Veteran Retention Starts at Hiring

July 2, 2020

Veteran Retention Starts at Hiring

With employment scenarios changing in real time, hiring and onboarding done virtually and retention a priority, the importance of retaining veteran talent should be a priority. Not only is this workforce valuable for the skills and experience they bring to the civilian sector but keeping them employed and engaged is easier today than ever before.

Who Are Veterans?

To understand veteran retention, let’s first look at today’s military veteran. This individual likely entered the military at a young age: 18, 19 or 20 years old. While many joined the military after September 11, 2001, and may have been older, typically military service starts young.

At an impressionable age, they joined a culture rich with protocol, standards, systems, structure and pageantry. Their days are planned, work is standardized and career path is clear. Service members become adults in this environment.

Today’s veteran volunteered for service, as we have no mandatory draft in the U.S. While some join the military to pursue training, education and other benefits that come from military service, most will tell you they joined from a family tradition of military service or a sense of patriotic duty.

Values Matter in the Military

In uniform, service members are taught values critical to their work and service. Different branches of the military teach these values using different terminology, but the common themes are:

  1. Service before self. When in uniform, service members are expected to take full accountability and responsibility for their actions, but not credit or recognition. This humbling and noble value teaches veterans that “it’s not about you—it’s about those you serve alongside,” fostering deep levels of camaraderie, selflessness, service and preservation of the mission.
  2. Honor and integrity. In the military context, honor and integrity represent a moral code by which to live (and possibly die) by. They stand for self-sacrifice and duty for the greater good—the mission.
  3. Service and loyalty. By nature of their work, veterans learned to serve, often selflessly. They value being of service to others, which gives them resilience during hardship. Service members are taught loyalty. While a civilian might profess loyalty to a brand, employer and their family, veterans are taught loyalty to country, mission and each other.

These are just a few of the values of the military, but they are important when discussing retention under COVID-19. As humans, we draw upon our values when challenged or stressed. Understanding that your veteran employees come from a culture where service before self, honor, integrity, service and loyalty are upheld helps to guide retention in the civilian sector.

Why Veterans Leave Jobs 

In a non-COVID-19 world, several factors lead to veteran employee turnover, including:

  • They chose the wrong job. When exiting the military, service members often feel pressured (internally or by family or peers) to take the first job they’re offered, whether or not it’s a great fit and career opportunity. They are also accustomed to the structure and predictability of the military and seek the same when leaving. Once in the new job, veterans may find themselves overwhelmed, uncomfortable and unhappy in the job, and they leave feeling like they chose the wrong job. 
  • They’re not a good fit. Perhaps the veteran did not consider the culture of the new employer or made assumptions about what the work or team would be like and is disappointed when things aren’t as expected. 
  • They lack focus. Without a transition career plan, someone separating from the military can find themselves bouncing from job to job aimlessly as they try to figure out their path. The military career path is more structured and predictable.

Add to this the environment businesses are in today—interviewing virtually, conducting online job fairs, onboarding new hires in a remote work environment—and military veterans feel unprepared and untrained. They hear rumors of job shortages, read the headlines of mass unemployment figures, and are likely apt to grab anything. 

Retention Starts at the Hire

For employers committed to hiring and retaining military talent, the first step is understanding the veteran job applicant—what they need, what they want, how they can contribute and where they come from. These men and women bring tremendous character traits to the civilian sector, but there are challenges (as noted above) because of the differences in work style and culture.

Second, employers should lead with mission and values. The military is a very mission-driven culture that prioritizes values. When employers speak similarly and can point to evidence of their commitment to those values, veterans notice. Veteran employees seek to serve, commit to sets of principles and work towards goals that have value. 

Third, connect veteran employees to service. Veterans chose to serve their country and after they separate from the military they likely still want to serve. Offering opportunities to mentor, coach, guide others in the company builds loyalty with the employer.

Forth, as we all move to virtual work, focus on relationship-building with veteran employees. They are accustomed to camaraderie and teamwork and remote working can feel isolating and lonely. If possible, opt for video conferencing and phone calls so everyone can read body language and look each other in the eyes. 

Finally, check in with your veteran employees often. These men and women can tolerate discomfort because they were trained for it. They are resilient and loyal, but they weren’t trained for working in such abstract and uncertain conditions. Enhance the video part of your onboarding processes, encourage managers to check in with veteran employees to thwart problems before they grow, and offer support and encouragement as they progress. This is a workforce that will return tremendous dividends in terms of retention, but the initial onboarding may require more of an investment in time and support to get them acclimated to such a unique culture. 

The Authors: 

Lida Citroën is the CEO of LIDA360 and author of four books on reputation management and military transition, including Success After Service (Kogan Page, October 2020).