A veterans law attorney explains what critical questions to avoid when interviewing a military veteran for a job — and interacting with those already on-staff — to avoid legal landmines and to help foster a military-friendly employer status. While this story has a U.S. focus in honor of Veterans Day, these same questions can apply to any military veteran anywhere in the world.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in August 2019 the 3.4 percent veteran unemployment rate represented the 12th consecutive month this metric was lower than the non-veteran unemployment rate (currently at 3.6 percent). This is an indication that the hiring of veterans is going strong. According to NCSL.org, there are 18.8 million veterans living in the United States today, representing 7.6 percent of the country’s population. They are a robust, trained and skilled employee pool that have the potential to make a significant impact on U.S. industry and, in turn, the global economy at large.
While the many benefits of hiring a military veteran have been well-publicized in the media, and U.S. employers are starting to take heed, there are a number of critical considerations business owners must keep in mind when considering appropriate language to use when dealing with a person who has served in the military. There are also some legal landmines to avoid when interviewing a veteran for employment — whether full or part time, contract, freelance or other.
According to retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Berry of Berry Law Firm, you can improve your veteran hiring and retention by making small changes to your interview process. Berry, whose law firm became the first to ever receive the Department of Labor’s HIREVets Platinum Medallion, has filled his staff with veterans by following a few simple rules. Among them are a list of questions to NEVER ask. These include:
• Do you have PTSD? Firstly, in an interview situation, it’s illegal to ask this mental health question before a job offer has been made under the Americans With Disabilities Act. It can’t be asked afterwards either, unless certain conditions are met. So, avoid this line of questioning (even after a hiring decision has been made) or risk exposing the company to legal repercussions. Second, it’s just disrespectful. The veteran will likely think they’re being stigmatized and labeled as “damaged goods” in some way, or regarded as the stereotypical “unstable veteran.” It will make it difficult to establish trust, a healthy rapport and a sustainable professional relationship going forward.
• Have you ever killed anyone? Most veterans who served in combat don’t want to discuss the details of their military service with a civilian, whether it be a boss or workplace colleague. This question can be offensive, disconcerting or generally uncomfortable to the veteran who did, in fact, have to take a life in the defense of his or her country. This question can be equally objectionable for veterans who made many sacrifices, but did not have to take the life of another. The idea of taking another human being’s life in the line of duty is a highly sensitive and emotion-evoking topic that demands the utmost courtesy and privacy.
• Have you ever been shot? While the veteran may not have a current disability from an injury, you don’t want to take the chance of touching on what could be deep-seeded emotional wounds and traumatic memories of physical distress that have been difficult to come to terms with. Furthermore, the veteran who was not in combat is likely proud of his or her accomplishments in the military, and, whether or not they’ve engaged in gunfire or been hit, may perceive the comment as belittling. In a DiversityInc.com workplace article, Army veteran Ryan Kules stated, “Far too often, people assume a level of familiarity with former military that not only breeches proper office conduct but also invades one’s ‘personal space’.”
With that in mind, according to a Military.com article, here are a few other things one should avoid asking military veterans in a job interview or any other form of conversation:
• Is it hard to get back to real life after being in the military?
• How could you leave your family for so long?
• What’s the worst thing that happened to you?
• Were you raped?
There are also some key concerns owners and managers should bear in mind when managing veterans who are already on the payroll as formal hires. According to Berry, here are a few main things to avoid:
• Don’t make combat references or analogies. It’s bad form to tell a veteran that dealing with a competitor or other professional foe is like “hand-to-hand combat” or that you’re taking “friendly fire.” Relating these kinds of serious phrases in the mind and heart of a veteran to civilian experiences can be distasteful at best — and even deemed utterly reprehensible.
• Don’t make fun of any military branch if you didn’t serve. It’s generally accepted for veterans to lightheartedly make fun of the other branches of service with and among fellow veterans. You might hear a vet refer to Marines as “crayon eaters,” joke about the Air Force “not really being military,” and other such tongue-in-cheek remarks. However, veterans greatly frown upon a person who has never served making fun of their branch of service or any other.
• Don’t bad-mouth military conflicts. You may think you are showing empathy by talking about “unnecessary” wars and deployments and that our veterans should not have had to make sacrifices. Political views aside, you may be speaking to a veteran who is proud to have served in that conflict and, irrespective of all, respects the governmental decisions made to go that route. Don’t risk degrading the veteran’s actual service — and choice to throw themselves into the fray — because you disagree with the nature of the conflict.
Also as reported on Military.com, as part of American coffee company Starbucks’ growing commitment to empower military veterans, it advises civilians to, “Get to know somebody and take it slowly, just like you would with anyone else. Ask questions about who they are, where they’re from and what they like to do.” Conversation starters included on Starbucks’ list include:
• How long did you serve?
• What did you do (in the Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Air Force, Guard, or Reserves)?
• Why did you choose that branch?
• Do you come from a military family?
• Did you visit any other countries?
• Where was your favorite place you lived?
“Veterans are some of the hardest working, dedicated and loyal employees you could ever hope to hire,” Berry notes. “I know, because I have hired dozens of them on my team. “In fact, they are the most important asset in my company. If you get the chance to hire a veteran, don’t mess up what can be a hugely fruitful and rewarding engagement by saying something distasteful — or downright stupid. As a hiring manager or a colleague, you can establish camaraderie with veteran coworkers by being a mindful and respectful person. The vet will undoubtedly ‘cover your six’ no matter what challenges come your way.”