The Daily Herald carried an article about “the problems veterans face in the professional workplace.” The author declares that corporate America loves hiring veterans. They bring skills, discipline, tax incentives and a wee bit o’ PR. But how do veterans fare once on board?
In 2015, the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) studied what happened once those veterans began their civilian career and published a report titled, “Mission Critical.” In the report, they found that organizations may be investing as much as 30-40% of their recruiting budget to target veteran hires.
What was surprising to the researchers was that many veterans “feel underutilized, alienated and uninspired in corporate workplaces.” Sadly, two-thirds reported they felt more purpose in the military than in corporate America.
In 1981, I left the USMC after six to start my civilian career. I felt certain that I would be seen as a great hiring prospect. Instead, recruiters and hiring managers looked at me like I had three heads. Of course, that was post-Vietnam, and unfortunately veterans were not so valued. But it was also because I was a female and in the Marine Corps. What could possibly be wrong with me? Oh, all sorts of biases hid behind the “thanks but no thanks” letters.
But now it is 2015, for God’s sake. I thought for sure it had changed. Our veterans today are revered and honored, right?
The reality is, it isn’t just veterans who feel disenfranchised in organizations, and it isn’t just veterans who are seeking to find real meaning in their work. We hear that 70% of the workforce is unengaged or actively disengaged. Studies show that more than half of voluntary turnover happens in the first year of employment.
To “fit” or not to “fit”
Psychologist Adrian Furnham defines it this way: “fit is where there is congruence between the norms and values of the organization and those of the person.” I like that definition because it limits “fit” to core values. A core value of the U.S. Army is “personal courage. If you don’t share that value, don’t join the Army.
The Marine Corps’ values are simple: honor, courage and commitment. Not only do they enlist Marines who share the value, but their training weeds out those who really don’t.
The core values of an organization are those essential and non-negotiable ideals by which every member agrees to commit.
It doesn’t mean, however, that everyone in the organization thinks alike and shares similar perspectives. Besides the fact that this is not possible, it also isn’t practical. Diversity of thought is a critical element of organizational success. Diversity of thought means that the business of the organization can be viewed through multiple and diverse lenses, leading to a soundly conceived product.
In the 1990s, I was a senior HR leader in a financial institution, and had the opportunity to watch and shape an “ah ha” moment. The bank struggled to create products and services for a changing population. As the demographics of the population were changing, reflecting age, gender and ethnic diversity, the demographics of those creating the products were pretty homogenous – successful white males. But what they were developing didn’t meet the needs of a diverse population. As part of that awakening, the bank began to recognize how diversity of thought led to better results across the board and began an intentional campaign to increase diversity.
It isn’t just age, gender or ethnic diversity that creates diversity of thought. It is the perspective of both the compassionate and the pragmatist when considering organizational change. It is the perspective of both the introvert and the extravert when designing recognition programs. It is the perspective of those who revel in detail as well as those who think “big picture” when putting together a project plan.
Diversity of thought applauds the incorporation of a variety of perspectives for a well-rounded and thorough study of options and alternatives, leading to decisions that have been well vetted.
Diversity of Thought
As I read about the challenges facing veterans new to the civilian world, it struck me that their challenges are not that different from any new hire who finds herself in a new organization. Hopefully, the recruiting process accounted for “fit” based on shared values.
But what about all of those other things that are shared, or not?
Most of us have experienced that feeling of being an outsider, and it generally doesn’t feel good. Walking into a new organization, we ARE outsiders. Hopefully we are welcome outsiders, but it will be awhile before we become insiders.
During the first few days, we expect discomfort. Beyond that, we begin to question our decision to join the organization.
Here is where “fit” gets tricky. Beyond shared values, there will be differences from person to person. How well the organization and its members respect and honor those differences makes a big difference in how an individual assimilates into the new organization.
How does an organization create a welcoming environment, regardless of differences, experience or background?
Leaders are the key
Leadership sets the tone and the expectations for how the organization or the team welcomes the newcomer, and ultimately, how engaged and productive the new hire becomes. Leaders who model a welcoming environment, and facilitate assimilation will stand a better chance of engaging the new hire. There are real actions a leader can take that will create a welcoming environment, and accelerator the assimilation of the new hire.
Connect with them
You may or may not have that immediate personal connection, but connect you must. Learn about the person behind the employee – what jazzes them about work, where does work fit in their life, what scares them. Connection with a leader is a powerful thing – it builds trust and commitment and paves the way for open communication.
The connection will probably be different depending upon the employee, and the crucial part is for the leader to authentically connect with something important to the employee. It’s about the employee; and it’s for the leader to discover the connection.
Connect their work to the goals of the organization
Employees want to find meaning in their work. They need to know that the work they do is valued, and makes an important contribution to the organization. The further away from the organization, either by geography or by role, the more the leader has to actually draw the line and connect the dots.
Veterans, in particular, but employees in general build commitment through common goals and vision, camaraderie developed in the workplace, and – most importantly – in believing they can make a difference. Leaders who can connect each individual’s work to the larger goal create engagement and commitment.
Don’t permit assumptions to be made
The veterans surveyed in the Daily Herald article reported finding themselves stereotyped, with assumptions made about what they believed and how they thought simply because of their military service.
Assumptions are a part of life, as we apply our personal background and experience to situations. Drawing assumptions without validating the accuracy is at the least a lost opportunity and at the worst, an insult to another.
Leaders model the behavior, and correct those who stray. Leaders have to purposefully consider what assumptions they may make, and put them away. Questions are a great way to do this, but questions must not hide the assumption in the body of the question.
If the assumption is that your new hire is quiet, the question to ask is not, “I guess you would prefer this quiet workspace, right?” but instead, “What workspace is best for you?”
Challenge assumptions you hear from your team; this is an important practice for team assimilation, or generally to avoid making decisions that are not based on good intelligence. The question, “How do you know?” goes a long way toward challenging assumptions.
Check in frequently
Ask questions that solicit authentic responses, whether from a new hire or an existing team member. If you want to know how well the new hire is assimilating, ask it directly and give her time to think. Follow up with questions that uncover needs or issues that a new hire doesn’t yet have the courage to ask.
This is an excellent leadership practice for any team member. Questions that stay on the surface rarely facilitate a good connection. “How are you doing?” generally gets a short response. “What do you need to help you do your job?” forces authentic dialogue. Even if you, as a leader, are not able to provide what has been requested, it is a terrific opportunity to explain the why, and to seek alternatives.
It isn’t about expensive on-boarding systems
Onboarding is a big market for Human Resources professionals. Technology enables automated touchpoints for new-hires, and data to measure assimilation. These tools are great; they simplify the process and provide evaluative data.
If the leader does not approach his role in onboarding and assimilating new hires with passion and authenticity, a fancy system won’t help.
Making a new hire feel welcome, respected and valued can’t be accomplished by a machine – it can only be accomplished by creating connections…connections to the leader, to build trust, connections to the organization, to build meaning and connections to a team where everyone is valued for their contribution. This is human behavior, and shaping human behavior is the work of leaders.
It isn’t just veterans
I had my awkward moment searching for a job after leaving the Marine Corps. But that wasn’t the last awkward moment. I have experienced the discomfort of being a newcomer, and of being different. I have also been exceedingly fortunate to have experienced a welcoming, compassionate and authentic leader who made me feel so valued. And after 40 years as both a new hire and as a human resource executive, I can empirically say that it’s all up to the leader.
Make the choice to connect.
Photo by 143d ESC