Veterans Don’t Want Hero Worship At Work

In 2021, research from Harvard showed that around 27 million workers were “hidden” from the workforce. These 27 million people from across the United States were people who had the skills and abilities to make a difference in the workplace, but were often overlooked for roles. They included people with mental health difficulties, a criminal record, or disabilities.

Military veterans were included in the list, who the researchers said were often frozen out of the labor market as a result of hiring practices that overlook them or diminish the experiences they bring to the table.

“By adopting hiring practices focused on creating more access for that segment, employers can substantially improve veterans’ prospects,” the researchers explain. “The success many companies have enjoyed by implementing programs targeting veterans testifies to the potential of tailored approaches for tapping into specific groups of hidden workers.”

Research from the Veterans Future Lab (VFL) at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering shows that veterans have similarly appealing qualities when it comes to entrepreneurship too. The researchers argue that the organization, discipline, strategy-focused, and team-oriented strengths of many veterans lend themselves extremely well to starting a business.

The study found that veterans are often drawn to entrepreneurial life, in part due to the freedom and autonomy such a path affords them while also drawing on their particular skill sets. One has to wonder just how much of it is due to being frozen out of my traditional forms of employment, however.

Overcoming stigma

One may assume that the inverse of this situation would be ideal. After all, if workplaces that stigmatize veterans are most definitely bad, workplaces that lionize veterans must surely be much better? Research from the University of Cincinatti suggests things aren’t quite so straightforward.

Instead, the researchers found that there is often a strange form of paradox at play at either extreme of the spectrum, as neither stereotyping veterans in a harmful way or placing them on a pedestal are useful, nor indeed wanted by veterans themselves.

The researchers quizzed a number of veterans who were working across a dozen organizations in an attempt to try and understand how their return to civilian life was going. The analysis revealed a number of consistent themes.

“If you’re a veteran, everyone assumes that you’ve been in combat or shot people or you have post-traumatic stress disorder,” the researchers explain. “But it was interesting to see that putting veterans on a pedestal has similar negative effects.”

Unhelpful depictions

The researchers explain that veterans are often depicted a certain way in popular culture and the media. This often revolves around poor mental health and a tendency for violent outbursts associated with PTSD. The respondents associated these stereotypes with some of the wildly inaccurate and ill-formed opinions of their civilian peers.

For instance, one respondent revealed the surprise colleagues expressed when they discovered that they weren’t politically conservative. Others highlighted how many colleagues had a perception of service men and women that was forged by war movies, which typically depict returning veterans in an extreme way with intense psychological harm caused by their experiences of war.

“They find out I’m a veteran and I was in combat and they automatically think I have PTSD and I’m some half-crazed psychotic lunatic,” one respondent revealed.

Similarly, civilian colleagues may have friends or relatives who were veterans themselves and they will assume that all service personnel share a common experience without understanding that each story is inherently an individual one. Instead of trying to understand that individual story, many will get stuck on their pre-conceived notion of what military life is like.

Coping mechanisms

Many veterans spoke about the adjustments they would make to try and adapt to the civilian culture. For instance, many reported using dark humor to try and cope, but that this wasn’t always well received in workplaces that were not atuned to this.

This is compounded by the fact that unlike other high-stress occupations, such as law enforcement or nursing, veterans are seldom surrounded by colleagues with a similar experience to draw upon and relate to.

Most of all, it was common that veterans don’t necessarily want special treatment, but just for a degree of understanding. This involves both HR managers being more aware of the ways in which veterans are stigmatized but also the way colleagues can aggrandize veterans as well.

“There’s an old joke in the military, ‘Thank me for my service,'” the researchers conclude. “That’s indicative of someone who wants to be aggrandized. But it’s rare to see that in the military. Most people don’t want to be thanked for their service. Their service is often more personal and motivated by a multitude of reasons.”

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