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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.
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:
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:
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."
"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.
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:
Tax Credits for Hiring Veterans
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."
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. Our organization, BelKat Solutions, LLC, has a great list of resources for HR that can be accessed at www.BelKat.org. You can download it from the store for free by using the code SHRM2017.
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:
For veteran employees:
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.
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 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.
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.
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. To learn more, visit www.belkat.org.
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