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I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of recruiters on the topic of how to understand the occupational and transferrable skill sets of military veterans.  I was followed by another speaker who spoke about biases in the workplace and how not recognizing that we have them has an impact on our ability to recruit diverse candidates.  It was an interesting topic, so I remained at the event to listen to it and to participate in a group exercise the speaker had prepared.

This exercise was not military-specific.  We were given a civilian resume to review and some background information on the candidate.  We were asked as individuals “Would you hire this person?” and asked to rate, on a scale of 0 to 100%, how good of a fit we thought this person would be for the role.  We then broke in to groups to discuss, and were asked to come up with a consensus answer to the above two questions.

I had a lively group, and they very quickly identified the good and bad qualities they saw in this candidate.  I was fascinated by the amount of time they spent discussing a perceived gap in the candidate’s work history – a gap that occurred more than 10 years ago.  When the time came to poll the group on whether we should hire the candidate and rate for fit, all but one person said “No, I would not hire” and the fit rating was consistently below 50%.  I ended up being the only one who said she would hire the candidate, and I rated the candidate as a 90% fit.  I received a lot of puzzled looks, and then someone said “Really?  Why would you hire this person?”  I explained:

“I bring a bias into the workplace.  In my 22 years in the military, I never had the opportunity to hire anyone.  I had to learn to work with the people assigned to me.  So, when I look at this example candidate’s resume, what I see is a person who is technically competent with strong analytical skills, is task oriented, and capable of managing the type of large project the role requires of the person selected.  So, that is my reason for rating the candidate as a 90% fit.  However, from the background information, I see also that the candidate has a reputation for not communicating clearly with subordinates, which has led to issues in the past.  My bias leads me to reason that this person will perform well in the role, and will also require performance coaching to improve people/managerial skills.  That is my 10% “fit gap”, and I think that is a gap I could reasonably work with given the candidate’s strong technical skills.

Nor am I worked up about a gap in this person’s work history, especially not one from so long ago.  Again – I have a bias.  I hear from veterans every day that it takes months, sometimes over a year, to find a job after leaving the service.  I can see that they are actively trying to find a job.  I also know that there are some veterans who are burnt out after 4 years of non-stop deployments and training, and who just want to take some time off after leaving the military to decompress and adjust to civilian life again before beginning the job hunt.  I don’t blame them – I deployed 4 times in 8 years while I was on active duty in the 1990’s.  Luckily, I was not in a position to need to find a job immediately after my last deployment.  I had two additional years on active duty where I took my time and prepared myself to transition.  Today’s veterans are not necessarily as fortunate.  So, I don’t hold a work gap against anybody, because so much has changed in the labor market in the last 4 years, that it is unfair to eliminate someone, veteran or civilian, just because there is a work gap on the resume.”

Everyone at the table contemplated that for a moment.  Then someone said “You know, we are conditioned to have a laser focus on weeding out candidates who we perceive do not meet all of the criteria.  For any given position we have a lot of resumes to review and we need to quickly cull the list to the top candidates to present to the hiring manager for consideration.  We are measured on ‘Time to Hire’, which rewards us for how fast we can fill an open vacancy.  We don’t have the luxury of providing training or coaching to help an otherwise strong candidate address his/her shortcomings”

I don’t think this is unusual in recruiting.  I call it the “square hole, square peg” mentality.  And I think it puts veterans and transitioning military at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to being considered for an open position.  Veteran’s are more of a “rectangular peg” – an 80% or better fit skill-wise, with an up to 20% gap in industry and/or profit/loss (P&L) knowledge.  I know we can teach them the stuff missing in the 20% gap.  However, it is the part of the rectangular peg that sticks way up above the square hole that is hard to teach the average civilian:  leadership, decisiveness, goal-orientation, etc.

If a service member’s resume miraculously makes it through a company’s applicant tracking system and is reviewed by a set of human eyes, I know it is all too easy for those human eyes to quickly dismiss the military resume and the candidate for any number of reasons.

A few years back I read a blog article entitled “How Recruiters Read Resumes in 10 Seconds or Less”.  The author shared ways in which he was able to quickly parse through a stack of resumes, and indicated those things that were, in his opinion, “red flags” in the resume and should be avoided at all costs.  The people who commented on the blog were enthusiastic, and praised him for sharing ideas that they could use to speed their “time to fill” metrics.

I was less enthusiastic.  I commented that fully half of his screening tactics would eliminate a military applicant for no good reason other than efficiency.  Tactics like:

  • Eliminate anyone not already located where the job is (the military offers relocation benefits to the transitioning service member)
  • Eliminate anyone who does not have direct industry experience (if I have 20 years of supply chain experience, does it matter that much that it is with the Department of the Army and not with WalMart?)
  • Eliminate anyone who does not hold the correct civilian title (if I am a Navy Command Master Chief, what do you propose I call myself in civilian terms?)
  • Eliminate anyone who does not have at least a bachelors degree (so the degree is seen as more important than actual work experience?)
  • Eliminate anyone who uses a functional resume format (to the untrained eye, a chronological military resume makes the veteran look like a indecisive job hopper)

If your company has declared itself to be “military friendly” or has made veteran hiring commitments with any number of the programs out there, (like Joining Forces, the 100,000 Jobs Mission or the 10,000 Jobs Challenge) recognize that you will have to adjust your recruiting practices if you want to avoid inadvertently screening out military applicants.  Effective military recruiting programs require a “high touch” approach, not unlike campus recruiting.  Recruiters and hiring managers who are willing to put in the extra time to carefully consider the military resume and to take a few minutes to speak with the veteran applicant about their military experience will have far better success in recruiting service members.  Carelessly screening them out using criteria that is stacked against them will not result in achieving your company’s hiring goals for military.