This Is What Military Veterans Are Thinking When They Visit Your Company for the First Time

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I used to manage a 30-person office for a national military recruiting firm. We placed transitioning military service members into Fortune 500 companies all over the United States. One of the worst hires I ever made was more than 10 years ago.

“Margaret” was an employee lead given to me by my corporate office in Atlanta. She interviewed well and said all the right things, and I eventually hired her. From the beginning, she had trouble fitting in. She was a loud East Coaster, working in a laid back San Diego office. She brought lunch every day, microwaving her bacon made from soy in the breakroom — her “fakin’ bacon” would stink up the entire 4,000 foot office. At our company Christmas party, her date was her 16-year-old son.

More significantly than any of these “fit” issues, she couldn’t close any clients. At the end of her four-month probationary period, I had to let her go.

I saw her a couple of years later in a successful sales job and we had coffee. We talked and she asked about the office — after listening to my quick update she said, wistfully, “I was really trying hard to belong there.” Margaret finally answered the question she forgot to ask during her initial interviews. She was trying to fit in to a culture that clearly wasn’t for her — one that I should have seen was not for her either.

People will look past quite a bit when they are excited about landing a job. But that’s when they should be paying the most attention.

When I send veterans to their first interview, I tell them they shouldn’t hope to fit in — they either do or they don’t. Company culture is not going to change if they get an offer, and they need to trust their gut feel. Here is what veterans are thinking when they visit your company for the first time, and the questions you can answer to get them to look and only look at your opportunity.

  • Are people here for a job or for a career? Veterans are looking for a company to call home and a mission to dedicate themselves to. Yes, pay and benefits are important, but veterans need to believe in what they are doing and the organization they are a part of. They will be looking for people who are watching the clock and are not personally invested in their work, while also on the lookout for someone going the extra mile.
  • Is everyone here on the same team? Regardless of position in the company, veterans can tell if employees are truly a team and are working toward the same goals. Do people greet one another? Do employees know what goes on all over the site, not just in their area? Do managers know their employees and are they present in their work spaces? Do people look out for one another professionally? Veterans know immediately if everyone in the boat is rowing in the same direction. 
  • What are my opportunities for advancement? Understanding that they are not going to be promoted tomorrow, veterans want to know how they can advance and move to the next level in their careers. Consistently performing under high expectations with clear goals in their military careers, veterans will want to apply what they know to the next stage of their career. Give them a target to aim for, or they will aim somewhere else. 
  • What are the training and professional development opportunities? Professional conferences, training, volunteer opportunities, and cross-functional development are all great ways to prove to veterans they will can continually sharpen their skills and advance their career. Veterans will always be looking for opportunities to grow and contribute in their company.

And just as veterans will be assessing your company’s culture, as a recruiter you must assess their role as well. While many veterans successfully transition to the civilian workforce every year, some do not possess the flexible mindset to adapt to the corporate world. It is a challenge to see the forest for the trees — with all of those questions about the job, it is easy to forget to look for signs that someone may not fit in.

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I’ve learned from my mistake with Margaret and spend more time assessing fit than I used to. Take a step back and visualize this veteran in your company, as a member of the team, contributing to the bottom line. It’s the final and critical piece to ensure a successful hire.

 

  • Jim D’Amico

    Matt, as a Veteran and a recruiting leader, I would like to better understand the thesis of this piece. Particularly, how are any of questions “veterans” ask different from what civilian candidates would ask?
    Also, do you feel we possibly do a disservice to vets when we paint them all with such a broad brush? There are such a myriad of personality types as well as experiences that it makes such broad characterization potentially detrimental to both parties in the relationship. As an example above you noted that vets are looking for mission and a place to call home. Again different experiences, training, rank and tenure may all impact where a vet really falls on that. Again my experience in the military allowed me to observe tremendously different levels of mission and team work from fobbits than our team (armor) for example.
    Thank you for your work placing veterans, but I hope and pray that we as a society can realize that each veteran is a unique individual, that may or may not share commonalities with few or many other soldiers, but also stands as his or her own person.

    • Matt Brogdon

      Jim – thank you for your thoughtful comments. When I wrote this I wanted to target those recruiters or recruiting managers who need to source or come across veterans on a regular basis (or only occasionally) and give them some information about what topics and information are important to veterans as a group. You are right – all veterans are unique individuals – but as a group there are certain things most of us notice and look for in the workplace. I can tell you having spent some time as a university, diversity, and technical recruiter aside from recruiting veterans, veterans look for a mission they can believe in, a strong team where those working with you work for you as well, and are used to professional development and training on a regular basis. Millennials, interns, executives, and scientists, for example, have their own general employer hot buttons and interests as well, but they don’t necessarily coincide or are ranked in the same order. I’d like recruiters and TA professionals to be ready for some of those questions and interests when a veteran walks through their door, ready to interview, so that both can be successful.

      • Jim D’Amico

        Thanks Matt!

    • Dan Piontkowski

      Particularly, how are any of questions “veterans” ask different from what civilian candidates would ask? –> This. The idea that veterans need different interview questions, or need parades in order to be retained.. has gotten out of control.

    • Jim D’Amico

      Dan, well said!

  • Eddie Dunn

    Great article Matt. I tend to agree with Jim’s assessment, but understand the merit of your argument. If I could add one additional insight that may reflect better the need for any and all candidates, to include veterans, is their ability to differentiate their value in the process. In an uber competitive environment, often the veteran candidate does not articulate their military experience as an advantage. I’ve seen time and time again, many a frustrated veteran not understand this after hundreds of applications. Granted, education on the part of hiring managers and recruiters plays a role, but I still put the onus on the veteran talent to carry the load and compete. The reason why I say all of this is that the veteran talent needs to be more proactive in asking those questions to determine if they fit and a willingness to adjust fire to make it work for themselves.

  • Byung Kang

    I strongly believe that we veterans bring core skill-sets to be flexible enough to readjust quickly to a new environment (whether it’s corporate strategy or jumping industry), bulldoze through complicated assignments
    (get stuff done), and/or have the patience to step back and find the precise timing to execute or re-execute (hurry up and wait) – and these are very attractive unquantifiable skill-sets that can be used to find
    jobs, move up the ladder, market your role etc… all part of “career development”. As much as how the companies should think about being more open to discussions around veterans hiring, veterans themselves also need to have a focused strategy, time & experience, possibly sponsors that will not sugarcoat (via mentors, networking etc) and objective self study. I advise all veterans to try keeping one eye focused on
    what they believe in and never waver from their core beliefs and the other eye constantly checking whether they themselves are a malleable puzzle piece that fits into different areas of the whole picture (business). Work is done on both directions…