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Building and Sustaining a Veteran-Informed Culture: A Guide for HR Professionals



Chairs scrape the floor as people jump to a standing position, snapping into a rigid posture, head up, eyes straight ahead. A person of rank in uniform enters the room. 

"Welcome to Monday morning!"

This could be a familiar start to the day for the veterans in your company, but how out of place would this feel for the nonveteran supervisors, managers and employees? Conversely, how out of place might a veteran feel in your workplace?

The military has its own culture. It has a language, a style, an expected way of conducting one's self both at work and at home. Consequently, there is a transition that occurs when veterans and their families leave the military world and re-enter civilian life. This transition will happen whether the veteran served in the military for three years or more than 20.

Half of veterans left their first post military civilian job in the first year, and over 65 percent left within two years.

Employers recognize the strengths, skills and qualities veterans bring to the workplace. In fact, many employers actively recruit veterans and identify themselves as "military friendly." Employers can also receive tax credits for employing veterans. All of these steps contribute positively to lowering unemployment rates for veterans. However, there is still something missing in the bridge between the military and civilian worlds for the veteran on this journey—the role the employer plays in creating a veteran-informed culture in the workplace. People working in a veteran-informed culture can understand, identify and address the gaps that may exist as a result of differences in the military and civilian environments. HR's role in creating a veteran-informed culture will help both the transitioning veteran, his or her manager/supervisor and the company. 

Facing First Job Challenges

Job retention among veterans—particularly for their first job after leaving the service—has been low. Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families and VetAdvisor found in a survey conducted in early 2014 of 1,400 veterans that half of the respondents left their first post-military civilian job in the first year, and over 65 percent left within two years. Enlisted service members left sooner than officers. Many service members cited transitional gaps between military and civilian environments as their reason for leaving the job. 

By creating a veteran-informed culture, employers will help veterans make a positive connection to their new work environment, leading to increased engagement and ultimately higher retention rates, which benefits both the veteran and the organization. The veteran-informed organization: 

  • Develops and executes a plan for integrating returning veterans into the organization and clearly communicates the plan to all employees.
  • Implements mindful activities that support the strategy in all phases of the employee life cycle.
  • Provides solutions to address transitional issues veterans may encounter between the military and civilian cultures. 

HR professionals and leaders need to be educated on the unique needs and challenges of transitioning veterans and the strengths they bring to an organization to support them during their first post-military job. HR professionals and leaders at veteran-informed organizations know: 

  • The basic military culture and attributes veterans bring to the workplace as a result of their military experience.
  • The realistic considerations of physical and mental injuries that can be accommodated in the workplace.
  • How to identify transitional gaps veterans may experience and determine potential strategies to bridge gaps to increase engagement and retention.
  • Resources available to support veteran employees and their leaders. 

Organizations value the qualities many veterans possess, but they have to be prepared to help veterans acclimate to the company's culture. Alison Perry, founder of the nonprofit organization Central Oregon Veterans Ranch, believes veteran employees have traits that make them excellent workers and that supervisors must understand in order to make the most of these traits:

"What I see with veterans is their commitment, sense of duty, the importance of having a mission and a strong work ethic. These are qualities they carry with them when they leave the military. They like working as part of a team and knowing that someone has their back.

Veterans have a strong need to have a sense of purpose in their work. If there is a job to get done, they will get it done. Give them the tools and give them the chance to figure it out.

"An important value for them is trust, which is especially important for combat veterans. 'Safety first' is a military value important to veterans, and they may be more attentive to safety than civilian employees.

"Respect is also a significant value for veterans—and coming from a hierarchal rank structure, it is expected. Veterans have a different relationship to authority than their civilian counterparts. They may have higher expectations of their leaders and their leadership." 

Behavior that an employer or fellow employees may perceive as arrogance, entitlement or aggressiveness or as being judgmental, frustrated or apathetic may in fact be a transitional response that can be successfully addressed in an informed environment. Being aware of the transition issues can help avoid termination of employment, which can have a devastating impact on the veteran and can result in a financial loss to the employer. A veteran-informed culture can help neutralize these challenges. 

