Veterans can be a bit scary if you’ve never had one on the team. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that there’s actually far less drama involved in transitioning a squaddie into the commercial world than you’d think.
It’s been extremely tough to get this column assembled into something coherent; I’ve been tinkering with it incessantly for the last two weeks. For 99 per cent of that time, the draft has been a complete mess. I’ve written (and subsequently discarded) about 4,000 words worth of content. It finally dawned on me that I was sabotaging my own efforts by trying to cover far too much ground in too small a platform. That’s why my rough draft was looking more like a rambling street preacher’s fire-and-brimstone exhortation to repent than a calm and rational consultation about how best to address a business challenge.
Let me backtrack, for context’s sake: in my first column of 2016, I presented the unsavoury argument that a company has a moral right to refuse to hire veterans (even if such a choice is morally repugnant). I detest this behaviour when I encounter it because it often comes across as a deliberate insult. Despite that, I’ve tried to be dispassionate about the problem. Looking at it from a purely scientific perspective, I argued that we ought to respect a company’s basic right to self-determination when it comes to engineering their own culture. Since veterans aren’t a ‘protected class’  it’s all right to snub us. I contend that it’s a bloody stupid and counter-productive practice, but it’s not illegal. Therefore, as much as the practice frustrates and angers me, I believe that I need to hold my natural emotional reaction to it in check. Our society and our government have agreed that this is allowable conduct. Therefore, it’s going to happen; getting mad about it won’t change it.
That’s what got me ‘wrapped around the axle’ on the topic. The more that I stewed over the issue, the more that I felt compelled to leverage my opportunity here in the public square to do something to stamp this sort of nonsense out. If it is, as I allege, a terrible idea, then I ought to be able to present that argument and convince others to come around to my position.
That, in turn, is where I starting making a hash of it all. I realized that I had far too many things to say on the subject, and was trying to say them all at once. It was bit like taking off from a dead stop by stomping the accelerator: lots of screeching and smoke, but no useful forward momentum. So, I tapped the brakes, let the metaphorical smoke clear and reconsidered how I wanted to go about this. I decided to break these arguments into digestible, debatable chunks. I’ll adjust my approach as necessary once I see how everyone reacts. Thank you in advance for allowing me to fumble my way through this thorny topic. 
For this week, I want to start with a basic premise: the pop-culture notion that us veterans can be difficult to get along with in the office. This idea isn’t (in and of itself) entirely wrong. The stereotypes and tropes we share about how military personnel act are grounded in very real behaviours, cultural norms and mores. These archetypal behaviours are not, however, wholly-accurate models for how actual veterans think, feel or behave. That is, they’re indicative, but not declarative.
Most of the arguments that I’ve heard from civilians about why veterans wouldn’t be a ‘good fit’ for their company culture hinge on the (very real!) prospect that a veteran is likely to clash with the non-veterans’ existing social order. I’m not ashamed to admit that this is likely to happen: differences in personal and professional experiences always clash. That’s why the assembly of any new group of people requires a great deal of friction and clumsy interaction before the individuals start gelling as a team.
Further, it’s true that honourably-discharged and retired veterans tend to have strong work ethics, a low tolerance for shenanigans and an intense desire to understand the power dynamics of their operating environment. These characteristics become deeply ingrained in professional military men and women through years of deliberate conditioning. These attributes make squaddies more productive in all professional contexts, which is why many employers find us to be highly cost-effective team members. Veterans tend to work hard, strive to ignore distractions and focus intensely on accomplishing goals. If that were all that we had to content with, then there wouldn’t be much cause for strife. However…
The characteristics and values that make a squaddie highly-effective in the ranks can be antithetical to a workplace culture that places more value on emotional reciprocity than on simple production. When getting along is more important than actually getting things done, ex-squaddies will often stress out. That’s because an emphasis on compatibility over execution is the exact opposite cultural imperative than what veterans are used to. This can make an ex-squaddie act standoffish, cold, abrasive or even tetchy to his or her cubicle mates when others don’t seem to be as emotionally invested as he or she is in the mission. Some veterans might even lash out at their co-workers in frustration, because the new world around them seems ‘wrong’. Drama then ensues. This reinforces the common trope that veterans are more aggressive, mean or violent than other folks. 
In actuality, a great deal of veterans’ frustration often arises from being denied the ability to progress in a given task. I’ve found that this comes from the military’s harsh cultural emphasis on personal accountability. On the battlefield, on a ship at sea or in an airplane in flight, the consequences of failure or inaction can be extreme – people can die. That’s why soldiers, sailors and airmen are conditioned right at the start of their careers to understand that obedience and commitment are critical virtues. The system’s intent isn’t (as movie villains would suggest) to create armies of unthinking, unfeeling constructs. Rather, it’s to impress upon every volunteer that they’re part of a huge and intricate whole, and that it’s critical that every single man and woman do their part. That’s why idleness, inattention to detail and duplicity get punished severely – those attributes can (in the moment of action) inflict great and preventable harm upon others.
