Discussing Prior Service With Interviewers
Q: I find that a lot of recruiters think my military service resembles what they've seen in Hollywood movies. How do I overcome that perception in an interview?
A: As you transition to work with civilians, you may encounter people who can only imagine when they hear you served in combat, you are a trained sniper or you were injured due to enemy gunfire or an IED explosion, that you experienced something they've seen on television or in a movie. The civilian who doesn't understand your military service may believe they understand you because they saw Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis in a scene that sounds similar to what you went through.
This is not a right/wrong scenario. The recruiter has a limited understanding of what you have experienced, and this may be their only frame of reference to this point. When a hiring manager, coworker or networking contact inquires about your service or the nature of your injury or disability, please keep in mind their perspective is likely limited.
As you transition, your job is not to fuel the imagination of your civilian counterparts. When you are asked questions by someone you don't know well, or if you are unsure how much detail to offer in response to combat or service-related questions, some guidelines to remember are (particularly in an interview or networking situation):
- Start off brief. Perhaps just acknowledge where and when you served and this will quench your audience's curiosity.
- Leave out anything overly graphic, technical and confidential. This is sometimes hard to do. What you became accustomed to seeing, smelling, hearing and feeling is still foreign to the civilian and can create too-vivid images for your audience. You don't want those images to be the lasting impression the interviewer has of you.
- Share empathy. Use a phrase like, "I hear that question a lot. I'm sure you are curious about the details of my service, and I'll gladly share information on my background as it supports the job for which I'm applying."
- Use a transition phrase (a "bridge") to send the question back to the interviewer. You might say, "In combat, I learned how to think quickly, manage stress, respond to changing situations and motivate others. In this job, are those skills valuable to you?"
These guidelines help you remain in control of your side of the conversation. Assume the questions are coming from a good place (assume good intent), but your job is not to sideline the interview into a rehash of your military experience. Remain focused on what is germane and relevant to the interview.