What are the disadvantages of hiring someone who has been in the US military?

I am going to speak as a Marine and currently a hiring manager. Here are some negative attributes that come with military service that more hiring managers need to understand.

Military people don’t get you and you don’t get them.

There are a great deal of miscommunications and misconceptions dealing with people in the military. What it is like to grow in the civilian world and what it is like to grow in the military world are two completely different things. You may have gone to a great university and interned at a very prestigious company where you met some very important people and this put you in a position of power. These qualities are not that highly respected by people from the military. If they respect you it is because of your character or in the least, your rank. Most of the time if you are CEO or VP or even just Manager that is enough for them to respect on a basis of rank, but don’t expect your story of going to an Ivy League university to mean very much to them at all. This isn’t an attack on you, but most of the time they will just attribute this to luck or born into the right family. You shouldn’t get angry about this, it is just the way they think. I had a personal experience with this in that when I started with a new branch of the company I am with there was a man who served in the military who didn’t really respect me because I was just another yuppie with a piece of paper. I had a “chat” with him where he found out that I was actually a Marine Sergeant and had done quite a bit before getting my piece of paper. Now I have his full respect. I understand where he is coming from though, most military people can be very smart, but grew up in small towns where they don’t get noticed by colleges, they are from poor families and opportunities are not that abundant. They see the military as a place where you can work hard and get noticed, so they really don’t like seeing young hot shots arrive in charge because things like college or connections. That is just a reality that many military have different values than people who became adults as civilians. You have to accept it. They will be able to appreciate and respect what you do though. Good, strong leadership is always respectable.

You have no idea what it is like to be in the military and what their mentality is like.

The fact is that you have never served in the military. You don’t know what it is like to be sent from your family, to live overseas, to live and work with the exact same people for months on end, you have never experienced the degree of isolation they do, you have never been in real danger and been expected to perform under it and you have never been a part of that culture. Your experience is in the movies, the news, some blog about how great military leadership is or that you had an uncle who served in such and such. What makes you think you could possibly understand how they think or how they solve problems. If you think that you do if that is the only reason you are hiring them than you need to investigate your own ignorance and take a look at all the experience they actually have in their resume.

I recently had a boss who was frustrated with me because he gave me very unclear goals with little guidance. He kept saying that his company needed a “Marine mindset”. I asked him what specifically did you want? He always would spit out a bunch of non-sense about how they needed my ideas and my knowledge and experience and “a bit more Marine Corps here”. I took this to mean that he wanted a strong logistics network, clear lines of communication both laterally and up the chain along with good training and discipline for the employees, which I provided. I also have a business degree specializing in entrepreneurship and have started my own company which I run on the side. I really thought that he meant he needed my business understanding and ideas for this company that he in no way actually knew how to run. After I would have ideas for problems I did see I would implement them and they never got any traction and most get shot down leaving the problem now just as bad. Finally I knew it was time to leave when he said “Because military people follow instructions.” I was incensed. Do you think military people are robots you push a button and they magically get things done. Do you expect me to hop to and go get it done with absolutely no clue what you are asking me to do? Would you like a salute with that?…SIR? The fact is that that was an incredibly insensitive and ignorant thing to say. It is an easy way to make a military person feel like they are stupid, have no individual value and can actually contribute nothing to an organization. Of course we also get very angry. Given our proclivity for violence, saying such things could be considered a major mistake, but suffice it to say, that is when I felt it was time to leave.

Military people will tell you when something is wrong, even when you don’t like it, often.

In the case above this is when I told him, with tact (honestly), that I had followed every instruction that he had given, which were almost none. You don’t go and point someone in some direction and say go when you lead them to believe that their job is completely different from the one that you intended them to do. I told him this and he wasn’t happy. Sorry, the fact is that when we serve in the military we hold a great deal of responsibility, not only of property, but of lives. We need to know what is going on and question when something isn’t right. It is a matter of practice that this has to happen something is wrong. If you are one of those people who believe you are always correct, don’t hire someone in the military.

Military people are extremely capable, when given adequate support.

If we are going to work under you, you need to know that you absolutely need to provide us with a framework, training and direction until we are capable. Sometimes this may take a long time, but it is necessary. The fact is that military people are used to a very heavy bureaucracy that provides a great deal of annoyance, but structure. You need to provide that on some level for them to succeed. Here is a point, in the Marines we spent 3 months in boot camp. That is the famous boot camp that everyone talks about. This was just to be called Marine. It was just a giant exercise in on-boarding. We spend another month in weapons and tactics training, as much as six months to a year in job training and then spend months training with our units before we go to actually do our jobs. I spent about 14 months preparing for a 7 month tour. That is why we succeed so well at war. However without that kind of training and support the Marines would suck, just like your company. If you aren’t prepared to give them a great deal of training for their job, they won’t know what to do go off trying to do something that doesn’t fit your strategy. This is in contraindication with my next point, but you will see that they are tied very well together.

Military people are also extremely independent and will go off in random directions when lacking adequate guidance.

As I mentioned in the last point military people need good direction. That is because if any one group could be stereotyped as “alpha males” it might just be young men in the military. They are rash, forceful, arrogant, stubborn and filled with pride. They also have a great deal of initiative and want to fix problems where they see them. The problem is that you didn’t obey rule number three. You hired them because they were “real go-getters” and didn’t explain their role or what a problem in your company actually is. What could have been a massive driving force for you is now more of a bull in a China closet. You will have numerous arguments with this individual and he will not get what your point is. Remember they don’t get you and you don’t get them, but train them well in their job, point them in the right direction and you will have a force and not just an employee.

