Workplace Culture

The Last Word: A Tale of Two Veterans

By Rick Bell

Oct. 28, 2014

With Veterans Day falling this month, it’s encouraging to see that the unemployment figures among former service members are finally dipping below the national average.

In a category that for years has soared well into double digits, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has September unemployment for veterans pegged at 4.8 percent.

That’s great news, but it would be way too simple for me to say, “Hire a veteran; it’s the right thing to do.” It might not be the right thing to do. In fact, a veteran could be the wrong hire for your organization.

I know I’m treading on thin ice here. Before I go any further, let me add that I have deep respect for the men and women who serve and have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. My dad and uncle served in Korea; another uncle served in World War II; my mom worked an office job at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. I worked at several Navy bases as a civilian editor for their newspapers.

But let me pass on two stories of hiring people who were straight out of the military. One was an amazing hire; the other was pretty much a bust.

I was in a tight spot. I needed to hire a reporter, pronto. I’d already gone through several good candidates who either found another job or thought better of taking the vow of poverty required of journalists when entering the profession.

At the bottom of my rapidly dwindling list was a sailor fresh off the ship. His résumé looked dreadful; the ink was muddled, and it was printed on a sandpaperlike stock that seemed to have wood pulp still floating in it. Worse, his clips — stories he had previously written — were spotty at best and chock-full of Navy jargon.

“Thomas” was a newly minted civilian and a former 2nd class JO in the Navy. JO — a journalist — was his rating. Enlisted Navy personnel get ratings (as opposed to officers, who get ranks) specific to the job they do. Like many Navy ratings, JO has since evolved into MC — mass communications.

I called him in for an interview and a test. Our chat went well and he dressed well enough to meet journalistic expectations. In other words, he knew how to tie a tie, or at least knew someone who did.

I had my doubts as Thomas started the test, which consisted of some basic grammar, spelling, general news knowledge and, most importantly, rewriting a crime story. Low expectations? Oh yeah. Within minutes I heard him clattering away. His fingers were flying across the keyboard (I later learned Thomas was a two-fingered typist, which made it all the more amazing).

Thomas aced the test, was hired almost on the spot and quickly became one of the best reporters I ever worked with.

Now, I’ve known several people who transitioned well from the Marine Corps to the civilian workplace. “Jim” wasn’t one of them. Jim was named editor of the regional Navy newspaper shortly after his discharge from the Marine Corps and was put in charge of a staff of eight civilian journalists, including me.

From the get-go Jim clearly was in over his head. Despite running a Marine base paper’s operations, Jim faced one basic problem: He was not ready to manage a largely civilian staff.

A lifelong Marine, Jim had little concept of civilian-world deadlines. And he was used to managing dozens of fresh-faced Marines, not an office full of veteran journalists. Bottom line, in a situation where he had to hit the ground running, Jim’s boots dragged in the mud.

Looking back, Jim was put in a no-win situation. Whose fault is that? Our ownership liked him because of his military background because part of his job was working with Navy leadership.

If there’s a common thread between Thomas’ success and Jim’s failure, it was inadequate preparation before transitioning to the civilian world. On paper, Thomas looked bad; if the Navy helped him prepare his résumé, it did a horrible job. And despite Jim’s executive connections, he was woefully unprepared to manage civilians.

There’s no doubt that the transition from sailor or Marine or soldier to civilian can be daunting. The military remains steeped in tradition and hierarchy.

Perhaps the current spike in veteran hires reflects better transitional training. I’ve seen one argument that it’s as simple as vets losing weight. Sure, overall health and benefits for vets could contribute, but more likely is concerted, ongoing efforts like the White House and U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes program.

Hopefully such sustained relationships are helping the Thomases clean up their résumés and offering the Jims a broader understanding of civilian management. If so, then hiring a service member is not just the right thing to do; it’s a smart business decision, too.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director.

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