On the backdrop of a sky filled with colorful fireworks and streets crowded with animated parades celebrating the Fourth of July, what emerges in the minds of many is the deliberation and decision of our Founders to pen and defend the Declaration of Independence. That was pen-to-paper, and then the real work and battle had to begin to realize the landscape we now call the United States of America.
What comes to mind for others on the backdrop of commemorating July 4, 1776, an epic day in history, is the battle that rages on in Iraq. Veterans who have volunteered to fight, whether in the name of duty or honor, watch as nearly 12 years of grueling battle for groundbreaking democracy comes unraveled, seemly in the blink of an eye. Now veterans are in the fog on the return on investment for their battle wounds and scars.
In many ways, companies face a similar story in their effort to hire and train veterans, only to see their investment unravel in the form of high veteran attrition and turnover. While hiring a veteran is patriotic, given veteran unemployment is at a rate higher than their civilian counterparts, the Catch-22 is hiring has to be balanced with a business need.
According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the current trend among veterans is to change jobs twice within the first three years of civilian employment. Add to that attrition costs for a professional who quits averages $125,000 for up to 18 months’ salary. For hourly waged employees it averages a half-year’s pay. This has left companies in the fog on what to do to increase veteran satisfaction, productivity and retention.
It is widely known that the change from military to civilian life can prove quite challenging for many separating veterans. But oftentimes companies are unaware of what is necessary to onboard a veteran and retain him.
Simply put, individuals who separate or retire from the military and return to civilian life exchange structured society for an unstructured mainstream society. They face a major change in their life situation; therefore, veterans are confronted with learning to acclimate to a change in culture and a new beginning in life and work.
In addition to a change in employment status, from employed to unemployed or underemployed and underpaid, veterans are challenged with extraordinary differences in culture. This culture change presents them with mental and emotional struggles and, for many, that is coupled with a psychological struggle. This struggle is heightened for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Even with the Department of Defense’s newly revamped Transition Assistance Program, when a veteran returns to civilian culture he is wholly responsible for his own preservation and behavior. Veterans must learn to resocialize themselves and become fit for living in mainstream society. For companies, it only stands to reason that understanding the stark contrast between the two cultures can prove equally as daunting when attempting to hire, reintegrate and sustain veterans in the workplace.
By all accounts, veterans have the capacity — and should be able to effectively retrain themselves — to operate in an environment other than that in which they were accustomed to being successful. For both veterans and employers, that outcome remains foggy at best.
That is exactly why coming into the light requires more than recruiting and hiring veterans. It requires effective onboarding and organizational development. In the interest of being a viable part of the solution to employing, retaining and celebrating America’s veterans, companies need to develop an onboarding assimilation plan that gradually integrates veterans into the civilian work environment. Starting with Day One, the plan should focus on natural assimilation and inclusivity. Firms should adopt best practices such as establishing affinity groups, peer support and mentoring. That connects veterans with someone who can empathize with their concerns, while motivating and helping them adapt to and stay engaged in the work environment.
Firms also should customize the diversity and employee assistance programs to include veteran-specific education and support, and retain the services of a military-relations professional to facilitate ease of transition. The assimilation plan and its effective implementation are vital to veteran employment, sustainability and companies coming out of the fog and into the light of lower attrition, increased veteran satisfaction and productivity.
Harry Croft, a psychiatrist, has seen 7,000 veterans diagnosed with PTSD and is co-author of “I Always Sit with My Back to The Wall: Managing Combat Stress and PTSD.” Sydney Savior, a retired military officer, is an applied behavioral scientist and author of “Camouflage to Pinstripes: Learning to Thrive in Civilian Culture.”