Aaron Alexis, who officials say shot 12 people and injured eight others at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16, 2013, was a former Navy reservist who received an honorable discharge from the service. But that discharge doesn’t tell the whole story: that the Navy had tried to give him a general discharge, which is less than honorable, because of misconduct. Alexis avoided a general discharge by leaving the service through the early enlisted transition program.
For staffing professionals, the tragedy brings up several points—and questions—about acquiring, interpreting and using job applicants’ military discharge information.
Military personnel may receive one of several types of discharges when they either voluntarily or involuntarily separate from any U.S. military branch. Although employers can obtain discharge information, HR and staffing professionals need to understand that not all of it will be reliable, up-to-date or easy to understand, according to Col. Robert J. Yost, director of the U.S. Army Transition Strategic Outreach (TSO) office in Arlington, Va. The TSO works with the Defense Department’s Hero 2 Hired (H2H) website, which gives employers information on candidates with background checks and security clearances.
“There will be 130,000 military service members separated from the Army by the end of the federal government’s fiscal year 2013 and 127,000 more separations by the end of fiscal year 2014,” Yost said. “A majority of service members receive honorable discharges.” Still, “it’s important for employers to verify [veterans’] discharge status.”
But just like any other job applicant, he added, “the level of experience a veteran has should be the focus for staffing pros, not the level or type of discharge the veteran has received.”
Obtaining Military Service Documentation
The type of discharge a veteran receives will be listed on his or her DD-214 Military Discharge Paperwork. This documentation verifies a veteran’s complete military history, including full name used while in service, service number or Social Security number, branch of service, dates of service and additional information about the individual’s military service.
According to Yost, the DD-214 is the most reliable documentation for employers to use. “We stand by that document,” he said, which a third party, not the service member, completes and which contains a full record of the veteran’s service as verified by the U.S. Department of Defense. “But to obtain it, employers must ask the veteran for a copy of it or get permission in writing to obtain a copy of it on their behalf,” said Yost.
Types of Military Service Discharges
Honorable Discharge: Issued to service members who have exceeded military standards for performance and personal conduct.
General Discharge: Issued to service members’ whose performance is satisfactory but not exemplary.
Other Than Honorable Conditions Discharge: The most severe type of military administrative discharge that is issued after actions such as security violations; violent behavior; conviction by a civilian court with a sentence, including prison time; or being found guilty of adultery in a divorce hearing. In most cases, veterans who receive such a discharge cannot obtain a security clearance or re-enlist in the armed forces or reserves or receive veterans’ benefits.
Bad Conduct Discharge (BCD): Issued only to enlisted service members after a court-martial because of punishment for bad conduct. This type of discharge is often preceded by time in military prison. Virtually all veterans’ benefits are forfeited after a BCD.
Dishonorable Discharge: Issued to service members whose actions or conduct (e.g., murder or sexual assault) the military branch has deemed reprehensible. Per federal law, those dishonorably discharged are not permitted to own firearmsand must forfeit all military and veterans’ benefits.
Officer Discharge: Commissioned officers cannot receive a bad conduct discharge or dishonorable discharge, nor can they be reduced in rank by a court-martial. (Editor's Note: However they can they be reduced in rank as a result of administrative discipline, or conviction by a court-martial.) An officer who is discharged by a general court-martial receives a “dismissal notice,” which is the same as a dishonorable discharge.
Entry-Level Separation: Issued to individuals who leave the military before completing at least 180 days of service.
Source: The Military Wallet website.
Limitations to Using DD-214s
The primary distinction from the civilian workforce for military veterans is the DD-214, explained Lisa Rosser, founder of Herndon, Va.-based The Value of a Veteran consultancy, which helps companies recruit, hire and retain military veterans. But DD-214s should not be considered the “be-all and end-all” of documentation, as “only those veterans who held active-duty status will have the documentation,” she said in a phone interview with SHRM Online. National Guardsmen or reservists who have never been mobilized to active duty will not have the paperwork, while some veterans may have multiple DD-214s, depending on how many times they were on active duty.
Parts of the DD-214 reveal circumstances surrounding the discharge, or “characterization of service,” but these details are considered confidential information, similar to job-performance specifics of an individual who works for a private-sector business, said Yost.
“You can ask about the type of discharge received; however, you had better have a good business reason for doing so,” Rosser wrote in a Feb. 18, 2013, blog posting: Can I Ask a Veteran about the Type of Military Discharge He Received? “State and federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws do not prohibit you from asking about the type of discharges. However, asking a veteran to reveal the nature of their discharge is considered private information, similar to asking someone ‘what kind of disability do you have?”
It is appropriate for organizations to ask for a characterization of service if the job applicant will need a security clearance, Rosser said. Even so, “This is not something you would do indiscriminately, just as you would not conduct extensive financial background checks on someone who is not being considered for a job that has significant financial responsibilities,” she wrote.
Rosser advises employers that choose to include military discharge checks in their background-screening process to use the DD-214 information for reference only and to be careful of how hiring managers refer to it in the interview process.
According to state and federal equal employment opportunity laws, “It is generally illegal to ask which type of discharge a military veteran received unless it is to ask whether or not an applicant received an honorable or general discharge,” Rosser noted. Companies that have veteran-preference programs often ask this question, she added.
However, “Even if the veteran did not receive one of these types of discharges, it doesn’t necessarily mean they were discharged for bad conduct, as the reason could have been a medical discharge or other administrative discharge,” Rosser cautioned, so “it’s best to keep the line of questioning centered around the job applicant’s experience and qualifications.”
Rosser also said that if employers are going to ask about characterization of service, they should indicate on their paperwork that they will ask job applicants for permission to conduct a background screening in which one of the screening elements will be whether the applicant has an honorable or favorable discharge from the U.S. military. And, if possible, they should have a third-party vendor conduct the screening process.
Employers using third-party vendors to conduct their screenings should confirm that they offer verifications of military-service records. “Many screening companies will confirm whether someone has served in the military, but verifying the characterization of service is a different process [that] involves asking to see a veteran’s DD-214,” Rosser explained. “What you want the vendor to confirm is, ‘Does the applicant have an honorable or favorable discharge?’ The less you know about the specific type of discharge the better.”
If background checks are conducted in-house, screeners need to know how to read a DD-214. Rosser provides employers with reference material that explains how to do this, including what to look for, what to ignore and what parts of the documentation to ask for to get the information sought. (E-mail lisa@TheValueOfaVeteran.com.)
Theresa Minton-Eversole is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
How Did Employment Screening Fail in the Navy Yard Shooting?, SHRM Online, Safety & Security, September 2013
Managing High-Risk Employees, SHRM Online Safety & Security, May 2013
Screening the Screeners, SHRM Online Safety & Security, January 2013
SHRM Online Staffing Management page
SHRM Online Military Employment Resource page
SHRM Online Workforce Readiness Resource page
SHRM Online Workplace Flexibility Resource page
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