As an employer, you likely find yourself meeting job candidates in informal networking situations, such as business events, career fairs, social gatherings. It’s also likely in those same environments that you will meet military veterans seeking their first (or a new) civilian jobs.
When mingling with veterans in social or informal business settings, it’s important to remember that making small talk with civilians who might be in a position of influence over their career can be uncomfortable for them. In the military, the service member is taught respect for individuals in senior-ranking positions. They will defer to protocol when meeting someone in a position of influence.
Similarly, someone with a military career has held many different jobs, but all for one employer. It will likely feel unnatural to them to promote themselves to people outside of the military, such as mingling at job fairs, business events and industry meetings.
When you find yourself speaking to a military veteran, first check your implicit biases and stereotypes. Remember that every service member is a unique individual with goals, hopes, dreams, fears and talents. Refrain from judging veterans as being the same or all having the same views.
What Should You Ask Veterans?
When meeting, and mingling with veterans, inquire about:
- Their military career and work. If you meet a soldier, ask what job they did in the Army. Follow up with questions such as, “Was that the type of work you set out to do? What made you good at your work?” or “What did you enjoy the most about that type of job?”
- Their post-military career goals. Many veterans want to continue working or serving in a volunteer role after they separate or retire. Consider asking: “What kind of work are you looking for?” or “Have you identified industry you’d like to pursue next?”
- Their family. The service member’s family is a huge part of their support system. However, be careful assuming the person you’re talking to has a wife or husband and children. You might phrase your inquiry this way, “Tell me about your family.” This question opens the conversation up to include parents and siblings.
- Their networking goals. To help them further their network of contacts, you might ask “Who are you seeking to meet here? What companies are you interested in learning about? Is there someone here I can introduce you to?”
- Commonalities. For instance, share any personal connection you have to military service. Was your father or mother in the Army? Is your brother in the Guard? Is your sister currently deployed? Sharing a common connection can be a great ice breaker.
Topics to Avoid
Out of respect and sensitivity for the veterans’ unique experience, refrain from discussing:
- Your view of politics, war or combat. While your opinion might match up with the views of the veteran, it could make for an uncomfortable conversation. Members of the military are extremely respectful of their work, chain of command, and protocol. They will not typically deviate from this even in a casual setting, and might feel pressured to compromise their values.
- Their combat experience. When you inquire about the specifics of their combat experience you put the veteran in a tough position: They can recall the events and specifics (which might emotionally put them back into the situation) but they won’t discuss it with you, a civilian. Instead of setting the veteran up to dismiss themselves from the topic, avoid bringing up combat and war in social and business settings.
- Resist asking about any (visible or invisible) disabilities or trauma. There is no appropriate reason to ask if they wear a prosthetic limb or suffer from nightmares.
- Those who lost their lives. Bringing up painful memories is not appropriate and creates a negative perception about you and the event.
While some of the examples shared here might seem extreme and unimaginable, veterans will tell you they’ve heard it all. As an employer seeking to attract and hire military veterans, learning what to say and what not to say when mingling with veterans helps build your company’s brand as a veteran-friendly environment.