Some people and companies are biased against hiring veterans. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that we ought to respect those decisions, even if we disagree with them.
I’m going to try to defend something that I find particularly repugnant: specifically, a company’s right to refuse to hire veterans. This is a practice that infuriates me. I don’t agree with it at all. That said, this practice is one that I feel obligated to uphold, since it speaks directly a company’s and an individual’s inherent right to self-determination – which is also something that I believe in.
Right off the bat, let’s consider what ‘hiring’ is. For the purposes of this column, I submit that hiring is an economic agreement between an organisation and an individual, where precious resources that the company possesses (e.g. money, benefits, kit, etc.) will be exchanged for a certain period of time for precious resources that the company requires but does not possess (e.g. labour, experience, loyalty, etc.). When we completely strip away Mary Parker Follett’s grandiose, utopian vision of the corporation as a gestalt entity that allows individuals to participate in a divine uplifting of consciousness , then we’re really talking about hiring as being little more than a mercenary activity. Something that a company is willing to engage in on a quid pro quo basis: I want your brains to help me make money; you want my money to survive. Let’s agree to co-operate for a spell.
This model puts a somewhat grim spin on the employer/employment relationship that isn’t particularly obvious. Specifically: that it can be a noble idea to exploit veterans’ experiences for a company’s financial gains… by hiring us. We have valuable skills that have been tempered by our military experience that makes us worth as much (and sometimes more) than our equivalent non-veteran competitors. Therefore, if a company has a choice between hiring a veteran and a non-veteran where all other factors are equal (e.g. years of experience, certifications, etc.), then the veteran may present a stronger value for the company than the civilian if both can be hired for the same amount. That’s the message that pro-veteran agencies advance: get more ‘bang for your buck’ by hiring vets. We’re worth it! Overall, I agree with this message. I’ve found it to be generally true.
That’s a critical distinction: it’s generally true, but not universally true. Some of us were permanently injured during our service.  Others of us were traumatized by their experiences. Impediments do happen. They’re not universal, though. Some vets are slightly broken; others are severely impacted… just like everyone else in the workplace. We should, I argue, be evaluated for our compatibility and accommodated wholly on our own merits.
Oddly enough, there’s a peculiar notion going around that we’re all emotionally unstable powder kegs, completely unsuited for corporate life. It’s a daft idea, but it has taken root in American popular culture. This element in the zeitgeist has occasionally interfered with my career path, and it’s annoyed the hell out of me. If you find that last bit a little hard to swallow, you’re not alone. I’ve explained it to several people, and I’m getting a bit weary of being stared at like a complete nutter.
Here’s what I’m on about: earlier this week, one of the blokes in the office set up a meet-and-greet with some new reps from a local headhunter agency. I was quite happy to attend because I’ve been doing business with this particular outfit for over a decade. Most of the reps that I’ve worked with have been outstanding people. They’ve brought me strong contractors that I was proud to add to my staff. They’ve also represented me, personally, very well as a potential candidate with other firms. I’ve considered our relationship to be among the best (if not the best) that I’ve had with agencies of their type. I heard about the opportunity to meet some new folks from the crew and immediately blocked the time off on my schedule.
I brought our mutual history up in conversation once the handshakes were made and the business cards were passed around. The agency’s new crop of reps seemed quite chuffed to be entering our relationship with a strong positive advantage, bought and paid for by their predecessors. They were going to reap the benefits of other people’s prep work, thereby eliminating many, many hours of investment off of the normal socialization process. Good for them, good for us; everyone wins.
After an hour or so of folks getting to know one another, the conversation drifted to the last time that I’d employed their agency’s services. I lauded my former contact as an exceptional gentleman, and praised him for having organised the best job opportunity that I’d ever had. The reps listening to me perked up immediately and asked to hear the entire story. I was fairly certain that I knew the reaction that I’d get at the end of the tale, but pressed on – they’d asked me to tell it, after all.
Around 18 months prior, my contact called me out of the blue and told me that he’d received a query for candidates for an executive cyber security director for a well-established multinational company. My CV fit the client’s requirements document like a glove. My rep wanted to present me to them as an agency candidate. I agreed immediately since I’d come to trust the fellow’s judgment.
The next afternoon, my rep called me and giddily reported that the client was offering a starting salary of £133,000 with 20 per cent bonus eligibility and paid relocation. That was (and still is) a staggeringly large pay packet, especially for a fellow who started his working life a private soldier barely clearing 50 quid a month. If I could land (and keep) this executive director job, it would ensure that my family was financially secure when my boys left for university. I’d have landed in my dream job in a company that was doing considerable good in the world. As I’d said: it was the best opportunity I’d ever had, bar none. I was over the moon with delight and anticipation.
The next day, my rep presented me to the client’s HR department and we waited. And waited. And waited some more. Six weeks went by with no word for what should have been an immediate interview. I leaned on my rep to find out what in blazes was going on, and he finally got the scoop. As soon as he knew, he called me and asked to meet down at our local after he got off work.
Rather than dissemble, my rep let me know that the opportunity was dead in the water. What happened, he said, was that the HR screener responsible for processing the candidates’ packages saw that you were a veteran, and refused to forward your package to the selection committee. She told us that veterans simply weren’t a ‘good cultural fit’ for their company, so there was no point in moving forward with an interview.
I asked my rep how many other candidates there had been for the role and he winced. Just one, he said. You were the only candidate. And they passed on you.
*$&%!, I said.
