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As a country, we are taking another hard look at how we actually treat veterans, beyond the usual meaningless “thank you for your service” blather.  This is true in healthcare, and it is true in employment.  In 2013, 21.4 million men and women, or 9 percent of the civilian population age 18 and over, were veterans. More than 2 million more vets are expected to transition to the civilian workforce by 2016. While we acknowledge that veterans are a valuable resource and appreciate readjustment issues, we tend to fumble the actual tasks of

  • discovering the unique skills that vets can bring to business and
  • sharing what works to facilitate reintegration.

How can small businesses do the right thing?  Many of the best practices developed for corporate behemoths can be scaled down for smaller employers in a highly cost-effective way.

Who Are Veterans?

It sounds like a stupid question, but military experience is less common and those who have never served can be remarkably clueless, so let’s begin with basic information.

Since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan more than 1.9 million men and women have been deployed, and Reserve and National Guard have been activated in unprecedented numbers.

Returning veterans are older than in previous wars, more likely to have families, and more likely to have been deployed multiple times.  The combat situations they met were random and unpredictable, rather than planned. Explosives, like car bombs and IEDs,  cause most of the injuries. The survival rate has improved, but the lasting effects include invisible wounds, like PTSD and traumatic brain injury.

The Veteran’s View of Return to the Civilian Workplace

Seventy percent of vets re-entering the civilian workplace report that the adjustment was ultimately successful.

Nonetheless, the transition is sometimes complicated by a number of factors beyond injuries.  It may be difficult for the veteran to communicate experience and skills to those unfamiliar with branches of the service and the meaning of various ranks.  Corporate culture can be equally unfamiliar to the vet, with a less structured chain of command and path for advancement.  Prevailing unspoken rules of corporate culture may be unfamiliar. Some vets find civilian workplaces loud, crowded, full of conflict and disrespect, and feel frustrated at being misunderstood because of differences in manner, expectations, and speech. Finally, loneliness can be an issue for those suddenly without the mission and camaraderie of military life.

The Employer’s View of Re-intregration

Employers are generally glad to have the leadership skills, discipline, adaptability, and  strong work ethic that veterans bring, as well as specific technical expertise in areas like communications.  When interviewed about the downside, employers report the need to accommodate for time off for medical appointments, and concerns about workplace anger or violence.

What Does the Law Require?

Two federal laws are particularly relevant to the employer/veteran employee relationship.

The first, the Uniformed Services Re-Employment Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or applicants on the basis of military status or obligations.  It also provides that vets can return to their old jobs after a tour of duty, as long as notice and reapplication requirements are met. This applies to injured soldiers, as well, as long as the injury does not prevent the employee from performing job duties.  USERRA further requires that veterans accrue all the benefits that they would have, had it not been for the intervening military service.  Many of today’s vets, however, are not returning to their old jobs, so very little of the conversation focuses on USERRA.

The second, the Americans with Disabilities Act, prohibits discrimination in hiring or retention on the basis of disability, including PTSD.  It further requires that employers provide reasonable workplace accommodation to disabled employees when requested.  This has immediate relevance to requests for time off for medical appointments.  It is also relevant to recruitment policies.  No employer is required to hire veterans.  However, an employer who recruits in a way that disadvantages candidates with disabilities could run afoul of the ADA.  State laws may require more of employers than the federal law.

What Can I Do to Hire Veterans and Support Them at Work?

There has been a lot of work in this area, though generally on behalf of larger organizations.  Nonetheless, many of the suggestions, including the six below, can be implemented even by smaller employers:

  • Interview at and recruit from established veteran employment resources like the Army Career Alumni Program, Wounded Warriors or the Veterans Job Bank
  • Train managers on military-related issues and how to translate military skills to civilian employment
  • Cross-train veteran and civilian co-workers about cultural similarities and differences
  • Increase awareness of the effects of invisible injuries, like PTSD and traumatic brain injury
  • Pair the new veteran employee with a mentor (ideally another veteran) during the transition period, and
  • Develop a diversity supplier approach that includes veteran-owned businesses.

Businesses that hire well  and retain valuable employees have an undeniable advantage.  Returning veterans are an under-explored resource for small businesses.  It may be just a matter of understanding the skills they bring and onboarding in a way that supports success.

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