How to Assess a Veteran Job Candidate

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Grand Rapids, Michigan - Military veterans look for work at a job fair at the Army Reserve Center.
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When only 7.3 percent of the U.S. population has served in the U.S. military, it is not surprising that many corporate recruiters and hiring managers are unsure or at least unconfident about how to assess a veteran job candidate.

The best means for evaluating a job candidate, regardless of background, is to come to understand if she is able to do the work, willing to do the work and if she will be a cultural fit for your organization. Some call this a "can do, will do and fit" assessment. Military veterans are no different in this regard, but there are unique tips and tactics that can aid the interviewer when evaluating a veteran for a position.The veteran-hiring version of this process can be described as the Three A's: Achievement, Attitude and Ambition. The hiring decision-maker will achieve better and fairer hiring results by structuring his inquiry around these three principles.

Achievement

Of the three, assessing individual military achievement flummoxes hiring decision-makers the most. Like any other applicant, and unlike mutual funds, past performance is the best indication of future results. The challenge for the evaluator is understanding the nature of the candidate's achievements in the context of the military experience.

Five categories of achievement should be reviewed:

Rank Advancement

Since the military is a large and often bureaucratic organization, many aspects of rank promotion are a function of "time in grade" guidelines. In some services, like the Navy for example, eligible enlisted personnel can show initiative by studying for and passing examinations for promotion. Therefore, it is a good idea to ask a veteran: Tell me about your promotion history in the service. Were you promoted on track or ahead of your peers?" Listen for responses that include phrases such as "meritorious promotion," "sat for the examination" and so on to be impressed.

Commissioned officer promotions tend to be more time-based, but one can ask: "What did your official evaluation reports say about your performance?" Each service has a different name for these reports, but all have them.

Awards

All military services love to issue badges, ribbons, medals and other awards. Some identify the holder as a genuine combat hero (e.g., Navy Cross, Silver Star); some denote generally administrative or garrison accomplishments (e.g., Army Achievement Medal); and others are given to whole units or individuals for participation in campaigns or deployments. Finally, there are some that are basically for showing up or staying out of trouble (e.g.; Good Conduct or National Defense medals).

If you are unsure what decorations mean, and they are listed on a resume, ask a veteran to help you interpret, do online research or ask the applicant directly. Most veterans are very honest about the relative importance of certain awards and will not be shy to share with you their true meaning.

Don't hold the absence of certain recognitions against a candidate. For example, a sergeant on a general's staff is more likely to have earned formal awards than a front-line squad leader. Seek to understand the context in which recognition is granted.

Military School Selection and Completion

Even more impressive than most decorations and awards are the many military schools that feature rigorous selection and completion criteria. Most hiring managers know that service academies like West Point are highly selective colleges, but how many know that only 42 percent of those who attempt U.S. Army Ranger School complete the arduous nine-week course? Likewise, there are schools from Navy Nuclear Propulsion and Underwater Demolition to Air Force Para-Rescue and Marine Officer Candidates' School that routinely screen out large numbers of starting participants.

Again, ask colleague veterans, do your online research or ask the candidate himself about the courses he has completed.

Extracurricular Achievements

While on active duty, some veterans find time to complete civilian certifications, degrees and community service, and some even moonlight in jobs. One should be favorably impressed by personnel who accomplish these sorts of achievements but slow to criticize those who do not. Training and deployment schedules and the nature of military life often conspire to make such activities impossible for those in otherwise very challenging roles and units.

Civilian Achievements

Like extracurricular achievements, a skilled interviewer will seek to understand achievements and socialization that the candidate may have experienced before or after their military service. Perhaps the veteran comes from a family of salespeople, assisted with a family retail store or has worked in a related industry since getting out. Never assume that a veteran has "only" uniformed experience. You may have to tease this information out during an interview, but you may be pleasantly surprised by what you discover.

Attitude

One area in which veterans typically shine is attitude. Teamwork, leadership and mission orientation are almost certainties with most veteran candidates. But the skilled interviewer will still want to probe on this issue. Learn to differentiate between confidence and hubris, humility and self-effacement and gratefulness and entitlement.

Interview skills in this regard are similar to any other applicant assessment, but one should be sensitive to the context through which most service members experience the civilian job market. From the moment of their enlistment, most personnel are served doses of conflicting messages. Sometimes, they are told to expect to be embraced by a grateful nation who is eager to bestow high-paying jobs to any veteran. Other times, they are told that veteran unemployment is chronic and overwhelming for even the strongest of their peers. Of course, reality is somewhere in between, and the skilled interviewer will interpret conversations with veterans accordingly.

Ambition

Finally, an interviewer must assess the relative ambition of the candidate. Is the 20-year retiring veteran truly eager to build a second career at your company, or is he content to kick back and coast?

Most veterans aspire to continue to develop their leadership skills, and they will often talk of "making a difference" and "getting a seat at the head table." Don't be concerned that this candidate is too aggressive. Culture fit is critical, of course, but remember that many veterans see all advancement as largely a function of leadership exercise. They may not yet understand that salesmanship, operational efficiency or administrative competence are equally and sometimes more valued in the civilian realm. Be patient and compassionate, but listen carefully for the candidates' motivating ambition and how well that matches your need and culture.

Veterans truly represent the finest talent our country has to offer. Organizations of all stripes thrive when they include veteran hiring initiatives among their best conceived and executed human resource strategies. Don't be intimidated by the prospect of interviewing veterans. Follow the three A's, and you will be one step closer to identifying and attracting the high-quality veteran talent your team needs.

Peter A. Gudmundsson is the president and CEO RecruitMilitary, a 16-year-old company that helps organizations excel by leveraging the talent of veterans. RecruitMilitary helps companies attract, appreciate and retain high-quality veteran employees and students. Most of Gudmundsson's career has been dedicated to leadership in media, education, information and intellectual property intensive businesses. He has run a diverse range of companies and was president of Jobs.com and Primedia Workplace Learning. Earlier in his career, Gudmundsson also served as Vice President of Corporate Development for Primedia Inc., KKR's media company, in New York. A former U.S. Marines field artillery and intelligence officer, Gudmundsson began his civilian career as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley. He is a graduate of Harvard Business School (MBA) and Brown University (B.A.).
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