Real Leaders

3 Things to Never Ask a Military Veteran in the Workplace

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

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, 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.  

A Soldier with the Tennessee Army National Guard’s 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, celebrates his reenlistment after swearing in a UH-60 Black Hawk, 200 feet above Tullahoma, Tennessee. Photo: US Army / Sgt. Sarah Kirby

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.

Soldiers assigned to the 615th Engineer Construction Company, 4th Engineer Battalion, build Somali-style huts for a training area near Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, as part of Justified Accord 19. The accord is an annual joint exercise designed to strengthen partnerships, promote regional security and support peacekeeping operations for the African Union Mission in Somalia. Photo: US Army / Sgt. Aubry Buzek

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 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’.”

U.S. Air Force Capt. Christa Lothes (left) hands donated materials for a sewing class to a local Afghan women during an afternoon tea. The regular event provides an opportunity to educate the local women on various humanitarian and security programs in place for them and their communities. Afghan women are very influential in their communities and talking with them is a powerful way to get information spread throughout the region. “They are just like us in that they want their roads to be free of bombs,” says Heather Kekic, the local military public affairs and information officer. “They don’t want their families hurt or killed by the violence.” Photo: US Air Force / Staff Sgt. Julie Weckerlein

With that in mind, according to a 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. 

The night before American Soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy, Joseph Reilly and the 101st Airborne Division parachuted behind enemy lines. He and his fellow soldiers helped secure Utah Beach and the first foothold in America’s liberation of Western Europe. Joseph also fought in Operation Market Garden, Battle of the Bulge, and the battle of the Ruhr Pocket. He now lives in San Diego, California. Photo: White House / Keegan Barber

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.

The ban on women in combat was lifted Jan. 23, 2013. Though 99 percent of the careers offered in the Air Force are open to women, the decision will open more than 230,000 jobs across all branches of the military. 2019 marks the 26th year that the Department of Defense allowed women to serve as combat pilots. Photo: US Airforce / Senior Airman Micaiah Anthony

Also as reported on, 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?

A Soldier with the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) participates in a Joint Armed Forces Color Guard in support of Honor Flight Chicago at the World War II Memorial, Washington, DC. An Honor Flight is conducted by non-profit organizations dedicated to transporting as many United States military veterans as possible to see the memorials in D.C. of the respective war they fought in at no cost to the veterans. Photo: US Army / Sgt. Nicholas T. Holmes

“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.”

Most Recent Articles