3 Things They Don’t Tell Veterans About the Civilian Sector

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(U.S. Army/Spc. Nathanael Mercado)

On a recent mentoring call with a veteran who left the Army two years ago, the conversation hit a troubling spot when he shared, “I guess I didn’t realize this would be what the civilian workplace would look like.”

We’d been focusing our conversation on some of the personality challenges he was encountering with peers and supervisors in this, his first post-military job. He didn’t get along well with his boss, and some of his colleagues had voiced concerns about his work ethic and ability to collaborate.

“It’s like he wants to do everything by himself to get all the credit,” one colleague shared with his boss.

When I reminded him about several of the differences between the typical civilian sector culture and the military, he sighed and repeated, “I didn’t know it would be this way.”

As you get ready to separate and plan for a career or life after the military, here are my top three insights into the civilian world that you should be ready for. Even though you were a civilian before you joined the military, and you’ve likely interacted with civilians during your time in uniform, the differences are worth noting.

1. The civilian sector values the experience. While the goal of almost any business or organization is to drive results (make things, sell things or solve problems), these companies put a value on how things get done, not just the result. How teams work, how employees feel about their employer and the processes by which objectives are met matter. When you consider that a brand -- company, product or service brand -- is about setting an expectation of an experience so customers, employees, investors, etc., will believe certain truths and feel certain ways, we must remember that brand drives a desire to purchase, refer or engage with the company, product or service. Companies invest billions of dollars and hours building and securing the experience of their company to attract the best workers and earn loyalty from their customers and stakeholders. This may feel like a different set of goals and priorities to someone from the military. You’ve been focused on solving problems and getting results. If someone’s feelings were trampled on in the process, that’s a risk everyone takes to complete the mission. In a civilian company, how people feel and whether they believe they are valued, appreciated, included and heard supports the company brand and is important.

2. Priorities and “mission” look different. Similarly, the mission or goals you’ll now be focused on look vastly different. There’s an honor in serving a mission as noble and selfless as protecting a nation. Now you may be asked to advance and grow paper sales in a new market region of the city or ensure passengers make it safely to their vacation destination. This can feel disheartening and disappointing if you’re expecting to feel a connection to a mission similar to what you did in uniform.

3. Not everyone will value the same things as you. Your colleagues, boss and customers might not feel your sense of commitment to a cause, selfless duty and service before self. They might care more about a paycheck, staying out of trouble and vacation time. That doesn’t make them wrong and you right; it’s just different. They might not all want to lead and empower others. They might choose to keep their heads down and avoid being noticed. Or they might put their needs and goals above yours and sabotage your efforts to protect themselves and their career. While my hope is that this is the exception rather than the norm, it may happen. And you likely didn’t see a lot of this behavior in the military.

The civilian sector is not selfish, self-centered and profit motivated above all else. But occasionally, you might encounter colleagues or supervisors who display this behavior. While it may surprise and annoy you that by showing your own values of service, loyalty, commitment and honor, you can stay true to yourself and perhaps become a role model for those around you.

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