Beyond the Yellow Ribbon

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon

The case for hiring veterans in civilian workplaces.

Picture a person applying for a sales manager position. The applicant possesses outstanding qualifications, including 1) a solid work ethic; 2) strong leadership skills; 3) the ability to finish every task completely, no matter how severe the obstacles or distractions; and 4) the desire to work with, and on behalf of, a team. Sounds almost perfect. Why then, when the word “veteran” is added to the resume, do some employers hesitate and go to the next, nonveteran, candidate?

Despite significant resources and outreach by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Labor, the Internal Revenue Service (in the form of tax credits for employers who hire qualified veterans), and various state and federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination against veterans, soldiers returning to civilian life still face significant odds against finding a job that matches their skills. Most importantly, it’s difficult for them to stay in a position long enough to succeed.

Private companies, such as Bradley-Morris, the largest military-focused recruiting company in the U.S., emphasize that corporate America still operates with harmful stereotypes about veterans that hamper recruiting efforts, as well as precluding a successful transition to the civilian workplace.

Perhaps one of the most unfortunate myths is that veterans pose a security and safety risk because they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Many civilians are ignorant about how few soldiers actually serve in combat and how even fewer have post-traumatic stress.

Only 15 percent of veterans from the first and second Gulf War eras (August 1990 to August 2001 and September 2001 to the present, respectively) saw active combat. Of those returning soldiers, fewer than one in seven experience some sort of post-traumatic stress which, as noted by, an online resource for veterans, does not greatly exceed the incidence of PTS in the general population. As veterans’ advocates note, PTS is not even a “disorder,” but rather a common, normal, and often adaptive response to a traumatic or stressful event, for veterans and nonveterans alike.

Another unfortunate myth about returning military veterans who seek professional employment is that they can’t or won’t adjust to modern or “relaxed” corporate culture. Certainly, the use of formalisms such as “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” have virtually disappeared from today’s workplace, but they are still the rule for soldiers.

The hierarchical nature of the military unquestionably trains people to give and take orders, but as civilian employees, they may be less familiar with getting “buy-in” before implementing any decision. These and other communication-style differences are problems that a motivated and well-managed team can work through, however, and for a military vet, teams are what they know and what they value. Vets are used to making sure everyone in the unit knows what’s going on at all times, so that all can survive. Translating that to the maxim, “so that all can thrive” sounds like a refreshing change for some workplace teams where getting ahead as an individual is the norm.

Perhaps the most poignant advice for veterans appears on the VA’s “Veterans Employment Toolkit,” a website created to help them readjust to civilian life. Under the subheading “Creating Structure,” the VA counsels:

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“The military provides structure and has a clear chain of command. This does not naturally exist outside the military. A veteran will have to create his or her own structure … and adjust to living in an environment with more ambiguity.”

In the 1946 classic Academy-award winning film, The Best Years of Our Lives, three veterans returned to their hometown after World War II to face difficult adjustments, including unemployment, adultery, alcoholism, and ostracism.

The late movie critic Roger Ebert noted how relevant this movie would always be, because, as he said, “As long as we have wars and returning veterans, some of them wounded, The Best Years of Our Lives will not be dated.”

Like those World War II veterans, our soldiers today have to deal with the “ambiguity” of civilian life upon their return. Employers who go beyond the platitudes of patriotism and actually offer these highly disciplined individuals meaningful work and an environment where they can thrive are not only smart, they are richer in innumerable ways.

Linda L. Holstein is a Minneapolis writer, trial lawyer, and veteran employment law attorney with her own law firm, Holstein Law Group. She helps businesses and individuals with workplace issues, including MSP Communications.

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