By F. Chase Hawkins
With approximately 22 million former service members in the U.S. today (U.S. Department of Defense), Veterans represent an enormous pool of potential candidates for corporate American jobs.
Many companies in the United States have made significant progress in terms of hiring veterans (U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, Employment Situation of Veterans Summary, March 2013), but far too many have stopped there, failing to put into place the infrastructure to support the successful transition of veterans into the mainstream workforce. To create this infrastructure, we must first understand that while we use the term “veterans” generically to describe anyone who has served in a branch of the military, there are actually two distinct veteran populations that we need to focus on:
- Those individuals who were already in work environments, were called up for active duty, and are now attempting to return to the work place; and
- Career military individuals who have never worked in corporate environments
To be sure, there are needs common to these two groups that enable us to build, in part, a successful infrastructure of support. But there will also be needs that are specific to each identity that must be met to give each group the necessary level of support to ensure their success. Let’s take a look at those areas of common need first:
- A network of support for the veteran, including but not limited to clinical, emotional, and psychological facets that proactively reach out to the veteran to support his or her integration or reintegration into the workplace. Research shows time and time again that a large majority of veterans will not actively seek out support, despite experiencing symptoms ranging from seeing the world through a battlefield-charged lens, to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Employee Assistance Programs that have robust veteran services, as well as Veteran Employee Resource Groups, are a good start but they aren’t, by themselves, enough. Integration should take a structured approach, with delineated milestones that help the veteran adapt to the workplace in comfortable stages, rather than dropping the new hire into a role and assuming that integration will occur organically.
- Education for colleagues working with the veteran that will increase their depth of understanding of the veteran’s experience, the kind of behaviors they may encounter, and especially, what kind of supportive behaviors they, themselves, should demonstrate on a consistent basis.
For example, many veterans come away from a battlefield experience with a heightened startle reflex and may require significant time to overcome their survival programming. If a coworker is not aware that this can occur, encountering this behavior in a veteran collegue may make them uncomfortable, and may consciously or unconsciously cause them to avoid the veteran. This can cause a veteran to be isolated from, rather than integrated into, the workforce. By being prepared, their own personal reaction will be minimized, and they will have been coached in terms of what response is needed to minimize the veteran’s discomfort.
With those structural components as a foundation, we should address the needs of the two separate identities we highlighted previously:
- Veterans returning to previous positions in the workforce
These individuals must come to terms with their view of life being forever altered—especially for those who experienced combat/battlefield duty. In fact, a large proportion of the individuals deployed in Iraq were members of the National Guard or military reservists. Culturally, there are significant differences between this group and career military veterans:
- Unlike active-duty soldiers, these individuals are civilians who are not steeped in military culture
- They reside in the community instead of on military bases
- They did not volunteer for full-time service
- They did not expect to be serving in a war zone
- These individuals may suffer adverse reactions to unexpected consequences of deployment, such as traumatic stress, or disruption of marriages, families, and work life
In a paper published by The Hartford insurance company, sponsored by Booz Allen, strong recommendations were made that corporations support these “workplace warriors” by:
- Establishing a military leave and return policy
- Evaluating the effectiveness of their Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in specifically supporting veterans
- Using good general disability management practices
- Obtaining commitment from senior management to ensure that programs are given strong support and a cultural presence
- Delivering sensitivity training to managers, supervisors and coworkers
- Providing mentoring programs to link returning civilian soldiers with veterans in the workforce
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but concrete recommendations such as these provide us with a starting place where we can begin to provide the necessary support infrastructure. But what about the second group we identified earlier?
- First-time engagement of career veterans into workplace environments
There are many reasons “culture shock” is experienced by career veterans moving between the military culture that they have become accustomed to and the corporate culture whose dynamics are wholly unfamiliar to them:
- Chain of Command dynamic. Soldiers are often trained to salute and carry out an order without question; in a corporate environment, we try to encourage innovative thinking that may, in fact, challenge the status quo.
- Less disciplined. Regardless of how rigidly structured, the corporate environment will never be able to approximate the level of discipline and singular focus that a military culture breeds.
- Workforce lexicon. Any of us who have changed industries during our careers know very well the dynamic of having to learn the language of our new workplaces. But imagine if we had never had any exposure to corporate speak; it is truly learning an entirely new way of communicating.
- Translating military skills into civilian skills. The challenge of translating the tasks they have been performing and the roles they have inhabited into a civilian workplace set of competencies is often seen as nearly insurmountable.
What can we do for these individuals to help them overcome these hurdles? We are fortunate enough to have resources that we, as corporate workplace stewards, can draw upon to support our veterans. One such resource is the Wounded Warrior Project’s Warriors to Work program that helps individuals recovering from severe injuries received in the line of duty connect with the support and resources they need to build a career in the civilian workforce. It can be tough to transition into civilian life. It’s even tougher to adjust to life after a serious injury.
There are also states—such as Rhode Island— that are leading the way in providing structured actions that communities and corporations can take to help ensure that our veterans receive the support they need to be successful in life and in our workplaces.
The delayed effects of the war experience will be felt in the workplace for decades to come. To assist and retain returning soldiers, and benefit from their knowledge and experience, will require a long-term response from employers that addresses, at a minimum, employee health and real-time workplace integration challenges. The good news is that we have research and resources that we can turn to, to support our efforts. With help, we can welcome veterans into the workplace, show them their service was appreciated, and provide them with the supportive infrastructures that their unique situation requires to ensure their personal success and the success of our companies.
F. Chase Hawkins is the CEO/Founder of Superior Workforce Solutions in San Jose, California, an organization dedicated to developing inclusive environments to increase employee engagement, retention, and business relationship efficiency and effectiveness. Learn more at superiorworkforce.com