Tapping the veteran pipeline: Best practices for hiring and retaining ex-service members

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After returning stateside after surviving a sniper’s shot to the head in Iraq, Lt. Colonel Justin Constantine dedicated himself to helping other veterans adjust to civilian life.

One of the biggest obstacles for veterans, he says, is finding meaningful and supportive employment.

Constantine was studying law at the University of Denver when he was deployed as a Marine in 2006, serving as a civil affairs team leader in addition to combat service. When he returned to the states, Constantine noticed that he and other veterans were having trouble landing jobs, despite their qualifications, so he started a consulting business advising employers interested in hiring veterans.

“People have this idea that [service members] are only skilled in combat and make poor employees because they all have PTSD — none of that is true,” Constantine said recently during the 70th anniversary reception for the New York City chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management. “Veterans make highly skilled and disciplined employees; you just need to know how to communicate with them.”

Around 225,000 servicemen and women exit the military every year, according to the Department of Labor and the Department of Defense. Many have gained skills from working as mechanics, communications officers, medical professionals and in a multitude of other roles, Constantine says.

“If you understand how to hire vets, that’s a steady talent pipeline for you,” Constantine said. “How many 25-year-olds do you know that are put in charge of 13 people and $2 million worth of equipment? Most people don’t have that kind of managing experience.”

In his book, “From We Will to At Will: A Handbook for Veteran Hiring, Transitioning, and Thriving in the Workplace,” Constantine provides employers with best practices for hiring and retaining veterans. Of all the chapters in his book, he said, the most helpful for employers are about military mannerisms. During interviews, the language barrier between military and civilian life becomes apparent, he said.

“Veterans and active military are some of the most fun-loving, social people you’ll ever meet, but they often come across as stoic and rigid in an interview,” Constantine said. “We’re trained to speak to superiors using BLUF: bottom line up front. We’re not being unfriendly, we’re just used to getting to the point.”

Constantine asked the audience to share their own experiences interviewing veterans. An HR professional at an architecture firm said his company recently hired a graphic designer who had served in the military. The veteran’s work was impressive, but the team thought it was odd that he wanted to stand during the entire interview. The HR professional had to remind himself, and his team, of the military’s strict behavioral expectations, and that they shouldn’t count the candidate’s conduct against him.

Once hired, service members can get frustrated with civilian jobs, which are not as structured as those in the military. These employees are goal-driven and need regular input from supervisors in the form of performance reviews, he said.

“In our world, no news is bad news,” Constantine said. “We’re used to getting constant feedback, so tell us how we’re doing.”

He also reminded the HR professionals in the audience that common reasons for not hiring service members — like fears of PTSD and the chance of being called for service abroad — are illegal and considered discriminatory.

But those considerations aside, he said, with the current talent shortage, employers can’t afford to ignore such a skilled talent pool.

“You’ll get an employee with endurance, mental toughness and discipline if you hire active duty and veteran employees.”

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Recruiting Workforce management Workplace management Diversity and equality Employee retention Employee engagement Employee turnover