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New Research Shows Companies Are Changing Their Views on Hiring Veterans

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor of In Military, InCyberDefense and In Space News.

Since 2013, I have been fortunate to speak at dozens of companies about the benefits of hiring veterans. After all, the post 9/11 veteran is, in my estimation, the best-kept secret for business success and why many companies are hiring vets as fast as they can.

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As a byproduct of their military service, today’s veterans have the stomach to take risks, the ability to deal with ambiguity, composure, and creativity under extreme pressure. Also, they have an unparalleled focus on “team” as the way to win in business.

Despite these positive traits, when I address company events, a large portion of my speech focuses on dispelling some of the myths and misconceptions surrounding veterans. Among the myths are:

  • Veterans are foul-mouthed and noisy.
  • All veterans serve in combat.
  • The military doesn’t teach transferrable skills.

These myths are all categorically false.

Now, new research from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business suggests veteran job candidates can be typecast as agentic (a psychological state that an obedient subject is in when obeying orders) and unemotional. As such, they are likely to be overlooked for jobs that leverage emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. As a result, managers show a tendency to relegate veteran job candidates to roles in which they would be working with things rather than people.

So how did we get here? Is there an unconscious bias in HR that equates military service with a lack of emotion? And how do consumers play a role?

Interpreting the Duke Study’s Findings

The research consisted of 10 studies and randomized experiments. Nearly 3,000 subjects such as seasoned managers and recruiters took part in the study, including some people with no hiring experience.

Fuqua management professor Aaron Kay, Ph.D., was the senior author of the research. He said one study found that as managers evaluated resumes for positions in a large restaurant chain, “their choices showed they thought veterans were more suited to the kitchen as opposed to jobs where they would be dealing with people.”

Kay went on to say that “Importantly, veterans were not liked less – managers just thought the kitchen is where they would thrive.”

Many Participants Equated Military Service with a Lack of Emotional Intelligence or Creativity

The study showed that many of the participants equated military service with a lack of emotional intelligence or creativity. This mentality might align with the false civilian narrative that the military doesn’t groom soldiers who can think for themselves.

In theory, it seems plausible that the military would want servicemembers who would follow orders without question. But the reality is quite different. As a 10-year veteran with service in two branches of the military, I have seen countless examples of creative problem-solving concocted by even the lowliest grade, E-1.

The perception of a lack of interpersonal skills doesn’t hold up either. In what other organization would you be put into a room with strangers from every conceivable ethnicity, social status, and religion, and then be expected to thrive as a team under intense pressure?

The very nature of the military, its “one team, one fight” philosophy, guarantees that adopting or acquiring a high-functioning level of interpersonal skills means you will likely live longer. Indeed, social skills in the military are key to survival.

How the ‘Experience Economy’ Affects Veterans

As a society, America has been steadily progressing from an economy built on the exchange of commodities to one of authentic experiences. As the economy has matured, so have consumers.

Writer and veteran entrepreneur consultant Joseph Pine explains in his TED talk that more and more consumers seek out experiences and transactions that have an interpersonal component.

For example, coffee as a commodity is one cent a bean. But grind up those beans, put them in a bag and place them on store shelves, and the commodity then becomes a good. As a good, it can command a higher price, perhaps 50 cents an ounce.

Turn coffee into a service by brewing it for customers at a fast-food restaurant and you can charge even more, such as two dollars a cup. Today, many consumers crave their coffee as an experience. This is why Starbucks does little advertising and why the company can charge $5.00 a cup. Starbucks is selling the “Starbucks experience” and its atmosphere, complete with comfy couches and free Wi-Fi.

The consumer drive for more interpersonal experiences, fueled in part by Millennials’ purchasing habits, is forcing more businesses to value candidate skills that used to be perceived as “soft” like creativity and interpersonal skills.

The Duke University study showed an inherent bias against hiring veterans for consumer-facing roles in this new experience economy.

Kay says, “The way the economy is moving, many new types of jobs also require creativity, interpersonal skills, and emotional capacity. When choosing between two equally qualified job candidates […] prospective employers [in the study] show a tendency to prefer the applicant without military experience for jobs requiring social-emotional abilities.”

Kay goes on to say that “we have seen companies make efforts to hire more veterans, but their efforts often fall short when it comes to placing them in the right roles.”

This might help explain why veterans have had one of the worst retention rates in the country until recently. However, this is changing, thanks in part to the tight labor market and organizations that help match a veteran’s military experience and skills to the right job.

Challenging Perceptions and Changing Bias in Veterans’ Hiring

Both veterans and the companies that would hire them have roles to play in challenging these misconceptions.

Dr. Marie Gould Harper, Dean of the School of Business at American Military University, says, “First, take this study with a grain of salt. The study frequently uses the word ‘perception,’ but perception is not reality.”

Harper notes that employers should adopt unconscious bias training as a potential solution. She says, “I’ve seen great success from organizations like the Neuro Leadership Institute, which trains organizations on how to overcome biases that many of us carry around.”

Harper’s final point is perhaps the most important: “Consumer-facing companies that wish to leverage veterans really must start with good policies and a culture of respect and inclusion.”

Companies must also consider the legal ramifications at stake.

According to HRDrive, “Discrimination on the basis of military service or affiliation may receive less attention in HR circles than other types of discrimination, but it remains a protected characteristic of which employers must be aware. In fact, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act not only prohibits such discrimination but also sets out re-employment rules for workers returning from service.”

What Can Veterans Do?

As for veterans, there are things you can do to demonstrate your emotional intelligence:

  • When developing your resume, be sure to include any volunteer work you may have done.
  • Highlight how you used creativity to solve a particular problem.
  • Draw attention to how interpersonal skills learned in the military made you a better leader.
  • When you’re called for an interview, be sure to use the opportunity to show off your interpersonal skills in person. That can include displaying warmth and friendliness or using open palm gestures and a winning smile.

The onus for combating false perceptions rests with us all.

When companies, veterans and educators work together, we can shatter these false perceptions about vets in the workplace and nurture the positive ones.

Veterans possess leadership skills at every level, including composure and creativity under pressure, diversity, and inclusion in action, integrity, social skills, and habitual goal orientation. And these are just the “soft” skills. There are tangible financial benefits to hiring vets as well, including a number of tax incentives.

Veterans truly are the best-kept secret in business, but it won’t be a secret for much longer. The word is out, and companies are recognizing the great value that veterans bring to organizations in the new experience economy.

For more information about the Duke study:

Dr. Aaron Kay collaborated with researchers Steven Shepherd of Oklahoma State University, the first author of the paper, and Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The research was funded by a Microsoft Military Affairs research gift. A manuscript describing the research is forthcoming in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Process.

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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