Is there a career-ending elephant standing on your resume during military transition? How much do you need tell your interviewer about your COVID-19 vaccination status, your bum knee, your missed promotion, or your mental health? Dealing with this kind of information during transition is a challenge you can handle with a few tips.
I’ve helped thousands of veterans learn the skills to find their first job after military service. Every so often, someone gives me a call or draws me into a corner at an event to tell me that they aren’t like other people going through transition. They have … something wrong.
My ears perk up, all excited to hear something worthy of being featured in a two-hour episode of “Dateline.” Then I’m inevitably disappointed.
The “something wrong” is often more of a misfortune or a medical situation than a mistake. Someone has a bum knee or a bad heart. Someone can’t pass the physical readiness test because of a work-related injury or weight gain. Someone has PTSD or depression. Now there is the mandate for service members to get the COVID-19 to consider.
Sometimes the “something wrong” is a career-ending mistake, though. (I’m not referring to criminal behavior that comes with jail time here. For that, you need an attorney to advise you.) For some, choosing the military as a career can be a mistake. According to the RAND Corporation, nearly one in four junior enlisted never finish their first enlistment. Up and down the chain of command, some service members test positive for drugs or are battling another substance-abuse problem. Some get fired. Some even lose command.
Why Did You Leave the Military?
Those situations are hard enough. As a person, my heart goes out to you. As Military.com’s transition master coach, I recognize you have a practical problem in front of you when it comes to the job hunt. How are you going to answer the question: Why did you leave the military?
Because employers do ask. It is a perennial top ten interview question. My policy with all interview questions is that you never, ever lie. How much of the truth you owe the future employer is debatable. Here are the questions I am asked most frequently about this topic. I’m not an attorney or a counselor, so I’ve answered these as a career coach.
What if They Ask Why I Left the Military?
The most common mistake I see among transitioning military in the interview is their inclination to tell everything they know -- and then some. I love your honesty, but this is not a good interview strategy. Think of an interview like a first date; you don’t spend the whole night talking about your ex.
Instead, think about what the employer really wants to know about you. Employers really don’t care that you were passed over, or that you were one point away from making chief, or that your shoulder malfunction prohibits pull-ups. The employer asks this question because they want to know who you blame. If you gripe about a previous boss or long work hours at your last job, you will have the same gripes at your next job. Give an answer that shows you are ready to work at exactly the tasks included in the job listing.
What if I Am Separating from the Military, Because I’m Not Getting the COVID-19 Vaccination?
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced a mandate for all military members to get the COVID-19 vaccination. For those who choose to get out due to the mandate, they may face a hurdle when seeking civilian employment since some of the biggest employers of veterans -- like the federal government and the Department of Veterans Affairs -- require the vaccine.
In fact, a growing list of big-name corporations, like Salesforce, Microsoft, Deloitte and Citicorp, have announced mandatory vaccination policies. Some companies like Delta Airlines have announced they will charge employees a $200 monthly fee if they are unvaccinated and on the company’s health care plan. Other companies like Amazon, a big employer of veterans, currently are sticking with enticements like a cash bonus for vaccination to encourage compliance.
The employer’s vaccination policy is allowed to be set as a condition of employment, according to the Justice Department. You can expect to be asked about your vaccination status or see vaccination compliance as a requirement in the job listing. Check the company’s policy during your job research. You also might look into some of the emerging job boards for the unvaccinated.
What if I Got a Less Than Honorable Discharge?
According to a report from the Veteran’s Legal Clinic of Harvard Law School, a little less than ten percent of veterans receive an other than honorable discharge. The application may ask about your discharge to verify your employment, but the Society for Human Resource Management, the largest HR association in the world, cautions hiring managers about using it to determine eligibility for employment. They point out that other than honorable discharges can be given for minor offenses that don’t even apply to your future work and may be connected to protected statuses.
When asked why you left the military, it is usually not a demand for some big explanation. Often it is a question the interviewer uses as a verbal crutch. Go ahead and tell the interviewer that you completed your service, and now you are looking for a new way to use your skills at work.
What if They Googled Me and Know All About It?
Some separations from the military come with a news story and a media footprint attached. The event is part of your history, granted. But how important will it be to your career? No one really knows.
My personal thought is that if the hiring manager Googled you and your mistake is going to be an issue for them, they would not have asked you to come in for the interview. If they Googled you and still brought you in to interview, they might not ask about it at all. While this event is huge and unforgettable to you, it may not matter too much to anyone else.
What if They Ask Me About It?
If you have a career mistake, I always think it is a good policy to have a practiced answer ready. By “practiced,” I don’t mean to make up an answer. I mean that you talked to a coach like me or a mentor you found through American Corporate Partners, Veterati or FourBlock and worked out the right answer to the question. If specifically asked, always frame the situation in terms of what you learned and how you changed.
I Have PTSD. Won’t They Know?
They won’t know unless you tell them. PTSD is actually a really common condition for veterans and nonveterans alike. According to the American Psychological Association, one in 11 Americans will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime. New treatments are being developed all the time, so don’t give up on finding a solution.
If you have PTSD and are on the job hunt, rest assured that the employer is not allowed to ask you medical questions during the interview. You don’t have to submit to a medical exam unless it is required to perform the function of the job. You do not have to reveal your condition at all even after you get the job offer unless you require an accommodation. (Accommodations can be a good thing and help you do your job better.)
Sometimes transitioning military worry that something in their past will keep them from getting the job so they spend a lot of their interview prep time bracing for it. Instead, realize that the elephant in the room or on your resume is visible only to you. Preparing for the question with coaching and keeping your mind on what the employer is looking for can help you manage the situation beautifully.
I'm always glad to answer your questions about resumes, interviews and job preparation during military transition and spouse employment. Please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn More About the Veteran Employment Project
To get more tips on how to make a successful military transition, sign up for one of our FREE Military Transition Master Classes today. You can view previous classes in our video library. Questions for Jacey? Visit our Facebook page.
Jacey Eckhart is Military.com’s transition master coach. She is a certified professional career coach and military sociologist who helps military members get their first civilian job by offering career-level Master Classes through our Veteran Employment Project and on her website SeniorMilitaryTransition.com. Reach her at Jacey.Eckhart@Monster.com.