So, where do you start? The key is to develop a strategy, with a mission or focus, and goals and activities that will allow you to quickly begin to create your veteran-informed culture. However, don't wait until you have all the resources you need or all the details defined! Start with something … anything … in each of the employee life cycle phases (there are some "low-hanging fruit" ideas below). Be sure, too, in your strategy that you have a plan and method for measuring success for each of these activities and that you document and communicate your accomplishments. Sharing the good news with your team, your company and the community is an important aspect of fostering a veteran-informed culture.

How to Attract, Recruit and Hire

Many companies formally and purposefully recruit veterans. They do this for many reasons: social obligation, a valuable and richly skilled talent pool, and monetary hiring incentives (see Tax Credits for Hiring Veterans below), to name a few. 

Don't just rely on a "military friendly" tagline in job postings or single out those applications with candidates who have self-identified as a veteran. Here are some ideas to strengthen your talent acquisition processes:  

  • Add elements to your careers webpage and application portal or process to make veterans feel more welcome. For example, add photos or graphics that illustrate your commitment to employing veterans, or publicize veteran support programs, successes, community support, etc.
  • Revise your application process to include a simple e-mail response acknowledging that you've received the application, if you do not have this already. Remember, many transitioning veterans have never had to complete an application, and in the digital world, every application process feels foreign and cumbersome, even lonely, if they never hear anything in return
  • Be prepared to translate military experience to transferable job skills required for open positions. This is an important skill for HR and recruiting professionals to have when screening applicants, but it is also important for hiring managers to possess this skill during selection and interviewing
  • Train managers and recruiters on interviewing techniques applicable throughout the screening and interviewing process. In a 2015 Futurestep survey, 71 percent of responding organizations said they do not provide training to hiring managers or recruiters on hiring veterans. Veterans are generally unfamiliar with behavior-based interviews, where the focus is on them and their individual accomplishments. Interviewers may have to probe with more-thoughtful questions and follow-up queries to identify a veteran's individual contributions and experience.

Tax Credits for Hiring Veterans

  • The Returning Heroes Tax Credit now provides incentives of up to $5,600 for hiring unemployed veterans.
  • The Work Opportunity Tax Credit provides employers a tax credit of $1,200-$9,600 for hiring and retaining veterans and individuals from other target groups with significant barriers to employment.
  • The Wounded Warriors Tax Credit doubles the existing Work Opportunity Tax Credit for long-term unemployed veterans with service-connected disabilities, up to $9,600.
  • The Unemployment Tax Credit for both short- and long-term unemployment:
    • Short-term Unemployment: A credit of 40 percent of the first $6,000 of wages (up to $2,400) for employers that hire veterans who have been in receipt of unemployment compensation for at least four weeks.
    • Long-term Unemployment: A credit of 40 percent  of the first $14,000 of wages (up to $5,600) for employers that hire veterans who have been in receipt of unemployment compensation for longer than six months.
  • The Activated Military Reservist Credit provides employers with a credit of up to $4,000 for each reservist or National Guard member who is paid wages by the employer while away from work on active duty.

Actions to Onboard and Assimilate

Onboarding is an important part of assimilating employees to their new company, team and manager. Despite studies that reveal the importance of onboarding to engagement and retention, this practice, in general, is an area of opportunity for most companies. Onboarding is especially lacking when it comes to veterans (52 percent of respondents to the Futurestep survey said they do not provide onboarding or transition support to new veteran hires). Here are some practices that can go a long way toward improving the onboarding experience for your newly hired veteran workers.

Review organizational charts and your leadership communication philosophy. The military utilizes a hierarchical organizational model where there is a clear chain of command and a very formal communication protocol. Things like "open-door policies" or going over the head of a direct supervisor are foreign practices. How does the accepted communication protocol in your company differ from the formality in the military? Be prepared to clearly articulate your company's culture and offer the veteran a point of contact to ask questions if needed.

