Tapping Military Talent

By Theresa Minton-Eversole Nov 11, 2011

There are thousands of military personnel who have or are scheduled to return in the coming months from active duty service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most will face their own unique employment reintegration challenges, made more difficult by a stubbornly static economic recovery. This Veterans Day, SHRM Online asked military transition expert and author Emily King what role HR professionals and their companies can take to reintegrate this population of skilled professionals into the labor market.

SHRM Online: How can companies most effectively tap into the military community to source top talent?

King: First engage current employees who are themselves veterans, and let them know of the company’s interests/efforts in hiring veterans. They will likely suggest organizations inside the military (e.g., Transition Assistance Program, or TAP) and nonmilitary organizations (e.g., Veteran Service Organizations) where your organization can participate in hiring events and employer panels. These same veteran employees can be a willing, invaluable resource in sourcing candidates, screening military resumes and conducting job interviews. Employees who are veterans can help job candidates transitioning from the military to understand where they might fit into your organization and what to expect in terms of culture.

Second, participate in job fairs geared toward veterans. Not only does this present possible job candidates, it gives recruiters experience speaking with former service members to help them become conversant in the translation of military jobs to civilian jobs.

Third, build an online presence that extends beyond posting to job boards. More and more veterans are using LinkedIn to connect with individuals and groups, and HR pros can join these groups as well. For example, I moderate one called the Military Transition Interest Group, where recruiters are welcome to post jobs for free. The membership of this group includes veterans and civilians, and its purpose is to bring them together in a forum where they can learn from one another’s perspective.

SHRM Online: What's the greatest challenge staffing/HR professionals face when recruiting and/or hiring veterans transitioning to civilian employment?

King: The greatest challenge is the language gap. To date service members have not received adequate training in resume writing or interviewing before entering the civilian job market. As a result, many have resumes that are not “civilian-ready,” in that they are filled with unfamiliar acronyms and job classifications. So the inability to “speak civilian” is the first language gap.

The second gap is on the employer side: Many recruiters are unskilled in translating military resumes, mapping military jobs to civilian jobs or in asking the right questions to elicit the information from these job candidates. There can be a further communication challenge in the form of interpersonal style. At a recent event, I heard a story about a highly qualified veteran who thought an interview went well. He had answered the hiring manager’s questions with, “Yes Ma’am” or “No, Ma’am” as appropriate. But he didn’t get the job. Why? The hiring manager said, “He had no personality.”

This illustrates the culture gap that can get in the way of identifying top military talent. To be sure, the veteran has a steep learning curve when he or she enters the civilian workplace. However, the employer does as well and owes it to all concerned to remove barriers to understanding by informing its recruiters and hiring managers.

SHRM Online: How do HR pros reconcile their company's desire to hire for "cultural fit," given that military service cultures from which veterans are transitioning are radically different from most private-sector organizational cultures?

King: Those who know me know that I bring a very real sense of mission to this work. This strong intention to be of service to veterans and employers alike, along with my background in applied behavioral science and organization development, drive my consulting practice and are the focus of a new book I’ve written, titled Field Tested: Recruiting, Managing and Retaining Veterans (Amacom, 2011).

My interest lies primarily in the impact of cultural differences on military veterans and civilian employers. The book is my attempt to bridge the culture gap and provide language and practical tips for hiring, managing and retaining veterans. Written for organizational leaders, line managers and HR professionals, the book provides insight into military culture and identifies how cultural differences impact performance and retention of military hires.

SHRM Online: Describe the challenges transitioning vets face with regard to organizational leadership vs. military leadership styles, and what things should HR pros know and do to help them successfully make the transition?

King: This is a big question, and I could take a day to answer it. But in the interest of brevity, I’ll say this: To a veteran, civilian leadership is often unrecognizable as leadership. Consider that in the military, all leaders receive the same training—and a lot of it. The military has a clear and articulated leadership philosophy that is:

  • Understood.
  • Shared/believed in.
  • Evidenced in daily behavior.
  • Consistent from day one through a service member’s very last day of active duty.

Compare this to civilian organizations, where leadership is:

  • Not solely determined by official title, but may be a quality found anywhere in an organization.
  • Not visually obvious to the newcomer (i.e., no uniforms with stars or bars to identify who you are).
  • Reflects each individual leader’s background and experience.

In addition, qualities of leadership might not be evident in daily behavior and performance might be uneven within and/or across levels. For these reasons, transitioning veterans often struggle with a sense that no one is in charge, that the civilian organization does not value true leadership and—I hear this one a lot—the organization won’t “let” the military leader lead. Civilian organizations can learn a lot about leadership from looking at the military.

HR pros can help veterans make a smooth, successful transition by becoming expert at translating culture, at making the implicit explicit. This is the most powerful tool to quickly identify and break down incorrect assumptions, and calibrate expectations in a positive, nonpunitive way. In my book I introduce a “translator tool” that anyone can use with any new hire, not just military, to accelerate cultural integration.

SHRM Online: What are the most important things HR pros can do to help hired vets assimilate into their work teams and build relaxed, trusting relationships with their colleagues?

King: Provide lots of organizational context. The veteran may have studied the website and available collateral materials, but he or she might not have been a civilian worker before. So provide them with resources and/or information about the organization:

  • Objectives (e.g., sell as many widgets as possible, find new markets for doing that).
  • Goals (e.g., make tremendous profit).
  • Market (i.e., client base).
  • Competitive landscape (e.g., “Our company is number one in product quality because we _____. However, we are less successful in customer service because ____.”).
  • Context of team (e.g., “Your team, the ___ team, contributes to the larger organization by ______, and here’s how it looks on the org chart.”).
  • Role (e.g., “Within your team, you will be responsible for ___, which contributes to success in this way ____.”).
  • Performance metrics and cultural norms.

Also recognize that there will be a desire on the part of hired veterans to prove worthiness and make a contribution. Encourage the military new hires to take time to gain “situational awareness” (a military term they will understand) of the organization’s culture by listening and observing before focusing on personal impact.

SHRM Online: What steps can HR take to retain the veterans they hire?

King: Again, engage current employees who are military veterans. Assign them to new hires as mentors, learning buddies, sponsors or whatever your organization calls it. This immediately raises the comfort level of the new hire because of the innate bond service members share, regardless of rank, branch of service or length of service. Providing a personal point of connection from day one will go a long way toward retaining new hires.

Also, if your organization hires a lot of former military, sponsor an employee network group (sometimes called an affiliation group) to give new hires and all veterans a way of building community outside the military.

Finally, be fair and be transparent. I can’t sugarcoat that: Either your organization is fair or it isn’t, transparent or it isn’t. Regardless, these things have real meaning to veterans (and most employees, I would imagine) so, to the extent you can strive for that type of information exchange, do so in the name of retention.

Emily King is founder of Military Transitions and the organizational consulting firm King Street Associates, LLC. King has written for Diversity Executive, T+D and Training magazines and has appeared on CNN, among other broadcast network programs. Her book can be purchased from theSHRMStore.

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect