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How to deal with stereotypes in civilian job interviews

August 12, 2015 (Photo Credit: Comstock Images via Getty Images)

It's not that employers are anti-veteran. But they often don't know about veterans.

When former 1st Lt. Keith W. Gibson left the Air Force in 2014, he didn't expect to jump right into a civilian job. Today he's at Goldman Sachs, in a special intake program for veterans. But interviewing for jobs taught him that not every employer was eager to hire vets.

"If you don't have a military background, if there is unfamiliarity or an information barrier, that can be tough to break down," Gibson said. "People don't know what they don't know."

It's not that employers are anti-veteran. But they often don't know about veterans — about post-traumatic stress, leadership, combat, the value of teamwork and the mission-oriented mindset. They're skeptical, and that skepticism can work against job-seeking veterans.

Hill to climb

Some 71 percent of companies say they do not provide training to hiring managers or recruiters on veteran-specific hiring. More than half (52 percent) do not provide on-boarding or transition support to veteran hires, according to a recent survey by Futurestep, a Korn Ferry company.

Close to one in four veterans believe that employers simply avoid hiring former service members, mainly due to concerns about multiple deployments or reserve commitments, along with fears of dealing with veterans' disabilities or "too much baggage."

Employers themselves report similar numbers. Monster, and employment website, reports that 20 percent of employers surveyed had major concerns about post-9/11 vets with post-traumatic stress and how that might affect young veterans on the job.

That's a lot of potential skepticism to overcome.

Lead or follow?

Priscilla Santos has been on both sides of the desk. The former Marine corporal is now a human resources specialist at Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, California. In her role as a hiring manager, she looks for candor, so as an applicant, she tried to be candid.

Take, for instance, the matter of "following orders," a common concern among employers. Can someone who is used to following commands really show independent action?

When Santos heard interviews intimating this concern, "I made it a point to address it right away," she said.

"If they saw me as someone who is only used to taking orders, I'd explain right away how that isn't true, how the military instills leadership in you from the beginning. You are taught to be prepared to take charge. I would make it a point of highlighting my leadership experience early on in the conversation."

Unfamiliar ground?

Employers may be worried that the job on the table is terra incognito, an unfamiliar land too far apart from what was learned in uniform. They may see military life as being too unrelated to this civilian position. It's up to the veteran to show he or she can learn.

"You tell agility stories," Noah Rabinowitz, a senior partner at Korn Ferry, said. "What the company is looking for is for you to demonstrate that you have done 'first time' things successfully, because this is going to be another 'first time' thing."

Try to be detailed. "This is how I go about learning new things, this is how I solve problems, I know how to do that," Rabinowitz said.

And do it with style, he added: "Stay poised and solve the problem. Don't become defensive or reactive."

Read the room

When interviewing with a skeptical employer, you might not hear an explicit question that calls your service into doubt. Sometimes it's just a vibe, the sense that this person doesn't really understand what you bring to the table as a veteran, and maybe that lack of awareness is making them nervous. Now they may be looking for a reason to say no.

This is when it becomes especially important to listen, lean in and really try to ferret out where the concern may lie.

"You've got to listen right there, where you are, in the moment. You need to be able to pick up on whether they have some concerns, whether they have some preconceptions," said Beth Avey, an Army veteran of nearly 13 years and executive director of Where Opportunity Knox, a regional job placement program for veterans in Kentucky.

Once you've got a feel for where the hesitations are hiding, you can start to address them, usually by highlighting some of the successes that the interviewer can relate to. Give them performance moments that go beyond what they might see as "military."

But don't deliver this merely as a way to put yourself in a positive light. Always be thinking of how your experience will help this company. "You have to do it with the employer's needs in mind," Avey said. "Here's how my performance can help you to positively overcome your challenges. Here's how I can help you."

Keep it simple

Vets get told all the time how important it is to translate their military skills into civilian equivalents. One more good reason: A civilian-sounding résumé will help put a skeptical interviewer at ease.

When interviewers already feel out of their depth, a jargon-laden résumé is only going to make things worse.

By making the effort in advance to list your skills in layman's terms, you've got a better chance of winning over an interviewer who has concerns. But even after you make it through the hiring hurdle, you still may have to deal with people who question your right to be there.

Prove you deserve it

When Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Fry left the Navy in 1998, he landed a job in the oil and gas industry thanks to a veterans' preference program.

Some co-workers were resentful, grumbling that he had been "given the job" ahead of others who deserved it.

"What I had to do was prove to the crews that I deserved the position and that I was willing to do whatever it took," he said. "I was determined to just push through the barriers by ignoring the small talk and letting my actions speak for themselves."

It took about three months overall, he recalled.

"The moment I felt the change in my career was when I started training and mentoring the guys who resented me for my opportunity," he said.

"Once they saw that there was a reason I was hired, then they started coming to me requesting help, and I was happy to give it to them."

The unspoken question

It's among employers' biggest concerns. Television and movies don't portray it well. It's not something people understand. Walk into a job interview, it may well be the top issue on the mind of that interviewer.

But he or she may never ask about post-traumatic stress.

First: They can't ask about it. Nor are you required to say anything; the law keeps such questions off the interviewing table.

So now post-traumatic stress becomes the elephant in the room — the thing everyone is wondering about but no one feels willing to say anything about.

As the interviewee, you clear the air by focusing on positive things. Tell stories that highlight your successes. Share anecdotes that help the other person understand a little of what it means to have that military experience. It's the best way to push those other concerns aside: Show this person who you really are.

Now they can start to worry a little less about the things they have heard or imagined may be true, and focus on the person in front of them.

It's not that employers are anti-veteran. But they often don't know about veterans.

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