Utilize "buddy" programs, veteran mentors, or support programs and groups. With buddy or mentor programs, it's important to communicate roles and responsibilities to both the veteran and the buddy or mentor. You may even consider some formal training for the buddy or mentor on veteran transitional issues as well. A word of caution with veteran affinity or support groups: Be careful to avoid stereotyping, alienating or even idolizing veterans. These groups serve a valuable purpose and role in helping veterans to feel included, but it's important that nonveteran employees/groups do not perceive that veterans are receiving entitlements or special treatment.

Formally educate veterans on administrative tasks like benefits selection, time-keeping, payroll, scheduling, accessing the employee assistance program, etc. If this is a veteran's first post-service job, she most likely has limited experience with the administrative tasks we take for granted as civilian employees and employers. In addition to education, website information and quick-reference guides, provide each veteran with a personal resource to contact for further questions or clarification.

Encourage leaders to partner with the veteran on setting goals, and clearly communicate your performance management process and tools for assessing and documenting performance toward goal accomplishment. The veteran's military accomplishments were mostly mission-driven, whether it was a job's mission or a personal mission to be promoted to higher ranks. These processes generally were structured and predictable. Lacking focus or visibility into meaningful work, or the way in which a veteran's progress is measured and evaluated within a civilian organization, can quickly cause transitional issues. But communication about the performance management process can mitigate the confusion and frustration that results from not having clear expectations.

Encourage team building and assimilation exercises. A common reason veterans report for leaving their job is a feeling of anonymity or alienation, saying "I wasn't understood, and I just didn't fit in." Sebastian Junger, in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (Twelve, 2016), explains this veteran transitioning response:

"A modern soldier returning from combat—or a survivor of Sarajevo—goes from the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for, back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good. Even if he or she is part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences almost everything collectively." 

The mechanics of teamwork are very different in military and civilian cultures; utilizing team building and assimilation exercises throughout an employee's first year on the job can help educate both leaders and peers, as well as help build a supportive environment that fosters your veteran-informed culture.

Consider how workstations are configured. As with all employees, some special considerations may be necessary. Because a veteran's military experience may leave him with physical or emotional injuries that may not be communicated or obvious, consider checking to see how his new surroundings are working for him (within the first week or so) and referring him to any company resources that may be available if adjustments are necessary.

Be informed of veteran resources and make this information available to both veteran employees and other employees. There is so much help available online for employers, communities and veterans. 

Veteran Informed Culture Infographic

Training and Development for the Veteran and Employer

There are two opportunities in the training and development phase of the employee life cycle to improve veterans' transition and help build and foster your veteran-informed culture: educating the veteran and educating company leaders and teams. "Veterans in the Workplace," a November 2016 study from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Hiring Our Heroes project, found that "more than 80 percent of HR and recruiting professionals say that their companies lack specialized training to help civilian employees and staff relate to veterans. This lack of training indicates that while companies are investing heavily in hiring veterans, the same level of investment has not been made on training and onboarding." To use an old cliché, we don't know what we don't know, so organizations must provide training to company leaders and employees with information on veteran transition, as well as ensure that training is provided to veterans to utilize their military experience to perform the jobs they were hired to do. 

For leaders in the organization: 

  • Train them on the elements that contribute to veteran transitional issues, as well as on identifying and implementing strategies to bridge gaps. Training leaders to identify gaps between the military paradigm and organizational cultures is fundamental to understanding why gaps exist. It is also key to their ability to implement effective strategies to mitigate and bridge these gaps. Training programs may include information on military culture; attributes that veterans bring to the workplace; transitional gaps that can appear during integration to civilian culture; and how to identify programs or solutions to improve veteran morale, performance and team culture.
  • Support and consult with them on veteran performance issues. HR professionals are often approached by both employees and management for help with performance issues, diversity concerns, employee assistance issues, etc. You can provide help in the form of formal or informal training, referrals to other resources, or simply facilitating a discussion. Utilize the knowledge and activities in this article as a basis to provide support to leaders as well as other team members. 

