A growing number of companies in the U.S. are adding another minority group to the “workplace diversity” lexicon: military veterans. Former service members can feel marginalized in today’s civilian workplace, according to veterans’ advocates who have been organizing new efforts to help veterans feel included and valued.
“Veterans really represent to us another dimension of diversity,” said Nancy Di Dia, diversity officer at pharmaceutical firm Boehringer-Ingelheim. “Diversity goes beyond the classic race and gender. We look at background, experience, abilities, and education. And why we’re really struck with veterans is that they bring a very desirable set of skills to the workplace.”
“The challenge around hiring and retaining veterans has to do with creating the workspace or environment for them to feel comfortable and make them feel included,” one expert said.
Employers are receptive to hiring veterans: The veteran unemployment rate is only 4 percent, versus 5.6 percent for the whole workforce, according to the Center for Talent Innovation, a think tank based in New York. But veterans may be more prone than their nonmilitary counterparts to feeling dissatisfied at civilian jobs.
The Center for Talent Innovation surveyed 1,022 veterans for a report it published in November 2015 with funding from Boehringer-Ingelheim and several other companies. The report, “Mission Critical: Unlocking the Value of Veterans in the Workforce,” found 57 percent of respondents do not aspire to senior-level positions, while 39 percent of the remainder feel “stalled.”
Feelings of being misunderstood also run deep: Some 49 percent said colleagues had made false assumptions about them based on their military backgrounds, while 38 percent said that senior leaders are not capable of seeing their full potential.
“There is so much attention being put on hiring veterans. What companies haven’t gotten as good at is helping to set veterans up for success and capitalizing on the unique skill sets that veterans bring to the workforce,” said Julia Taylor-Kennedy, a senior vice president at the center, senior fellow, and report co-author.
Civilian workplace culture is different from the military’s — different language, different processes, different promotion systems and organizational structures. And veterans newly entering the civilian work life can find the transition hard, Taylor-Kennedy explained. Civilian coworkers, in turn, may hold numerous false stereotypes of the veterans. Many veterans said their coworkers expected them to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to have killed people, to be violent or dictatorial, or to be gun enthusiasts.
“This unique picture we see of a soldier on TV or in the movies so often seems to have permeated the civilian consciousness. And because such a small slice of our population serves in the military, there isn’t a lot to counterbalance that. So when people do have a veteran on their team they, with no bad intent, make a lot of assumptions about that veterans’ experience,” Taylor-Kennedy said. “And that creates a sense of distance and exclusion.”
“In the military, you’re a part of a team, and that team is very tight.”
Some veterans cope by downplaying their military backgrounds and trying their best to blend in. Whatever specialized experience and insights they may have gained while in uniform, they keep quiet about it.
“They’re not able to raise their voices and talk about it, because they’re really concerned about reminding their colleagues that they served in the military and raising red flags that they might have PTSD or be violent,” she said.
The report had good news, though: More and more businesses are helping veterans fit in. The insurance firm Prudential — another report co-sponsor — recently produced instructional videos for managers who have veterans on their staff. These videos discuss veteran employees’ strengths, address stereotypes, and offer pointers on how to talk to veterans without appearing rude or insensitive.
“These veterans have gone through different life experiences. And someone who hasn’t gone through those same experiences — they might not know how should I deal with that person, what should I say, what can I say?” said Jim Beamesderfer, a retired Army captain and current vice president of program management in Prudential’s Office of Veterans’ Initiatives. “It’s all about making people feel comfortable working with each other.”
Prudential also runs an employee resource group. Veteran employees throughout the company can network and new veteran employees can get mentoring from more experienced senior veterans on how Prudential operates. Nonmilitary civilians join the group, too — to get to know veterans and advise them.
“These groups are a great place for people to have a comfortable setting where they can ask these kinds of questions and get some necessary guidance,” said Beamesderfer.
He further praises the employee resource group for giving veterans a chance to help other veterans. In so doing, it recreates the esprit de corps that they felt in the services — but seldom find in a corporate environment.
“In the military, you’re a part of a team, and that team is very tight. Then you come to a corporate setting, and that camaraderie isn’t there, and you might feel lost,” Beamesderfer said. “But having an employee resource group can be an ability to connect and also serve, because they can give back to their coworkers.”
Boehringer-Ingelheim’s veterans have an employee resource group, too, and create many mentoring relationships through it. Di Dia encourages all businesses to connect new veteran employees with mentors during their first three months on the job.
“We need to make sure that the on-boarding experience goes beyond day one, and that they have a buddy or a sponsor who stays with them and who can help them navigate the new terrain,” Di Dia said.
Programs like these are becoming more common. Moody’s Financial founded a veterans’ employee resource group in 2013. Similar groups have cropped up at Cisco and at Charles Schwab.
And veterans working at Amazon counsel new veteran employees one-on-one through the Amazon Warriors program.
“The challenge around hiring and retaining veterans has to do with creating the workspace or environment for them to feel comfortable and make them feel included,” Di Dia said. “It’s not enough to just go out and say — ‘We’re going to hire veterans.’ We’ve recognized that we need to be much more mindful in the on-boarding process for veterans, just as we are for other job candidates in general.”