Veterans Struggle with These Habits When They Transition


Previously, I reminded transitioning veterans about some bad habits they many bring with them when they leave military service. Typically, when we think bad habits, we consider things like smoking, drinking, unhealthy eating or running late. However, for former service members, their time in military service likely led them to develop other bad habits, behaviors, and routines from the training and experience they gained during the performance of their duties.

A habit is an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has
become almost involuntary.

As a civilian employer, it is important to remind yourself that the transition preparation service members received cannot possibly re-train veterans in all ways important to successfully reintegrate into the civilian workforce. As we all know, habits are hard to break. The behaviors listed below are ones veterans admit to struggling with as they transition to a civilian career.

  1. Cussing. Have you ever spent time with service members – on or off the battlefield? Cussing and foul language is common and accepted for many reasons in the military. In civilian workplaces, however, protocol and decorum dictate a more professional tone, and for many veterans using swear words is a hard habit to break.

    Instead of reacting with shock or reprimand, additional training around rules and procedure will help your former service members better assimilate into your company norms and culture.
  2. Ma'am, Sir. When I worked in the corporate arena, I encountered being called "Ma'am" often – either by veterans or individuals raised to speak more formally. Many employers express frustration when veterans use Sir and Ma'am, and find the terms distancing and inappropriate at the workplace.

    Remind your veteran employees that your company culture is more casual (can they call people by their first names on the job?) or relaxed, and the use of Sir and Ma'am separates them from fully integrating with their teams and customers. Help your hiring teams understand the background of the salutations, and remind them that in the military, using Sir or Ma'am are signs of respect.
  3. Expecting advanced preparation. When leaving military duty, veterans share their excitement about new choices, options, and opportunities, but also the fear that comes with the unknown. There is no handbook or manual about how to behave around, relate to, and build relationships with civilians who cannot relate to their military experience.

    Remind yourself that veterans are used to being prepared for scenarios and situations they will or might encounter, and without adequate preparation the civilian transition can feel overwhelming and paralyzing with fear. Help them by clearly describing your company's hiring process, work flow, company brand, and expectations around socializing with internal teams. This advanced preparation will allow for a smoother on boarding of your veteran hires.
  4. Giving/Receiving marching orders. Depending on the rank and job the service member worked in during their military career, they will be used to either giving or receiving orders to act. For some veterans, breaking the habits to give orders and set strategy is very hard when their civilian jobs are geared more towards collaborating with others. Similarly, the veteran who is accustomed to receiving instructions might struggle with jobs that require more independent thinking and actions.

    In either case, hiring managers should ask clarifying questions during the interview process around expectations: Does the job candidate expect to work independently or as part of a team? How do they prefer to receive direction or solve problems themselves? Also, asking questions around the exact nature of their leadership style and the processes they followed while in uniform will give you an understanding of the ways they are used to being managed or managing others.
  5. Fear of failure. In the business environment, daily decisions typically do not have life or death consequences. In military service, failure to perform well can have dire effects. Civilians recognize that through failure comes learning, realizations, and progress.

    When interviewing or on boarding, remind your veterans that failure is a real possibility for every person in the workforce. Talk about performance expectations and goals, as well as support systems that are in place at your company. This will give the veteran reassurance that they will be given every opportunity to succeed, and can reduce the fear of failure.

Veterans who have been in the workforce for a while after leaving the military will have probably addressed (and even overcome) some of these default habits developed during their service career. As an employer seeking to recruit veteran talent, addressing these issues early on will help avoid problems down the road as you grow these employees into leadership positions.

Lida Citroën, a branding expert based in Denver, has made a career of helping people and companies create new or enhanced identities. She is passionate about helping veterans learn how to compete for careers in the civilian sector. A TEDx Speaker, Lida presents her unique personal branding training programs across the U.S., at military installations and events, serves on the Board of Directors of NAVSO  volunteers with ESGR, and has produced numerous programs and materials to help military veterans successfully transition after service. If you have a transition question Lida can help answer, email her at She is also the author of the best selling book, "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition," available at and on Amazon.

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