Overcoming Biases Against Veterans in the Workplace

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

It is unfortunate but true that current and former members of the military often face bias in the workplace. This lesson describes how leaders can create an inclusive culture for veterans.

Moving on from the Military

It was time to move on. Joseph, an E-5, was concluding what would be his final assignment in the army, where he had served more than twelve years in a counterintelligence role. He was good at what he did, but with no real equivalent civilian jobs, he was uncertain about the future. Like many veterans, Joseph was thinking, ''How am I going to compete with people who have more experience than me? Are supervisors going to hire someone who hasn't held a civilian job in more than a decade? Are they going to be concerned about the fact that I could be called up again anytime in the next four years?''

Let's walk though how an organizational leader can be inclusive of veterans like Joseph.

Stereotyping: A Mortal Enemy

Deconstruct any type of bigotry, prejudice, or bias and you will always find that stereotyping is at the core. Stereotyping occurs when we choose to believe things about people based only on the attributes of a group they belong to rather than their own individual merits and qualities. The reason stereotyping is so demoralizing is that it not only leads people to believe inaccurate things, but it doesn't allow for dissent or counterpoint.

The first, and perhaps most important, step in overcoming bias against veterans is to go on a seek and destroy mission against stereotyping. Here a few of the most common (and harmful) stereotypes of veterans:

  • Veterans are rigid, inflexible, and by-the-book
  • Some veterans are unstable from PTSD, head injury, or other mental illness
  • They are used to giving orders, so they'll be too short and curt with their teammates
  • You can't count on a veteran since they could get called up and leave you up a creek without a paddle

Conquering Stereotyping

If stereotypes are the mortal enemy, then knowledge is the silver bullet. By their very nature, stereotypes are at least partially false, since they are based in generalization rather than fact. If you think back to our list of anti-veteran stereotypes, you may observe that some are entirely false, and most of the others are true only under certain conditions.

Refer back to our list of stereotypes, then compare them to the far more accurate representations below:

  • Veterans represent their community as a whole. The minute someone thinks, ''They are...'' you can be sure a stereotype is lurking in the shadows.
  • Sadly, veterans with PTSD are a reality. It is not, however, a reality that someone with PTSD is unstable. No hiring manager would ever consider looking across the table and saying, ''Do you have cancer? I really don't want to hire someone who might die on me.'' Don't think like that about PTSD either.
  • The ''giving orders'' stereotype is also common. This is, perhaps, because it is true that a military culture communicates in ways that are quite different from civilian life. Nevertheless, it's still completely inappropriate to believe that a veteran would be unable or unwilling to adjust. Overcoming this bias is something that can often be facilitated by providing a veteran with the opportunity to demonstrate the ability to communicate effectively.
  • Individuals in the National Guard may face a uniquely thorny bias related to absence from work. The National Guard is structured differently in that it is made up of individuals who work primarily in the civilian world, but who also have military commitments. When they are not called up to active duty, members of the National Guard usually commit to train one weekend a month and an additional two weeks per year. They can, however, be activated for several months at a time. U.S. law provides strong protections for members of the National Guard who are called to active duty. The law requires employers to hold the jobs of those who are called to duty.

Members of the National Guard work primarily in their civilian jobs, but they can be called to duty at at any time. Employers must guarantee their jobs when they are activated.

Applying the Principles

As you can imagine, bias against veterans isn't going to be resolved because one leader educates one employee. A workplace free of bias is a culture free from bias. As a leader, consider using some of these options for creating and maintaining an environment inclusive of veterans:

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