In the late 80s, Peter Gudmundsson went from overseeing artillery and military intelligence in the Marines to executing mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street. Before starting at the major investment firm, he read an 850-page history of the company and American finance — but his new colleagues didn’t share his interest in espirit de corps. “I was struck by how little my seniors and peers cared about heritage and culture,” he says. “Instead, I had to suppress my idealism in favor of a more cynical general concern for bonuses and self-advancement.”
These cultural differences — in this case, the value of mission versus money and success of team versus individual — can be among the toughest aspects of transitioning from the military to civilian workforce.
By simply being sensitive to this transition, managers can help their veteran employees, as well as the team and company, be successful. Below are tips to do just that, with expertise from Gudmundsson, now the CEO and president of RecruitMilitary, a veteran-owned military-to-civilian job recruiting firm, and Emily King, author of “Field Tested: Recruiting, Managing, and Retaining Veterans” and expert on human capital solutions at Accenture Federal Services:
1. Dismiss stereotypes. You do yourself and your new hire a disservice to lean on assumptions about veterans. And there is no shortage of stereotypes. “The important thing is to understand the diversity of the veteran experience,” Gudmundsson says. For example, think about the risk of stereotyping Latinos. “Just because someone has a Spanish name or speaks Spanish doesn’t mean they’ve had the same experience,” he says. “A Florida Cuban is very different from a New York City Dominican or Puerto Rican or a Texan Mexican or a Mexican Texan.” Similarly, veterans vary in the military branches they served, amount of combat they experienced and many other factors, he says.
Another misconception about veterans is that many of them have post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, 46 percent of HR professionals surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2010 cited PTSD and mental health issues as challenges of hiring employees with military experience. “That’s probably the biggest elephant in the room for civilian employers who aren’t well-informed,” Gudmundsson says. He points out that the vast majority of veterans never see combat. And of those who served in operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, under 20 percent have PTSD in a given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Even if your new hire does have PTSD, “it doesn’t mean that they’re one bad day away from going into a tower with a sniper rifle,” Gudmundsson says. “It means that they might be a little jumpy, or they might have bad dreams at night. Maybe if a muffler backfires, they may cringe a little faster than the rest of us.”
2. Explain context and culture. While stereotyping your new hire is unwise, so is assuming he or she is accustomed to the nuances of office culture. “The cultural differences are actually the most important and difficult aspects of the transition from military to civilian,” King says.
For example, in the military, it’s all about doing whatever it takes to accomplish the mission. In many civilian workplaces, time is money, so budget and timelines rank pretty high, too.
Speaking of rank, “In the military, the uniform tells you who you are in relation to somebody else in terms of role and seniority,” King says. “It’s a form of introduction and communication as part of protocol.” She adds that age often corresponds with rank in the military. Walk into a civilian workplace, however, and there are no obvious indicators of who reports to whom and where you fit in.
For managers, the first step to combating these cultural clashes is to be aware of them. “The biggest issue we as civilian managers have is that we don’t know what they don’t know,” King says. ” … It’s in that context where so much goes wrong.”
Managers should open a line of communication with their new hires to acknowledge there may be some adjustments for both sides and invite the veterans to ask about anything that seems confusing, King says.
As for specific cultural differences, anticipate and address them early. For example, the military focuses on mission, so identify the mission of the company and team, Gudmundsson says. “They’re very often looking for meaning and purpose and context for what they do,” he adds.
Give clear guidelines on what you expect and the parameters for achieving those expectations. Also explain what success looks like and the metrics for how that success is measured, Gudmundsson and King recommend.
No one is wearing rank insignia on their blazers, so clearly explain the team dynamic and where the new hire fits in it, Gudmundsson adds.
This is a lot for a new hire to take in, so King suggests assigning him or her a “learning buddy.” This should be a team member “who is successful and a good role model, even if they’re junior,” she says. This person would be available to answer questions that may seem obvious and help hammer out “the tactics of the day-to-day,” she says, like what to wear, how long you have for lunch and so on.
3. Don’t misinterpret the loyalty of veterans. King points out that many managers seek out veterans because they’re loyal. “They may be loyal and show that capability and capacity for that by being in the military, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be loyal to you if you don’t treat them well,” she says.
Often, retaining veteran employees depends on the sensitivity and adaptability of the office culture and manager. Veterans rarely leave a job because they were unable to do it. “They leave a job because they didn’t do it in a way that fit in with the culture,” King says. “It’s not the ‘what,’ it’s the ‘how.'”
4. Be a leader. Employees with a military background “typically have high expectations for leadership,” Gudmundsson says, and are accustomed to leaders who serve to take care of their people and accomplish the mission — not to get a fat bonus. King seconds this unyielding focus on leadership in the military, and as such, says “civilian supervisors and managers really need to raise their game.”
One way to do so is by inviting ideas, suggestions and questions from their veteran employees. Show “humility and humor,” King says, adding that both sides “need to give each other the benefit of the doubt.”
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