Many former military personnel possess skills and experience that make them highly sought-after by companies. However, almost 50 percent of veterans leave their first post-military job in under a year for a variety of cultural, professional, and organizational reasons. Employers that want to leverage veterans’ potential need to create veteran-friendly workplaces by educating management and employees, designing quality onboarding programs, establishing mentoring and reverse mentoring programs, providing dedicated career support, and creating flexible work environments. In addition, they need to create employee assistance programs that are tailored to veterans, organize team building activities to promote assimilation, and recognize the contributions of veterans and their families to U.S. society.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 453,000 unemployed veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces in 2016. At the same time, experts estimate that by 2021, another 1.5 million veterans will enter the workforce. These men and women possess not only sought-after technical skills and soft skills of a demonstrably high level, but also significant experience that can benefit companies.
However, a 2014 study of veteran retention in the workplace found that almost 50 percent of those surveyed left their first post-military position within 12 months. This level of attrition can be discouraging to employers looking to hire former service members—even if they recognize the potential value of veterans for their companies. In this white paper, we’ll explore the workplace-related factors that impact the retention of veterans and give some recommendations on how to create veteran-friendly workplaces in order to effect smooth, successful transitions from the military to civilian workplaces.
Workplace-Related Factors That Impact the Retention of Veterans
When examining factors that impact the retention of veterans, it’s important to be aware of the vast differences between the armed forces and civilian workplaces. The military is a regimented and hierarchical organization where men and women work together under sometimes extreme and even critical circumstances. Career paths are clearly defined, and expectations are high yet evident. Teams are often tight-knit, not only as a result of living in the military community, but also due to shared experiences that few civilians can imagine.
Civilian workplaces, in comparison, are more casual—even conservative ones. Some have matrixed, not hierarchical, structures, and career paths aren’t always clear. Each organization has its own culture, with its own set of spoken and unspoken values and rules. Moreover, even when co-workers are friends, few share the same community and life-and-death experiences many service members do.
Considering the enormity of these organizational and cultural differences, it’s understandable that mutual misperceptions, a lack of familiarity, and miscommunication can challenge veterans’ ability to successfully assimilate into civilian companies and pursue rewarding post-military careers.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that a 2010 report by Gallup revealed that veterans experienced lower workplace wellbeing when compared to non-veterans. This finding is substantiated by the results of a 2016 study, which showed that 59 percent of former service members employed by a civilian company said they had fewer opportunities for advancement than they expected. Fifty-four percent felt overqualified for their positions, and 35 percent found it challenging to relate to their coworkers.
In another study, veterans who held multiple positions after leaving the military cited a range of reasons for leaving their first job, including insufficient career development opportunities (31 percent), a lack of meaningful or challenging work (29.5 percent), inadequate opportunities for professional development (23 percent), issues with the work environment or culture (20 percent), dissatisfaction with the organizational strategy (17.5 percent), a lack of recognition for their service (15.7 percent), and dissatisfaction with coworkers (10 percent).
In light of these statistics, it’s clear that many highly skilled veterans with the potential to become valuable assets to employers feel unhappy or unable to fulfill their potential in civilian workplaces.
Recommendations for a Veteran-Friendly Workplace
There are veterans’ organizations and government initiatives that aim to prepare veterans for the civilian workplace. Nevertheless, it’s also incumbent upon employers to create veteran-friendly workplaces if they want to leverage veterans’ skills to their long-term advantage. The following recommendations can help in this endeavor:
- Educate management. Since managers are responsible for overseeing veterans’ assimilation into the company culture, they need to understand their backgrounds, communication styles, work styles, motivations, and possible challenges. The S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers several resources to help companies smooth veterans’ transition to the civilian workplace. In addition, non-profit PsychArmor Institute provides a number of free courses regarding veterans in the workplace.
- Educate the existing workforce. Employees may associate veterans with certain stereotypes, which can compromise effective collaboration and communication. Educational initiatives can help eliminate these stereotypes and create an open and diverse work environment.
- Design quality onboarding programs. Successful assimilation starts with a solid onboarding program that clearly communicates not only job duties and administrative matters, but also factors such as the chain of command, company-specific processes, and implicit corporate values and rules. It can be helpful to provide orientation days where these matters are explicitly addressed, as well as a company handbook where they’re clearly laid out.
- Establish mentoring and reverse mentoring programs. Assigning mentors can help veterans adjust to their new roles and surroundings. However, it’s important to recognize the value of reverse mentoring. When veterans are called upon to share their knowledge with their colleagues, it can not only help the company, but also make them feel valued and more engaged.
- Provide dedicated career support. Clear career paths, opportunities for advancement, and employer-provided training are all important to veterans. Make sure they know what their options are, as well as who will assess their performance and advise them about their career development.
- Make the work environment flexible. Whether it’s enabling different work styles, communication methods, or variable work times, allowing veterans a certain amount of independence as to how they do their work communicates trust and respect, which in turn enhances engagement.
- Provide employee assistance programs tailored to veterans. Transitioning to civilian life can be challenging, both for veterans and their families. Employee assistance programs that provide tailored support for veterans’ professional, personal, and health challenges can play an important role in retaining them and helping them perform well in the workplace.
- Organize team building activities. From day-long retreats to department dinners, encouraging veterans to spend time with their colleagues can promote assimilation and strengthen teams. Moreover, since team-building activities are a staple of the military, they are likely to enhance veterans’ engagement.
- Recognize veterans’ contributions. It is essential that veterans feel respected not only for their current work, but also for their contributions and sacrifices in the military. Employers can help promote this respect and appreciation in their company culture by observing days and observances that are significant to the military. These include not only Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but also days such as POW/MIA Recognition Day, National Military Appreciation Month, Military Spouse Appreciation Day, and even National K9 Veteran’s Day.
The Business Benefits of Creating a Veteran-Friendly Workplace
While adapting the workplace to be more veteran-friendly will require an investment of time, effort, and funds, the ROI can considerable. It can lead to improved employee wellness, enhanced engagement, and stronger, more productive teams. Most importantly, instead of incurring the costs of losing highly skilled talent in less than a year, companies can retain skilled veterans and maximize their professional potential to help their organizations reach their operational goals.
The vast differences between the military and civilian workplaces are key to the challenges surrounding the retention of veterans. While there are initiatives that aim to prepare veterans for civilian workplaces, it’s also the responsibility of companies to ensure their workplaces provide the tools and support former service members need to assimilate. By following the recommendations in this white paper, employers can create veteran-friendly workplaces that enable a smooth transition from the military to civilian work and help retain highly skilled veterans for the long term.
 Bureau of Labor Statistics News Release March 22, 2017: Employment Situation of Veterans — 2016
 Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families & VetAdvisor: Veteran Job Retention Survey Summary
 ICMS Report – America’s Heroes at Work: The Veteran Hiring Report