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Managing military veterans:  A combat veteran's insight

November 21, 2017 | By Mike Powers

a military veteran at work in the private sector

Most employers haven’t figured out how to effectively harness the talents and unique traits veterans offer. Tapping into this special talent pool may take a little extra work and savvy, but the rewards of working with veterans are substantial.

It helps if you understand the challenges vets face when they transition from a very different work culture. One thing most civilians don’t know is that veterans are uncomfortable with the many stereotypes associated with them, even the positive ones. That discomfort often drives veterans to downplay their status, or even avoid disclosing it in the application process.

The main—and sobering—reason many vets downplay their status is because they worry people will think they have PTSD (most do not), or that PTSD will prevent them from being productive. This fear surfaces even more after news reports of shootings involving military personnel. They’re also justifiably concerned employers will make assumptions about their personalities or political beliefs.

Even positive stereotypes can cause angst. Many people assume veterans joined the military only for honorable reasons, such as wanting to serve their country, which can feel uncomfortable when it’s not true. For instance, I’m proud of my service in Iraq and the National Guard, but I joined the military to pay for college, as opposed to joining to protect my country like Pat Tillman Like many veterans, I got as much from the military as I gave.

Understanding your own bias or assumptions and questioning them is a first step in helping you manage military veterans. After all, veterans are as diverse as America is, and our thoughts and personalities reflect that.

Thriving in the corporate world

Veterans come from a world with firm hierarchical structures and standards of decorum, which can make people perceive them as rigid and standoffish. But vets are actually highly resourceful and team-motivated when managed correctly.

The first year in a civilian job brings deep challenges for many people, and veterans who fail to succeed in this time may become quite discouraged and quit or fail to perform well. It’s critical that employers create conditions for success right away.

Communication and mentorship are the keys to creating an environment in which vets can thrive. Right away, you should prepare your hires with a sense of how your team dynamics work. Although most combat-serving military members develop deep resourcefulness, they may not share their creative ideas openly because of their training to use their chain of command. Most likely, team leaders want to hear ideas and solutions from everyone on your staff, but that’s not true in fast-evolving, life-or-death combat situations. To counter that training, you may have to explain that corporate teams value finding the best (instead of the fastest) solution, and they do so by hearing many ideas, regardless of whom they come from.

Your veterans may also get confused about how to manage requests from several people (instead of just their supervisor), and not know which to complete first. They may over-extend themselves trying to fulfill all the requests. Providing guidance on how to best prioritize work will be a big help in the first year.

Most corporate managers want team members to take initiative to act beyond just what they’ve been told to do. In military situations, going past your direct orders can cause communication problems that put a soldier or their team in jeopardy, so people are trained to do what exactly what they’re told, and no more. You may need to explain that the “stay in your lane” mentality is less valued than taking initiative to improve projects or address problems. Explain the end goal and what kind of freedom an employee has to meet it.

Understanding these differences and clearly explaining your team dynamics to newly placed veterans can help you manage them effectively. But can it keep them happy?

Keeping vets happy and engaged

One trait veterans share is a desire to serve in a cohesive team. Military life is exceptionally team-oriented—you work, live and face danger with people, creating a tightly bonded team. Losing that team family can be one of the greatest challenges vets face transitioning back into the civilian world. Corporate workplaces can feel incredibly isolating if the company or department doesn’t offer strong camaraderie.

That team loyalty can be one of a vet’s strongest traits—a veteran isn’t going to become that employee who places his or her own interest above the work or team.  

Three tactics for keeping veterans engaged:

  1. Employee resource groups (ERGs). ERGs are an excellent resource for your vets, offering a chance to talk through common issues, help other people, enjoy camaraderie and find a greater purpose in work.
  2. Mentoring. Pairing your new veterans with experienced mentors—throughout the recruiting process and into the first year—can help them understand how to navigate and succeed in a new culture. The new sponsor should meet at the end of each day to ask what challenges they faced and strategize ways to handle them in the new environment.
  3. Promote teamwork. A strong team culture drive team performance, and that goes double with veterans.   

Modern veterans have made incredible sacrifices, and most employers sincerely want to return at least a little of the favor by hiring and promoting veterans. The managers who take a few extra steps to help vets succeed will find themselves rewarded with incredibly loyal, hardworking and resourceful employees.

Read about one veteran’s difficult—but ultimately rewarding—transition into civilian work, and check out our diversity and inclusion in tech series: 

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