I was angry about the situation. Actually, let’s be honest: I’m still angry about it. I wasn’t surprised, though. I’d heard that rationale before, directly from a hiring manager’s mouth. Some businesses hold irrational prejudices against veterans. These people leave me disappointed, but not terribly offended. Like most any form of irrational discrimination, the employee who refused to give me (or one of my brothers-in-arms) a fair chance to compete was doing his or her company a tragic disservice by denying themselves the use of talented and motivated potential personnel.
Bloody stupid thinking, I said, and then bought my rep a pint. Thanks for trying, though. Not your fault.
When I finished telling the story to the agency’s new reps, they looked both shocked and confused… at first. Then the inevitable incredulity set in and all of the regular comments started tumbling forth: Are you sure? and Is that legal? and I can’t believe anyone would do that…
These headhunters aren’t foolish people by any stretch; my impression is that they’re all conscientious, well-educated and dedicated professionals. It was obvious when I met them that they take their role seriously and pride themselves on being forthright. I’m still happy to work with their agency. I just have a nagging burr-under-the-saddle twinge of discomfort from this exchange because I know that I was heard when I spoke, but I wasn’t believed. Unfortunately, that too isn’t surprising. It happens pretty much every time I tell that ‘we don’t hire veterans here’ story to a non-veteran.
When I’ve shared that (entirely true) story with my old squad mates, though, they’ve all nodded grimly and commiserated. All of the old grunts that I’ve kept in touch with after I retired have experienced some variation on the problem. Ever since the Iraq War started souring in the collective consciousness, people’s attitudes towards returning veterans began to mirror the way that the public treated veterans returning from the Vietnam War: people couldn’t reconcile their eventual disillusionment with the war with their earlier support for it, so they redirected their internal discomfort over their own betrayed faith onto the people who’d done the fighting. The war was Right and Just and Necessary when it had started, and then it turned out that it wasn’t; therefore, it must have been the people sent to go fight the war that somehow corrupted its noble purpose into something evil. That was much easier to swallow than accepting that the bloody mess had been wrong from the start and should never have happened… and that the voters shared some culpability for how things had gone awry.
That’s one major motivator; there are others. There are many reasonable and accurate reasons to be disinclined to want us around. I’ve worked in several corporations that were keen to hire certain veterans… specifically, the senior officer kind (i.e. retired colonels and generals). A buddy of mine is stuck in a company in the defense industrial sector where these former Top Men get unlimited preferential hiring and advancement despite being woefully under-qualified. While some of these ex-big wigs transition to the private sector well and retire their egos alongside their cammies, a great many of the fools carry on as if they’d never left their last command. They’re arrogant, cruel, callous, dismissive, prejudiced and accustomed to being obeyed in all things without question. Those loathsome jack-wagons give all of us veterans a bad name. They poison their civilian counterparts against us, making it extremely hard for those of us who aren’t tin pot dictators to compete.
There are other good reasons to consider us a potentially poor cultural fit. Us squaddies tend to be more aggressive than our civilian counterparts. By that, I mean we’re predisposed to take swift and decisive action during a crisis. A company that needs to be meticulously precise in following protocols can find our cavalier tendencies to be more harmful than useful. We become a risk.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter why people oppose having on their team. It happens. If a hiring manager things we’re all John Rambo-esque nutters with volcanic violent streaks, that’s a sad indictment of the hiring manager’s personal character… but it’s still their legal choice. If a hiring manager has had a terrible personal experience with a real veteran – one who exemplified all of the worst aspects of military life – that’s a regrettable reason to suspect similar pain from every other member of our fraternity that follows the offender. That’s also a legal choice for the hiring manager. They’re allowed to believe what they believe about us, even when they’re wrong, mistaken, or overly broad.
That’s why I feel compelled to defend those bigoted and ethnocentric folks who don’t much care for ‘my kind’. I believe that they’re making a regrettable mistake by refusing to at least give us a chance to challenge their expectations. I personally would like the opportunity to be judged as a unique individual, and not as a member of a class.
That being said, my status as a veteran is significantly different from most other sources of irrational bigotry: that is, a person can’t easily change their gender, their race or other legally-protected attributes. Being a veteran, however, is not something that we in the first world were born into; every one of us that served in the post-conscription world consciously chose to become squaddies. We deliberately made ourselves different from our peers. We may be proud of what we’ve done or ashamed of it; it doesn’t matter. No matter what, who we are now is the end result of the choices that we made for ourselves, not of the random circumstances of our births.
As such, I understand why some business decision makers choose to hold our decisions against us, even while I take umbrage with their unkind bias against us. We chose to become something different from our fellows, and that decision upset some people. Now, years later, some of those people who chose differently are rejecting us specifically for the choices that we made… without consideration for who we were then, or for who we’ve become. I don’t like this one bit, and I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. As much as it infuriates me, I feel that I have to respect the other fellow’s right to choose.
I made my own choices, after all; I accepted the infliction of life-long injuries and the years of below-market wages because I believed at the time that my service was somehow more important than my competitiveness. Now, a quarter-century later, I have to accept that my choice to enlist invoked additional consequences: specifically, that some people will – for whatever reason – hold my choice in poor regard. That’s their choice, and their right. Ironically, that freedom to choose is one of the essential principles that motivated me to make my choice in the first place. To each his own, I guess.
 If you’re interested in MPF’s theories, see chapter 4 of James Hoopes’ marvellous business book False Prophets: The Gurus Who Created Modern Management and Why Their Ideas Are Bad For Business Today.
 I suffered enough cumulative hearing loss that I have trouble understanding people in places where there’s background noise. This causes me to favour face-to-face encounters over telephone calls, because any problems in the connection make it extremely difficult for me to understand the other person. This is an easily-manageable condition, but it does regularly interfere with my working life. Other ex-squaddies have it much, much worse.
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.