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What employers need to know about hiring veterans

Human Resources icon5 min read




Since 1919, several allied countries who participated in World War I have observed November 11—the day the armistice that ended the war was signed—as a day to honor the contribution of military veterans. This day was initially called Armistice Day, but within several years, it was renamed Veterans Day in the United States and Remembrance Day (or informally, Poppy Day) in the Commonwealth.

In the U.S., Veterans Day is a federal holiday, meaning all non-essential government offices are closed. Employees who are required to work are generally given another day off, or receive additional compensation for working on a federal holiday. Private employers, however, are not required to provide the day off for their employees; according to a SHRM survey in 2010, only about 21% of private employers planned to give their employees the day off to observe.

Military action is a fascinating subject to many people, which means there’s almost always a popular new movie or TV series about men and women in the service. But because popular culture has a way of generating catchy tropes about virtually any subculture, many people have some common generalizations in their minds about veterans. As with any large group of people, making broad assumptions about veterans is unwise.

According to census data from 2015, there are roughly 18.8 million veterans in the United States. Their experiences in the service vary depending upon many factors, including their job assignment, whether they served in peacetime or wartime, how much time they spent in the military, and many other aspects. To put one set of traits on an entire group of people with such diverse experiences, skill sets, and personalities means employers may end up passing over potentially strong team members, or hiring someone with misaligned expectations of what their veteran status will mean for their job performance.

In honor of Veterans Day this Saturday, let’s debunk some of the common myths employers have about hiring veterans in the workplace.

Myth: All veterans have had traumatic combat experiences

Unfortunately, a common stereotype in pop culture is that of the veteran struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who is easily set off by loud noises or is prone to bouts of uncontrollable rage. While PTSD is a very real issue that should be handled with sensitivity, it doesn’t affect every person in the same ways, nor is it present in all veterans. In fact, veterans aren’t the only people who experience PTSD; it can often be found in civilians in the wake of personal or collective tragedy, such as natural disasters or violent incidents.

Additionally, it’s important to note that not every veteran even sees or participates in combat. There is a wide variety of roles involved in a modern military unit, including logistics, medical services, engineering, intelligence, and others. Although the statistics vary, according to several estimates, the total ratio of enlisted persons who experience combat is somewhere between one in six and one in 12 members of the armed forces. That means while all veterans have a degree of training for combat, the likelihood that a veteran in your workplace has had traumatic combat experiences is much lower than the movies would have you believe.

Myth: Veterans’ job training is military-specific and doesn’t translate into civilian workplaces

When you see military service listed on an applicant’s resume, you likely assume their experience in the armed forces is so niche that it won’t help them in the civilian workforce at all. But as we noted above, the range of roles involved in military service is broadly varied, and not all combat-focused. Many veterans leave their military service with extensive skills in fields such as aviation, engineering, logistics, healthcare, and administration, among others.

Additionally, the job training in the United States military is generally understood to be some of the strongest available anywhere. Hiring a veteran who has military experience in your field may mean you spend less time training an employee before they can start contributing meaningfully to their teams. The emphasis on resourcefulness and the high stakes involved in military service also means these employees are likely to generate positive outcomes that other employees may not be able to.

Myth: Veterans have been trained to follow orders, not generate original thoughts

This stereotype is a particularly pernicious one, and is understandably offensive to veterans. That said, it’s easy to see why civilians have this image—movies set in the military often have extensive scenes of basic training, where individual soldiers have their personalities broken down for them to become part of a group.

It is true that basic training is designed to help troops learn to focus on the success of the mission and not on themselves. That’s one important component of a successful military operation: all parts working toward the same common goal. But within each military action, there are many moving parts, and individual strategic thought is required for optimal outcomes. Military veterans aren’t taught to shut down their own unique thoughts and skills; they’re taught to put them toward the common good. This can be just as useful in most modern workplaces as it is in the armed forces.

Myth: All veterans work best in highly regimented environments

If you work in a more creative, unstructured environment that seems to be the opposite of what the military looks like in pop culture, you may be tempted to assume that a veteran wouldn’t succeed in your workplace. After all, they have every single move of their days dictated by a strict schedule while they’re in the service, so that must be how they prefer to work, right?

Veterans, just like every other person in the world, are individuals, with their own senses of humor, levels of creativity, capacity for original thought, and preferences about workplace flexibility. While some veterans may have been drawn to the service because they naturally gravitate toward structure, others may have been attracted to other elements of military service, and just took the regimented environment as a necessary part of the job.

Whatever your assumptions about veterans, either positive or negative, it’s important to remember that no two people, regardless of their work experience, are the same. If you’ve hired a veteran for a role in the past and they’ve been a smashing success, it’s unwise to make that the standard to which you hold every new veteran you hire. Similarly, if you’ve had a negative workplace experience with a veteran in the past, remember that it may be their personality, not their military service, that caused the relationship to be unsuccessful. No group of people likes to be defined by stereotypes, or by the actions of one member of the group, so it’s important not to paint all veterans with too broad a brush.