Recruiting, Managing, and Retaining Veterans

Jan 24, 2019

By AMA Staff

Emily King is a nationally recognized expert on the transition from military service to civilian employment. She is the author of a new book Field Tested: Recruiting, Managing, and Retaining Veterans (AMACOM, 2011). Ms. King spoke to AMA recently for an Edgewise podcast. The following has been adapted from that interview.

AMA: What is the single most important thing employers need to know about hiring veterans?
Emily King: They should understand that there will be a learning curve. It is a transition from one strong culture to another, different culture. And it is worth it.

AMA: What are the biggest mistakes companies make when it comes to recruiting veterans?
King: The biggest mistake I see—and I see this quite a lot—is that recruiters who don't have military experience often don't intuitively know how to understand what they see on a military résumé, because the language is different and careers develop differently in the military. One big mistake is assuming that the most recent job or position a service member held was the highest level of achievement in his or her career. Actually, a military career does often proceed in an upward way, but it also, from a functional standpoint, proceeds horizontally. So, for example, a person may have had oversight over a large group of people in one job, but in their most recent position they were in a strategic advisory role and had very few direct reports. The recruiter may incorrectly conclude that the person either doesn’t have leadership experience or did and wasn’t given it again later.

One of the many service members who were interviewed for the book said, “You know, it’s very easy for a civilian recruiter to look at a military résumé and say, ‘Oh, this guy drove a tank. Well, we don't have tanks here, so this person has nothing to offer us.’” They don’t understand what’s required to drive a tank. In fact, it is that it’s a highly computerized vehicle. And it’s a hugely expensive asset that the people operating it have responsibility for. So, the better approach for a recruiter to take, instead of, “We don't have tanks; we can’t use this person,” would be to ask questions about what was required of the person to operate the tank. Also questions like, “What kind of conditions did you find yourself in? And what kind of problems did you have to work your way out of?

AMA: Once a company has gone ahead and hired a veteran, what are some of the mistakes they make when they’re onboarding them or orienting them?
King: The biggest mistake I see is putting the new hire directly into company-specific orientation training. Big companies, and some smaller ones, often have some type of formalized orientation training for new hires that’s specific to that organization. The reason it’s a mistake is that the new hire has no context for understanding that company-specific information. They’re missing a basic context about what the organization is there to do, how that differentiates it from other organizations, and why employees buy into the mission and feel motivated to work towards the success of that organization. Those big context pieces are usually missing, because organizations assume that they’re hiring people who have worked for civilian organizations before and that they have all this tacit knowledge.

This also ties into retention. Service members are deeply connected to the mission of their organization. It drives everything they do—down to how they behave, how they dress, and how they address each other. Having that mission clearly in sight all the time, a mission that they can believe in, is what motivates them. In a civilian organization, often the mission and how the veteran’s role connects to it are not explained. So they don't feel a strong connection to anything.

So what I see is companies just bringing folks on, not paying a lot of attention developing a bond between them and the organization, and then sending them off to do their work.

AMA: What tips do you have for managers who find themselves managing veterans?
King: In my experience, service members are very skilled technically, but that experience has been demonstrated in a very different context. So in managing the performance of a former service member, it’s really important to make a translation or a transition between, okay, here’s how you performed this function in the military, and here’s how it’s going to look different here, and here’s why.

AMA: What about developing the career path an employee who’s a veteran?
King: An organization typically leaves career development largely in the hands of each employee. That’s what those of us who have been in civilian employment are all used to. If you want to move up, you have to figure that out for yourself and work with your management team to accomplish or achieve your career goals. In the military, however, it’s very automated. Because of the huge numbers of people involved, the performance assessment process is very impersonal. There’s no room for advocacy or influence. There’s no opportunity to sell yourself into another role or to skip levels. It’s very lock step in some ways. Career development is taken care of by the military, so the service member isn’t accustomed—especially at the enlisted levels and the enlisted ranks—to plotting out a career plan and then going about executing it.

AMA: What about the human teaming issues that come into play in the workplace?
King: A lot of people have the stereotype that service members just follow orders; that they don't think for themselves. This is really detrimental and just wrong, because when you think all of the men and women who are deployed in the desert in another part of the world right now, in order to accomplish whatever the task at hand, they have to figure out how to make it happen in an environment they’re completely unfamiliar with. And they have to deal with immediate crises that erupt in the moment.

For people who haven’t been in the military, all they really have is movies that tell them what it’s like, and a lot of times movies present caricatures rather than accurate images of how military service members work and think.

AMA: If I were an HR executive at a company that wanted to hire veterans, what’s the first thing you would tell me to do to get started?
King: I would advise you to do a little bit of organizational self-reflection first and to ask yourself: “Why do we want to do this? To what end? Is it just to do what seems to be the fashion to be patriotic? Or is it because there’s a real difference that service members can make in the work we’re trying to do here?”

Next, I think it’s important to learn from the past. They need to say, OK, have we hired military folks in the past? And if so, how have they performed, how long have they stayed, and what can be learned from the experience? What things that worked can we make sure we incorporate, and what things that didn’t seem to work—maybe that we learned in an exit interview or from talking to the person’s manager—can we learn from that so that we can increase our retention of those we hire?

Listen to the AMA Edgewise podcast with Emily King.

Learn more about Field Tested: Recruiting, Managing, and Retaining Veterans, by Emily King (AMACOM, 2011).

About The Author(s)

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.