Life is a bit different in the private sector. There are very few circumstances in the commercial world where employees or customers are likely to die, to sustain severe injuries or to otherwise come to harm if a task isn’t performed to standards. This is especially true in white-collar environments. No one is going to going to lose a limb if the quarterly P&L report isn’t filed on time (no matter what the boss threatens). It’s a different arena featuring different rules. Coming to grips with that fact takes some time to get used to, veteran or otherwise.
That, by the way, is why veterans are drawn to careers in high-risk, high-consequence career fields like law enforcement, fire-fighting, working with hazardous materials and the like. Working in a high-stakes environment offers workers a strong sense of accomplishment and sometimes (truth be told) a bit of a thrill. By comparison, sitting in a perfectly-safe office where the worst possible consequence for a botched task is a loud arse-chewing is… deathly dull.
Knowing these facts, it’s clear that there are definitely good reasons why many veterans have a difficult time transitioning into corporate life. Therefore, I can’t get terribly angry at company representatives who tell me that my military experiences, personality traits or work habits might be likely to cause more strife with the other workers than it’s worth to the company in the long run. I get it. The company rep may very well have watched another veteran go through his or her own rough transition, and assumes (reasonably) that I might prove to be a similar challenge.
It makes sense. It’s logical. It’s plausible. You had a bad experience once with someone who looked or sounded just like me, and therefore assume that your experience with me might turn out the same way as it did for that other fellow. That’s how irrational prejudices are fed: projecting something that you don’t like in a few people to all people in a group.
In this case, though, there’s actually a reasonable basis for the concern. Believing that veterans are driven, intense, and occasionally snarly isn’t an unrealistic projection; it’s actually a reasonable and pragmatic concern. It’s also a very easily corrected incompatibility. It requires almost nothing in the way of resource investment to get out in front of the problem and to minimize the potential for drama.
No, really. Here’s how it works. I have this conversation with every squaddie that I hire:
‘Things are a bit different here than they were back in the squadron. The values and expectations are different. People here get uptight and upset about things that you and I wouldn’t give a toss about, and they sometimes don’t react to problems that we take deathly seriously. This is going to lead to some misunderstandings and frustration until you get the hang of things. The key to success in this environment is to maintain your equilibrium – don’t let the others’ weirdness throw you off your stride. Don’t let them see you get mad. Most importantly, don’t judge people harshly for holding different values. Be frank about asking for explanations when you don’t understand things, and disarm folks with your gentle candour. When you get angry, come vent to me behind closed doors. When you think the whole place is barmy, come see me and I’ll try to give you some context. Just don’t snap at anyone. Eventually – maybe six months from now – it’ll all start making sense and you’ll be able to start mentoring people yourself.’
That’s it. That’s all it takes. I’m deadly serious. That’s the cure for the entire cultural friction problem: acknowledge that it exists, provide transitioning squaddies with a coach to help them come to grips with the differences and have some patience while they learn the new environment. Yes, there will be a few gaffes (especially during the early days), but informal mediation and coaching will smooth everything over in short order. In the end, the company will get a stellar new contributor, and everyone will get along.
Squaddies are, by our nature, infinitely adaptable. It’s an inextricable part of our culture. All we need to thrive is some help learning a new operating environment and a little manoeuver room in which to practice our new role. Give us those two things, and there’s no conflict. No reason at all to throw away an excellent resource.
What if you don’t already have a veteran on staff to help transition the others? That’s still no reason to write us off. You can either hire one specifically to serve as the ‘pathfinder’ for the rest  or you can grow your own cultural guide in-house. All it takes is someone with a reasonable measure of patience, perceptiveness, and compassion. It’s not terribly difficult.
It’s all right to recognize that there’s likely to be friction between two or more employees. Leaders are paid to recognize potential problems, especially when said problems are embarrassing to talk about. We’re also paid to take appropriate measures to pre-empt likely problems before they manifest. If you’re feeling queasy at the prospect of having a scary, gruff and alien veterans running around making everyone unsettled, just relax. We’re all trainable. Please believe me when I promise you that we can adapt to your company culture remarkably quickly.
Give us a chance. Let us amaze you.
 Here in the USA, anyway. I don’t know enough about other countries’ laws to know if anyone else has different legal standards. And, let’s be fair, I’m disinclined to get captivated by a long Googling because then I’d never get this bloody piece finished.
 That realization helped me settle on the title for this piece. In addition to the obvious joke about a ‘Tommy’ knocking on an employer’s door looking for work, Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers was a bloody mess of a novel. He was grappling with his own substance abuse problems when he wrote it, and came out the other side of the writing process on the road to recovery. Addressing the issue in his story supposedly helped him decide to get well.
 Note that I am absolutely not suggesting that either position on the productivity/compatibility axis is morally or fiscally inferior to the other. A business’s success in the marketplace comes from far more than just mathematically-defined outputs.  Some (not all; some) organisations require strong camaraderie, high morale and flexibility to serve their customers more than Gilbreth-ian maximization of pure physical effort. Each business has to work out its own optimal culture.
 For the record, I am not a fan of impersonal data modeling as a substitute for qualitative cultural analysis. Six-Sigma and other metrics-drive techniques are toxic without context and nuance.
 I’m available at a very reasonable rate, in case you’re interested.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.