How to Ask About Prior Military Service in the Interview

Eli Wishart, chair of the South Carolina Employment Support of the Guard and Reserve, prepares for a C-17 Globemaster III flight during the South Carolina Employment Support of the Guard and Reserve Bosslift at McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover, South Carolina.
Eli Wishart, chair of the South Carolina Employment Support of the Guard and Reserve, prepares for a C-17 Globemaster III flight during the South Carolina Employment Support of the Guard and Reserve Bosslift at McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Eastover, South Carolina, July 24, 2019. (Erica Jaros/U.S. Army National Guard photo)

Question: As a hiring manager, I often interview military veterans. I struggle with how to ask about their time in service. I want to know what they did and how it could impact their work in the job I'm hiring for. How do I ask about prior military service without crossing lines -- legal and ethical?

Answer: You are correct to question the legal and ethical boundaries around interview questions. While your intention is to assess relevant skills and experiences, and identify areas where the candidate can add value to the job, asking about certain aspects of service can insult a military veteran and cross legal guidelines.

For instance, asking a job candidate who identifies as a combat veteran, "Did you ever kill someone?" is highly offensive and puts the candidate in a troubling position. If they answer truthfully, you will likely then see them through that lens. If they don't answer truthfully or avoid the question, they might come across as evasive or nonresponsive. There is no good way out of that situation for either the candidate or the employer.

When asking about prior service in an interview:

1. Know the Law.*

USERRA (the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994) clearly ensures that veterans "who serve or have served in the Armed Forces, Reserves, National Guard or other uniformed services ... are not disadvantaged in their civilian careers because of their service ... and are not discriminated against in employment based on past, present or future military service."

Similarly, unless the job you're hiring for requires a security clearance (such as federal jobs, federal contractors and subcontractors), do not ask about the type of military discharge the veteran received.

If the veteran candidate self-discloses disabilities, an appropriate follow-up question might be: "Do you think that would prevent you from being able to do this job?" instead of probing about the disability.

2. Do Your Research.

Before you interview the candidate whose resume indicates military service, prepare your list of questions. This ensures you will get what you need to determine whether the candidate is a fit and avoid stepping into the quicksand of inappropriate or illegal questioning.

You might also ask veterans who work in your organization:

  • What do they like to be asked?
  • What questions, specific to the company or industry, would be good to help the applicant feel comfortable in the interview?

Additionally, by learning some of the military jargon, terminology and systems, you'll be in a better position to guide the interview away from areas of irrelevance and toward specifics you'll need to evaluate a candidate.

Finally, read up on the challenges military veterans encounter when leaving military service. One of my clients said that before she truly spent time understanding how frightening and traumatic some veterans' transition is, she wasn't very sensitive in job interviews. Once she learned how to engage the veteran candidate (at job fairs and in the interview) more appropriately, the results of her hiring efforts grew exponentially.

3. Use Common Sense.

Veterans are human beings, just like you and me, who took time out of their lives to serve our country. Their work was stressful, high risk, and sometimes unappreciated.

Veterans bring tremendous value to the civilian workforce. Through their military training, they learned to be adaptable, resilient, hardworking and accountable. Veterans also bring integrity, trust and a strong work ethic. When interviewing a veteran job candidate, inquire about their leadership skills, project (or mission) management and experience in team building.

When speaking with a veteran, let them tell you their story in their own words. Be careful about projecting what you believe they experienced, felt or learned from their time in uniform. As you would with any job candidate coming from a unique background, listen and learn how their background, skills and vision for their future fit into your organization.

The interview process with a military veteran is different from a candidate who comes to you from within the industry or even straight out of school. Don't let those differences overshadow the benefits and assets you gain by hiring a veteran.

*I am not a lawyer and do not represent my opinion as legal advice. Please consult your attorney or Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve at for more information on USERRA.

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