Veteran vs. civilian workplace communication

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Transitioning veterans entering the civilian workforce might start with a typical checklist:

  • Resume with military skills translated to civilian speak? Check.
  • Proper business attire? Check.
  • Targeted resumes for different industries? Check.
  • Researched companies I’m interested in? Check.

But one thing they may not have examined is military versus civilian workplace interpersonal communication. No matter how long a veteran wore the uniform, he or she undergoes a remarkable transformation that can impact how they talk and process conversations with others.

“This actually isn’t an uncommon issue,” said DAV Employment Director Jeff Hall. “I see it at the career fairs we sponsor and remember my own initial venture into civilian life. The way the veteran and military community talk to each other is simply different than what the civilian world is used to hearing.”

Those differences can potentially lead to misunderstandings with those who did not serve.

“It just becomes kind of a minefield of how to interact with people,” said Emily King, author of “Field Tested: Recruiting, Managing and Retaining Veterans” in a 2017 Marketplace article. “An attitude where the mission comes first and interpersonal communication and effectiveness come second is not usually effective in a civilian environment where they tend to pay as much attention to how you do something as to what you do.”

King says in her book that communication in the military equation is, by necessity, designed to make order out of chaos because the ultimate form of chaos might be battlefield conditions where bullets are flying.

But in the civilian world, a veteran may notice his or her colleagues leaving promptly at 5 p.m. before the day’s “mission” is complete or communicating indirectly, which can often frustrate veterans.

“The military, by contrast, ingrains an interpersonal style that supports its mission,” King says in her book. “The communication style is often described as terse, impersonal and direct, because the mission of the military requires communication to be fast and clear.”

In a 2017 Ivy Exec article, Chrissy Scivicque offers veterans specific advice regarding this issue.

“The business world is made up of a diverse group of individuals, each with their own unique communication style—including some that may dramatically differ from the style you’re accustomed to,” she said in the article. “Be sensitive to the differences and demonstrate your ability to adjust to meet the other person, or people, where they are. You may need to shift your language, tone, volume or pace to help ease interactions.”

She also notes military and veteran interpersonal communication tends to focus on clarity and precision with keeping in mind the current mission at hand; but, in the civilian world, the focus is initially centered on relationship building and trust.

Scivicque also advises veterans to exercise patience as the civilian world of communication is often slower.

“In the U.S. military, decisions are made from the top down,” she said in the article. “However, in the business world, the process of decision-making and problem solving may involve more people and require more time. In theory, the different perspectives and experiences amongst the group will lead to better outcomes.

“Former military members may need to practice patience as these conversations take place. While it may feel inefficient, the overall belief is that the organization benefits when more voices are heard,” she said in the article.

“I think it’s important to remember it’s simply a different world outside the installation gates,” said Hall. “Successful veterans will adapt to this new style of communication and what may initially feel like a very long, drawn-out process of doing things. Just remember the business world is a little different and if you can be successful in uniform, you already have the tools to adapt to a new operational environment and be successful in this next phase of your professional career.”