. Managers need to be able to actively anticipate language and communication gaps and develop creative ways to find common ground. You can rely on experienced veterans already within the organization to identify transferable leadership strengths and expertise. We’ve found that the skills and competencies veterans develop in the military are ones often not as well developed in corporate leaders, such as decision-making agility and collaboration. So it’s also important to recognize and talk about how the cultural differences can strengthen the team and expand their world view, knowledge, and capacity to help each other succeed.
Design a specific onboarding and integration program for veterans. Corporate leaders should consider developing and delivering a customized workshop for new veteran employees about how to navigate the organization, with a specific section on understanding terminology, acronyms, and jargon. A glossary of common corporate and military terms can be helpful. Encourage non-veteran and veteran employees to be curious and patient and ask for clarity when they don’t understand a term. Also include an overview of the organizational structure, a discussion of succession planning and promotions, and an explicit discussion about “written and unwritten” rules. Remember that the rules in the military are often very different than in the corporate world and you want to eliminate surprises as much as possible.
Help veterans establish and sustain connections within the organization. The Veteran Jobs Mission recommends setting up veteran employee resource groups (ERGs). ERGs help build connection, initiate conversations, and promote learning between veterans, and in many cases, their non-military team members. Having a mentor or sponsor can also help ease the transition into corporate roles. Specifically, a connection with someone already well-established in the organization with a similar military background can give a new employee the insight and connection they need to succeed at your company.
Find ways to connect everyday responsibilities to overall organizational purpose. In the military, all objectives link to a singular goal: “to support and defend the constitution of the United States.” For veterans, meaning is important. Period. Help Veterans and all employees understand how what they do impacts customers, citizens, and the world. When talking with veteran employees, it’s important to lead with and be clear about organizational purpose, vision, mission, and values.
The research is clear that companies need to a better job integrating veterans into corporate life. Underscoring all of the above suggestions is a need to communicate openly and honestly about the gap between military and civilian culture. You don’t want a workplace where a transitioning veteran doesn’t speak up out of fear of being a “burden” to their organization. And you don’t want managers making false assumptions about a new veteran employee. You want open, respectful, candid conversations where all parties are committed better understanding each other and succeeding in the organization.