As thousands of deployed military service members return to the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan, many will seek employment in the civilian job market. Some veterans leave the military by choice, others were at the conclusion of their tour of duty, and still others leave the service prematurely due to injuries sustained in the line of duty.
Whatever their reason for leaving military service, the public sector is fortunate to have access to this diverse and valuable talent pool. There is much that learning and human resources professionals, as well as line managers, can and should do to contribute to veteran employment.
Field Tested: Recruiting, Managing and Retaining Veterans (AMACOM, 2011) is a practical guide for employers, including federal agencies, who will need assistance in hiring veterans. It is based on research and observation about how managers and other internal professionals can accelerate the cultural learning curve for military new hires.
The checklist in the sidebar, excerpted from the book, reflects the observation that retention can be affected positively or negatively in any of the four stages of an employee’s lifecycle. Managers should work cross-functionally as much as possible. This is key to eliminating redundancy within agencies on recruiting, onboarding, and other training and professional development efforts. It also will ensure better return-on-investment of public dollars in securing veterans’ talent.
Lifecycle Stage 1: Recruitment—From Résumés to Onboarding
The military résumé is a different animal than a civilian résumé; it is often more than five pages in length and filled with acronyms and unfamiliar terminology. Civilian recruiters who are veterans or reservists may have an edge because they can translate what they see on the military résumé to their organization, and more specifically, to job requisitions. For the rest of us, the military résumé can and often does go automatically into the “too hard” category.
One solution is to learn “militarese,” but that may be an onerous task. Another is to engage current employees who are veterans—perhaps members of an employee network group—to partner with you as subject matter experts to review résumés.
Once they have weeded through the résumés, it is essential for public sector recruiters to use the screening and interview process to establish realistic expectations for military candidates and to discuss the public sector culture. Service members often opt for public sector jobs because they think the environment will be more like the military than a corporate environment. However, more often than not, they are quickly disabused of this notion and terminate prematurely citing “lack of fit” as the reason. This could be remedied if public sector recruiters used early interaction with candidates to lay out some of the cultural differences.
Lifecycle Stage 2: Onboarding
Onboarding has a variety of definitions depending on the organization using it. Generally, it is the multi-functional process of bringing new employees up to speed on the business, organization, and their role in a timely fashion. Multi-functional refers to including such processes as operations (provision of work space and equipment), compliance training, orientation training, and so much more.
Two simple aspects of onboarding merit focus. First, you need to do something. Some options follow but are not meant to suggest that an organization must do all of them. In an ideal scenario, the cross-functional group will include someone with insight to performance management and the common pitfalls and success factors unique to your organization. However, absent this information, Field Tested details a generic set of questions based on a decade of hands-on experience with organizations that hire veterans.
The second key to onboarding veterans is timing; do it within the first week or two of employment. An organization that provides new-hire training for veterans a month into their employment is wasting its time and money. Collateral damage will have already occurred through real-time learning during the first month. Of course, this applies to any new hire, not just veterans.
A good rule is to develop your onboarding plan to include intangible, inexplicit aspects of the organization’s culture, such as how feedback is given and received, how conflict is addressed, and how interpersonal style is interpreted.
Lifecycle Stage 3: Performance Management
After a new employee is handed off from recruiters and human resource professionals to the line manager, the focus becomes performance management. With support from HR and learning professionals, the line manager must ensure the employee will receive job training; be integrated into the larger team; receive feedback on performance issues; be measured, rewarded, and motivated; and be developed as an organizational asset. The word “asset” may seem impersonal. But it should remind everyone that new hires are valuable and have already become organizational investments because they’ve been through recruiting and onboarding.
Many new hires, particularly former military professionals, fall through the cracks over time. Veterans come from a culture that combines life and community with work. In the military, the person in charge knows and often genuinely cares about the well-being of each and every member of his or her unit. While we can’t always expect this level of high-touch in the civilian sector, we must understand it. We must explain our organization’s different culture to the new hire before they feel neglected.
Lifecycle Stage 4: Career Development
This stage can include vertical progression through the organization but should not be limited to that. It pertains to transparency about how employee performance is measured and rewarded, options for moving internally, and promotion criteria.
Why might a former service member jump between three different organizations in their first years of civilian employment, rather than looking for a more suitable job with the current organization? A former service member will often respond, surprised, “You can do that?”
The moral is to be transparent about options available to employees who want a new challenge. The military moves its personnel around to different jobs or geographical locations every three years. Anticipate this rhythm so your military hires remain engaged, long-term employees. This is a plus for agencies committed to rotation.
Another element of career development pertains to performance metrics. Veterans pride themselves on doing exceptional work … when they are given clear parameters. Former military personnel do not need to be micro-managed. They—like every employee—need parameters to achieve and sustain success.
Agencies and companies are typically inconsistent in their “retention attention,” and a common outcome is attrition: “attrition condition.” However, the current influx of veterans and reservists into the civilian job market presents an opportunity for all of us to raise our game.
Taking the time and effort to gain insight to the military transition experience invites us to self-examine how we measure up along the employee lifecycle. We can learn from veterans who have gone before, and make easy fixes that have great impact. Employers should jump at this chance to improve retention among all employees. The payoff will be a greater capacity to accelerate new hires and leverage them, as assets, over time.
Emily King is a nationally recognized expert on military transition, working with leading organizations to accelerate veteran integration. She is the author of Field Tested: Recruiting, Managing, and Retaining Veterans. Contact her at Emily@militarytransitions.biz.