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Managers: Don't Take Veterans' Differences Personally

Sgt. Aysia Acfalle, an administrative chief with the Base Inspector's Office.
Sgt. Aysia Acfalle, an administrative chief with the Base Inspector's Office.

Often employers new to the veteran hiring space approach their initiatives with great enthusiasm and impressive goals. They recognize the value and potential that former service members bring to their company and can't wait to get started on boarding this new talent group.

After redesigning your sourcing and recruiting tools, committing to a veteran hiring program with top-level support, and training your internal managers and teams on managing and working with veteran talent, it should all be smooth sailing, right?

Oftentimes, the differences between military and U.S. civilian culture, language, and work style can leave civilian employers feeling unsure about how to proceed. Instead of taking these differences personally and wondering if you did something wrong, let's put perspective around the variances:

Problem Solving

In the military, service members are trained to solve problems. When presented with a challenge, their main goal is to worth through it. They are taught to respect authority and navigate complexities with expediency and independence, following set protocol and planning at all times.

As a civilian manager, directing an employee who is trained in this style of work might make you feel this employee doesn't want to collaborate. After all, they are comfortable working very independently. The fact that this employee may not ask a lot of questions, check in with you often, or seek your input is not a reflection of your abilities as a manager. It's simply previous training.

Help your veteran team members tie their work to the business goals of the company or your business unit. Veterans are very mission-driven. By instilling a sense of greater purpose, you will foster collaboration and team building.

In addition, encourage your veteran employees to ask questions by checking in with them often. This might take some getting used to for these employees -- they are taught to be self-sufficient in many ways. Ask about their work progress, comfort with the project, challenges they might be encountering, and their goals for career development at the company. This shows that you care about them as a person, not only as a functional entity.

Language Differences

When I first started working in the military community, I was taken aback by of abruptness with which many veterans spoke to me. Some painted vivid and graphic pictures of their military experience, others spoke to me with such frankness it was unnerving.

On the civilian side, we tend to soften our discourse out of respect and consideration for others. We might "sugar coat" feedback, avoid directness, and give long explanations instead of yes/no answers to build relationships. Our veteran colleagues were trained to be expedient and efficient in how they communicate, and that sometimes means bluntness and candor.

When having a conversation with someone from the military, focus on open-ended queries to solicit more discussion. Pay attention to eye contact and body language – looking them in the eyes when you speak, nodding your head when in agreement, and giving other indications that you are engaged in the discussion and encouraging them to continue.

Humbleness Versus Insecurity

The military teaches "service before self." This means a service member is trained to accept all accountability and responsibility for what happens in their unit, but will discourage praise or credit. The military culture promotes team, collaboration, and focus on service.

When a veteran enters the civilian job market, often their reluctance to take credit for their accomplishments and their insistence on using "we" instead of "I" is misinterpreted as insecurity or reluctance, when in fact it is humbleness and respect. To someone in uniform, saying "I did this" feels like taking credit for the service of others.

Understand this reluctance when speaking with veterans about their past experiences, accomplishments and milestones. You will see hesitancy when they receive praise and humbleness when describing major achievements. Respect where it's coming from and acknowledge their loyalty to their fellow brothers and sisters in uniform.

Because the U.S. civilian work culture emphasizes relationships and teamwork, many employers struggle when integrating veterans into their company. Using the suggestions laid out here will help remove the feeling that these differences are personal attacks, or reflect something you did wrong when interviewing, on boarding, or growing your veteran talent.

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