Most organizations understand that recruiting and hiring veterans is good for their business. Companies know that veterans are some of the most loyal, dedicated and hardworking job seekers (who won’t accept a job just to “ghost” you on Day 1). Plus, organizations can benefit from federal tax credits – and some state tax programs – for hiring veterans. However, despite the resources dedicated to recruiting and retaining veterans, 65% of service members who transition into the civilian workforce leave their new employer in 2 years or less. Kimberlie England, co-author of Mission Next: Successfully transitioning from the military to the civilian workforce, says that one way to retain veterans – and to keep them engaged and excited about their work – is through creating a veteran-informed culture. Organizations can start this process by creating a culture statement that clearly defines the key aspects of the culture. Then, promote the elements of the organization’s culture that will align to the veteran’s values and personal vision.
England, who has consulted in leadership and HR for over 20 years co-wrote Mission Next with her husband Dr. John Wojcik, a retired U.S. Army Colonel. The book was developed from two years’ worth of research and a dissertation about helping former military officers “transfer” to civilian life. To create Mission Next, England and Dr. Wojcik interviewed both HR professionals and recently transitioned service members to determine why so many left their jobs so quickly.
“Veterans take a job and quickly discover that it’s not a good fit because of cultural friction. They didn’t understand the culture that they were going into,” England said. “At the same time, their civilian co-workers don’t understand them, which contributes to making cultural friction a constant factor in the workday. This can be solved up-front by asking the right questions and being willing to share the ‘real’ culture of the organization.”
England and Dr. Wojcik share exercises to help veterans determine their values so they can ask the questions during the interview process to find an organization where the values align. Looking at this from both sides of the organization + veteran equation is paramount to avoiding turnover and losing investments in recruiting, training and onboarding.
“Many veterans have deployed or had less than ideal living conditions during their service, so it takes a lot to push a veteran to quit,” England said. “Many veterans will say they are leaving for better pay and benefits, but when you really talk with them, you find that it comes down to cultural friction or the feeling that ‘I don't fit in here.’
“Knowing who you are and what you value, is the first step for veterans,” England said. “If your personal vision isn’t aligned with what the civilian organization values, then you should look for an organization that does align. Veterans also need to spend time preparing themselves for expected differences like dress, communications, and changes in language.
As England explained, many veterans will struggle with how to dress – they have worn a uniform every day to work for their entire career – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t smart and hard workers. She said that veterans also need to determine if they can adjust to the way things work in the civilian world. For example, military meetings start on time (and occasionally early). If the meeting is supposed to start at 0700, then you need to be in your seat before 0700. Everyone is on time. In the civilian workplace, we all know that starting on time or after everyone has gotten their coffee depends on the culture of an organization.
“Many military people are startled to find that the kind of camaraderie they experienced in the military isn’t available in the civilian workplace,” England said. “If you know that you’ll need to find that camaraderie again – if it’s part of who you are at your core – you might need to work to create it. That might mean starting a veterans affinity group at your employer or seeking out groups outside of work that can bond over something you have in common.
“And it goes beyond personal values into really understanding your priorities now that the military isn’t making all these decisions for you,” England continued. “You need to determine what you want in a role. Is leading teams important to you? Is lack of travel important to you? If being home every evening is a high priority to you, be sure to ask questions about the travel commitments in the interview process.”
HR professionals can help by being able to define the organization’s culture, being honest about it and then helping people fit into that culture by being receptive to discussions and conversations about it. Use words that will appeal to veterans – but make sure those words are true. Use examples wherever possible to describe how employees and leaders live by the values of your organization.
“It makes a significant difference when HR articulates expected behavior very clearly. When I was a partner at an HR consulting firm, we knew that client meetings started on time, but internal meetings could start as much as 10 minutes late,” England said. “Our culture made it clear that while we still had an autonomous atmosphere when it came to doing your work, you could not be late for client meetings. Helping veterans understand those nuances will make their transition much easier.”
HR’s goal should be to understand the organizational culture to be able to explain it and to figure out where any cultural friction could exist for former service members. The more that cultural differences are articulated, the more likely you are to make the right match for your company and for the veteran.