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Three Things to Never Ask a Military Veteran in the Workplace
By Merilee A. Kern, MBA

A veterans law attorney cites critical questions to avoid when interviewing a military veteran for hire—or engaging with those already on staff—to avoid legal landmines and foster military-friendly employer status.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in August 2019 the 3.4% veteran unemployment rate represented the 12th consecutive month this metric was lower than the nonveteran unemployment rate (at 3.6%)—an indication that the hiring of veterans is going strong. Considering the National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that there are 18.8 million veterans living in America today, representing 7.6% of the country’s population, this is a robust, trained, and skilled employee pool that can make a significant impact on U.S. industry and, in turn, the global economy at large.

However, while the copious benefits of hiring military vets have been well reported and it appears U.S. employers are taking heed, there are a number of critical considerations business owners and managers must keep top of mind—and impart to their staffers—relative to what’s considered inappropriate dialogue with a person who has served in the military. There are also legal landmines to avoid when interviewing a veteran for any kind of employment opportunity, whether full or part time, contract, freelance, or any other.

According to retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Berry, JD, 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, including the following:

• Do you have PTSD? Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, in an interview situation, it’s illegal to ask this mental health question before a job offer has been made and even afterward 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. Furthermore, it’s just disrespectful. The veteran will likely think they’re being stigmatized and labeled as damaged goods in some way or regarded as a stereotypical unstable veteran; this will make it difficult to establish trust, a healthy rapport, and a sustainable professional relationship.

• 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 counterpart. 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—and can be equally objectionable for veterans who made many sacrifices, but did not have to take the life of another. The notion of taking another human being’s life in the line of duty is a highly sensitive and emotion-evoking topic that demands the utmost privacy.

• 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-seated emotional wounds and traumatic memories of physical distress. 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 and/or been hit, may perceive the comment as belittling.

In a DiversityInc.com workplace article, Army veteran Ryan Kules states, “Far too often, people assume a level of familiarity with former military that not only breaches proper office conduct but also invades one’s ‘personal space.’” With that in mind, according to a Military.com article, the following 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?

When Veterans Are on Staff
There are also a few key concerns owners and managers should bear in mind when managing veterans who are already on the payroll as formal hires. According to Berry, the following are top-line 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.

• 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 generally 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.

Also as reported on Military.com, 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 the following:

• 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?

“Veterans are some of the hardest working, dedicated, and loyal employees you could ever hope to hire ... I know, because I have hired dozens of them on my team,” Berry notes. “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 mindful and respectful person, and the vet will undoubtedly ‘cover your six’ no matter what challenges come your way.”

— Merilee Kern, MBA, executive editor and producer of The Luxe List, is an internationally regarded brand analyst, strategist, and futurist. A prolific branding and marketplace trends pundit, Kern spotlights noteworthy industry innovators, change makers, movers, and shakers. This includes field experts and thought leaders, brands, products, services, destinations, and events across all categories.


• Latest unemployment numbers: www.dol.gov/agencies/vets/latest-numbers

• Veterans by the numbers: www.ncsl.org/blog/2017/11/10/veterans-by-the-numbers.aspx

• How veterans and nonveterans fare in the U.S. job market: www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/17/how-veterans-and-non-veterans-fare-in-the-u-s-job-market

• Reasons to hire a military veteran: www.military.com/hiring-veterans/resources/10-reasons-to-hire-vets.html

• Nine things not to say to veterans: www.diversityinc.com/9-things-not-to-say-to-a-veteran-coworker

• What to ask and not ask military veterans: www.military.com/hiring-veterans/resources/what-to-ask-and-not-ask-military-veterans.html