Corporate recruiters and hiring managers used to interviewing civilian job candidates are accustomed to hearing the polished responses to questions such as, "What was your most significant career move?" or "How do you believe you can add value to our company?" With college counselors, magazine articles, training programs, and career coaches at the ready, civilians typically have access to information, resources, training, and coaching to successfully navigate the hiring process and position themselves for career success.
Military veterans, on the other hand, go through a structured process to transition out of military duty and into their civilian careers. Traditionally, upon notification of separation or retirement from duty, service members participate in a transition assistance process, which, in a short period of 7-10 days, communicates to them everything they need to know to become a civilian again, from securing a home loan, relocating their family, accessing health benefits, and finding a meaningful career.
It is no wonder, then, that veterans are reluctant to share with civilian hiring managers that:
- They are unsure of their career goals. In the military, their career path was clear and more predictable. When the interviewer asks, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" It is not uncommon for a veteran to think, "Alive… and supporting my family."
- They are nervous about aspects of the transition such as dress code, corporate speak, and small talk. The rules are clear in the military -- rank dictates how and where you can speak to another service member. There are no clear guidelines around how to present yourself, start a conversation, or speak about the company in a civilian setting.
- They are reluctant to discuss their accomplishments and successes. The military prides itself on service before self, promoting accountability and responsibility and discouraging recognition (service members pass credit and recognition down to others). When asked to share examples of individual success with a recruiter or hiring manager, the veteran will often hesitate, sending the signal that they might be insecure or reluctant.
- They don't want to share details about their military experience, particularly combat. With 99% of Americans having never served in uniform, it is often uncomfortable for veterans to share details and visuals of their time in the military. There are strict rules around confidentiality, and many veterans fear that being too descriptive or graphic could paint a frightening picture in the mind of the civilian.
- They want to make a difference, to impact a community and a mission that is greater than themselves. When asked what they want to do after leaving their military career, most veterans tell me they, "want to do something meaningful" with their lives. This passion can make them great candidates for leadership, sales, management, and administrative roles in virtually any industry.
- They still want to serve. The desire to serve others does not end when veterans leave the military. Many will join the Guard and Reserve or become active in veteran-serving non-profits or mentoring relationships to further their sense of duty. By asking service-based questions in a job interview, the employer can encourage the candidate to explore this area of value to the company.
- The transition to a civilian career is terrifying. Personally, I have coached thousands of veterans transitioning out of the military. Not one of them has described the transition as "easy." There are unknowns and unpredictable circumstances surrounding a military-to-civilian reintegration and most veterans will find themselves in a state of transition for a long time after taking off the uniform.
- Their last employer asked them to put their life on the line for the mission -- will you? They would like to ask about the level of sacrifice and commitment the job will require of them. Instead, they might inquire about travel time, training, and resources available to them. Clarify what commitment and sacrifice mean at your company and in the job.
- They are being respectful when they address you as Sir/Ma'am. This is a hard habit to break. The military teaches respect at all times. Addressing someone as Sir or Ma'am is tradition and protocol. Even years after leaving active duty, some veterans still use the terms out of respect.
- They want you to like them and find them valuable. Remember that, in uniform or not, the person sitting in front of you interviewing for the job is a real person with real feelings, fears, hopes, and needs. Just like a civilian candidate, they want to be validated, valued, and appreciated for their insights, skills, and value to the organization.
Interviewing veteran job candidates brings unique opportunities and challenges. Hopefully by recognizing some of the areas where veterans might feel reluctance empowers the interviewer to ask open-ended probing questions to uncover the value this candidate can offer to the job.