For veteran employees:

  • Create personal and professional development plans. Even if no formal career progression program exists, a plan to offer training, opportunities and support to develop personally and professionally within the existing job will foster engagement and retention.
  • Provide job skill and functional training. As elementary as this sounds, not all organizations offer formal or structured training for employees new to the job. A lack of formal training not only affects a person's ability to be productive faster but also can foster feelings of alienation for a veteran. 

Grow Their Careers

In the military, there is an established process in place for promotion. As a result, many veterans expect a formal, structured path for advancement in the civilian environment.

The Syracuse University/VetAdvisor survey found that the lack of advancement opportunities in civilian jobs is one of the top three reasons veterans give for leaving companies. Consequently, organizations should be prepared to provide the veteran employee with information on how to progress through his career path within the company (or even in future career aspirations outside of the company or industry). 

It is important to communicate clearly the requirements and process for advancement. This information should be available in writing so the veteran can refer to it as needed. If there are no career advancement programs or opportunities within the organization, it is important to be transparent and communicate that in order to maintain trust. 

Awards and Recognition—and Compensation—Are Meaningful

Service awards, recognition programs and compensation are all very structured and clearly defined and understood by military members. In civilian organizations, these three items can vary greatly. Reflect on these practices in your organization and consider adding to or revising processes or programs:

  • Awards and recognition programs. Awards and recognition programs have a significant presence in the military; they are used to acknowledge accomplishments, skills, duty stations and participation. Every service member receives the National Defense Service Medal, and, since the United States is still fighting in the global war on terrorism, each also receives the "War on Terror" medal. Soldiers are formally recognized and celebrated each time they are promoted and receive other awards for special service.

Awards and recognition programs in civilian organizations vary greatly in number, purpose and frequency. They can be very formal with structured ceremonies or more informal with little publicity and varied importance. What do your organization's reward and recognition programs include? It will be important to communicate the programs and program requirements to veterans. Consistent administration of these programs will also be important. In the absence of formal reward and recognition programs, leaders may want to consider including less formal practices as part of their team norms.

  • Compensation structures. The pay structure in the military is standardized. Base pay is determined by rank and job role. Sometimes there are added incentives for additional duties or responsibilities. In civilian cultures, total compensation can be very complicated and can include a vocabulary and terminology totally foreign to veterans. To alleviate confusion, provide information on pay scale ranges with the explanation that some employees may start at different parts of the pay scale depending on education, experience or tenure with the company.

Financial bonuses in the military can be received when enlisting or re-enlisting, but they do not exist as a part of personal or unit performance. Explain bonuses based on performance, profit sharing or commissions, as well as any other compensation opportunities and requirements. These discussions should take place initially, during the first few weeks, and then be revisited during periodic performance reviews to ensure an understanding of your company's processes.

HR Can Lead the Way

Knowing the issues that may arise because of the two different paradigms that transitioning veterans experience, HR professionals are obligated to act. HR professionals are perfectly positioned to centrally influence and drive the initiative to identify actions and strategies in every stage of the employee life cycle to create, foster and sustain a veteran-informed culture.

Connecting to the civilian workplace can directly enable a veteran's successful transition into the civilian community. Hiring—and retaining—veterans can give the employer a financial benefit when it maximizes its investment in the veteran employee. Drive your organization beyond "military-friendly"—strive for veteran-informed. 

Read More: Integrating and Engaging Veterans in the Workforce—summit report from the SHRM Foundation and the National Association of Veteran-Serving Organizations.

Kathy Crenshaw, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, has a master's degree in education in learning and instructional technology and more than 30 years of experience in talent management, organizational development, leadership development and performance management. She is certified in multiple leadership models, change management philosophies. 

Linda Maddy has a master's degree in social work and has worked for more than 11 years as a licensed clinical social worker. She worked exclusively with veterans for 10 years, with concentrations in complex addictions and mental health, and is a national master trainer on veterans' post-deployment reintegration issues. 

Crenshaw and Maddy are co-owners of BelKat Solutions LLC, which trains and guides organizations seeking to help veterans transition and integrate into civilian life. BelKat Solutions accomplishes this mission by keeping veteran well-being as the central focus while striving to create and foster veteran-informed cultures.