Military people are not always fun to work with.

There really are two types of military people to work with. The stoic solemn ones who are extremely rigid, professional and have no time for your nonsense or the wild and unruly bombs who can be unreliable, drunks, dissidents, aggressive and might even bring massive drama into your workplace. Both of these types are likely to be extremely proud and can border on arrogance and can be very aggressive in general. They can both be extremely difficult for other personality types to mesh with and can cause conflict just with their presence. As bosses they can be extremely strict and demanding and can bring down the morale of a workplace because “incentive” to them is usually just a lack of punishment. You have a job, you do it. That is how many think. Their punishments can be incredibly severe by civilian terms because most civilians have never dug a seven foot deep fighting hole and filled 600 sand bags because they didn’t clean their room once. Simply put, aggression is not always a good thing, but these guys have it.

A lot of veterans have very real problems you don’t understand.

Post traumatic stress is a real thing. Lower back problems for wearing a 70 pound flack jacket for 8 hours a day for 7 straight months is a real thing. Hearing loss from working on rifle ranges, or near rotary-wing aircraft and artillery is a very real thing. The fact is that most military people get out with some degree of disability. They are proud so most never mention this, but it is something you will need to understand when trying to understand them. The fact is that a 22 year old veteran has the body of 35 year old because of the stresses they endure overseas. You will need to know about that and a good leader will find out how to help the vet cope and work productively. A bad manager will say that “He went to Iraq? He probably has PTSD.” and not hire the person. This isn’t a made up opinion. Recent studies have shown that while only 5-20% of combat vets have justified PTSD (about the same as civilians who have experienced car accidents or tragedy) it is assumed that most have the ailment. It is called PTSD bias and is most damaging among middle managers who don’t understand the disease. The fact is we all had something jarring happen, if it was only the incredibly long periods of isolation from our country and loved ones. This doesn’t mean that there is any likelihood that you will experience violence in the workplace from us. They might be a bit off by your standards, but still deserve a chance.

Military people have what some might call controlled Tourette’s Syndrome.

I added this one after some comments came up about the way that military act toward civilians and I thought that it deserved special recognition. It relates to #6 on my list, but this element deserved it’s place. In the military the way we talk to each other is often not pleasant. In the Marines bootcamp instructors are actually trained on how to manipulate their voices so that they can yell for extremely long periods of time without damaging their vocal cords. This is known as the “Frog Voice” and it is a real as the weapons we use. The fact is that once you enter the military people literally screaming at you all the time and you adapt. Eventually you will be a leader and screaming will be part of your job too. This video actually shows a great deal of things that are important. It is a video of a charity golf tournament where some Marines were invited to give a show for some of the competitors. Listen at the very beginning and you can hear a Marine using a strange voice to speak to the victim/participant. This is Frog Voice. You will also see what is known as the “Omnidirectional Ass Chewing” in which multiple D.I. will be screaming at you in unison as you attempt to make sense of the universe around you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tr4C8PtfMq0

This video is in jest, but it is identical to the way that Marine recruits are trained at boot camp, except that goes on for 3 months. “Why do all these things you ask?” Because it is the easiest way to get a human being who is unaccustomed to performance under stress to take action while being placed under an extreme and sudden stress environment (combat). It trains them to block out the noise and the fear and the stress and just do what they need to do. We can’t actually shoot at the kids you know. (Oh God, that actually does make sense.) So the Omnidirectional Ass Chewing is one of the most important parts of onboarding that most military go through, and the yelling really never stops after that. What is extremely important to know is that just as quickly as these men started yelling they can turn it off just as quickly. It is mostly an act meant to instill aggression and help military people cope with combat stress without actually experiencing combat. This is why as John Albert put it “Not that my ex-military friends aren’t cool to just hang with when the pressures of work are off, but once you get them into a “business” situation it’s sometimes like flipping the “asshole” switch.” This asshole switch is a very real thing that has taken years to perfect. Yes, I acknowledge it as a conscious decision and part of our leadership and cultural mentality, but now they are in the civilian sector and this can is extreme. If you hire a military you need to know about this. If given a leadership role there might be some moments where the employees stop talking to Jon and start being talked to by Sgt Davis. As with other things, this can be an asset, but if it isn’t what you want in your culture you need to consider that. as well.

You

If I could really say the hardest thing that I have dealt with since leaving the military it is civilian managers who want to leverage my military experience, but have no understanding of it. I’ve had bosses who hired me thinking that I would be able to kick down doors, then when I made someone cry guess who got in trouble. One guy tried to lecture me on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War because now he understood warfare. Basically the worst thing that I have truly experienced is that so many think that all these traits I have listed are an all encompassing list of personality traits. Only these things are what naive managers think they want. After they realize that this may not be what they want, or that what they want doesn’t rationally belong in a civilian environment, who do they blame? Yeah. They expect some level of unattainable perfection while not allowing you the freedom to move in the way they hired you for. In the meantime, they hold the vet to a different standard than the other peers only because the vet didn’t live up to the managers impossible stereotypes.

In summary, hiring military people can be much less productive than you think if you don’t try and understand them. They can be asset or a liability. What is important for you as the hiring manager or owner is to accept that these are extremely capable and strong willed individuals that will need much guidance in the beginning, but be a major boon to your operations after that. They likely won’t fit your stereotypes and if you expect them to you will only get a great deal of resentment and difficulty. Still, there are few that know how to work harder can be more loyal, providers of effective diversity, are as reliable and can be counted on like a good US Veteran.

In all fairness you should also see my answer in What are the advantages of hiring someone who has been in the US military?

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