Recently, in the midst of an effort to persuade store managers to hire veterans, I talked to a human resources executive at a major retail chain. She told me she wanted to do the right thing and hire veterans, but added that she was also concerned by reports that many had returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems. She worried that a veteran could possibly pose a threat to customers and other employees.
I mentioned that conversation when talking to hiring officials whose companies I serve as a consultant. None have said they would reject a veteran out of hand, but many acknowledge feeling hesitant when they see a résumé noting deployments to Afghanistan or Iraq.
One hiring manager said that because he had never been in the military, it would be difficult to ask veterans what they had experienced while serving. He added that “if something in their demeanor makes me uneasy, I politely end the interview.”
At the same time, many companies, including Blackstone and Hilton Hotels, have enacted hiring policies that benefit veterans. The website Military Mojo works to pair veterans with national employers through job fairs; participating companies include Accenture, Amazon, General Motors, IBM and JPMorgan Chase. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has organized a coalition of 1,500 companies committed to hiring veterans.
H.R. employees I consult with have worked hard to create corporate policies favorable to veterans. But like the executive I spoke with, many are also apprehensive about possible mental and behavioral issues. Yet, as a recent report by the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff points out, conditions like PTSD and mild traumatic brain injury are not unique to veterans, and they can be treated and accommodated.
Stereotypes and veterans’ own unfamiliarity with the job market are making it hard for them to find work. Those I’ve interviewed say they feel ill equipped to compete with nonveterans who learned to search for employment on the Internet while veterans were focused on their military mission. The job interview is unfamiliar terrain for many who won assignments based on performance and moving up through seniority.
But that confidence erodes once they enter the job market, dropping to 57 percent within the first year and to 46 percent in the second year. Since 2001, more than 2.5 million people have been deployed to support military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each year from now to 2019, an estimated 200,000 will be returning to civilian life.
Veterans are an important segment of a work force that can benefit from their training and experience. Companies that employ former military members rank them high in self-discipline, teamwork, attention to detail, respect and leadership.
Post-9/11 veterans have described the resentment and disappointment they feel when they are labeled by the news media as either heroes or victims. The dozens I’ve met say they just want to get on with their lives. For most of them, finding a job is the single greatest challenge they face in doing that.
Hiring officials are obligated to employ only those candidates who will enhance their organization. But they also need to see each veteran as an individual, rather than as someone who might be bringing unwanted baggage back from the war.
I have been urging veterans to pre-emptively address the unspoken concerns in the room by saying, “You can see I was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. What I saw there remains there. What I did bring back is what I brought there: my determination to be the best at any job I do.” Instead of responding, “Thank you for your service,” why not say, “You’re the kind of person we want here. Welcome, you’re hired”?