Why You Can't Fake Being 'Veteran Friendly'

Business meeting between a team of professionals.

Thank you, civilians, for honoring your country, respecting veterans and returning from the Memorial Day holiday with a commitment to take a vested interest in adjusting your company's environment to be "veteran strong."

Now get over yourself and figure out what that really means.

It's no secret that most companies in the United States want to be known as veteran friendly. After days like Memorial Day, human resources (HR) and leadership teams experience a buzz of patriotism from barbecue smoke trails and may decide that in conjunction with their audit rules and diversity emphasis, they should create a vet-friendly environment.

As for how those companies plan on fostering veteran friendliness in the workplace, the get-rich-quick answers tend to be the go-to solution. Here are a few examples:

  • "I am going to be a veteran friendly company by creating large advertisements that include veteran silhouettes, which may or may not actually look like actual veterans, in front of an American flag in a cemetery. This will show vets [that] we value what they have done."
  • "I am going to be a veteran friendly company by having a presentation at the Veterans Day Parade in New York City, and possibly include a television spot that shows we support our troops."
  • "I am going to be a veteran friendly company by creating as many roles as possible that are saved specifically for veterans."
  • "I am going to be a veteran friendly company by telling my staff to look for military resumes and focus on hiring those wounded warriors that we see in the news. They're struggling to find their place in the workforce."

Well, I have news for the employers who think along these lines: Being veteran friendly is not a game of smoke and mirrors, and poorly timed fancy advertisements don't cut it. Creating a veteran friendly environment is not just about using MOS (military occupational specialty) translators or telling your staff to look out for resumes from former enlisted.

And you can't create roles just for veterans; these types of positions tend to make them feel like "special circumstance" hires. A veteran doesn't want to be a trick pony in a circus act, or talked to via an impersonal, often disconnected media. Veterans want to be respected and move into a workplace that appreciates them as a person and as someone with prior service to a dedicated cause.

Being veteran friendly means creating an environment where veterans are understood, valued and retained. It does not mean simply listening to what Hiring Our Heroes (which is a fantastic movement) has to say and turning it into a campaign strategy. It is about cultivating a culture that takes time and carries a reputation.

For many companies, the goal is to be on the Top 100 Military Friendly Employers, a list released by Victory Media on MilitaryFriendly.com. To actually determine which employers make the cut, the organization performs metric-based research across all industries. The resulting lists are scrutinized by Ernst & Young LLP, using weights and methodology concocted by Victoria Media. Criteria are tweaked every year with the help of industry experts from across the country.

Employers are selected from a list of approximately 5,000 whose annual revenue is at least $500 million. They're ranked on a survey of more than 100 questions that look at the company's long-term commitment to hiring former military, recruiting strategy, hiring efforts and results, policies in place for Reserve and Guard members called to active duty, and the renown of recruitment military programs. This is a great way to create a hierarchy and puts companies in the spotlight to take a vested interest in veteran integration, but that is not the only answer.

While some companies may not increase their notoriety by being on this list, the real win for being veteran friendly comes down to the number of hires that the company can make, and its allure to the military populace through recognition while keeping the veteran attrition low.

I think a company like Amazon is a great example. How does Amazon do it? It treats veteran hires like seasoned candidates with experience, and it pays them a sizable compensation package without batting an eye at relocation or sign-on bonuses. Amazon makes each vet feel proud and successful during their post-military separation, and it hires based on core values that resonate deeply with every service member: Integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do.

Amazon creates a sort of inner-circle environment where service members can easily integrate with each other and experience camaraderie. Hiring managers and recruiting staff are put through rigorous training that helps them understand the incomparable leadership traits that veterans bring to the table. Amazon creates a work-hard, play-hard mentality that challenges previous service members to continue to excel with direct lines for promotion and incentives. Amazon significantly scrutinizes its hires, which makes them feel like they were not just awarded the job based on prior service, but worked for and deserve their new position.

The bottom line is: Being a veteran friendly company is important, because it is the right thing to do, and it's fast becoming a common priority. You can claim to be patriotic and bring in a marketing company to decorate your media page with sepia-toned patriotic banners to lionize World War II, but not educating the rest of your staff on your initiatives will only leave you with low numbers of veterans in your ranks and failed hires.

If you start a program, you need to create a culture that supports it and that can't be done haphazardly. It will take time to build notoriety, and simply putting your toe in the water without properly educating and budgeting is going to leave you ranked low in the game, and may even cost you a seat at the table.

Thank you for wanting to be a patriot, and thank you for respecting service members, but as you tell children who are learning to verbally communicate, think before you speak. Being veteran friendly means creating a collaborative and stable environment, not a melodramatic marketing campaign or changing the title "operations manager" to a job code that includes military buzzwords.

Liz McLean is an Air Force veteran and military spouse with five years of corporate HR experience, who now acts on her own platform as an employment educator and public speaker on veteran initiatives.

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