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Veteran Inclusion Strategies in the Workplace: Insights From I-O Psychology

Submitted by: Adelle Bish, PhD & Destinee Prete, PhD
SIOP Military & Veterans Inclusion Committee Member & Chair

Getting any recruitment and selection process to operate effectively requires investment. In terms of veteran hiring, maximizing that investment will also depend on what happens after the hiring decision has been made. Considerable attention has been paid to improving our understanding of transition challenges and barriers to employment (e.g., difficulties translating skills). Less emphasis has been placed on understanding how to increase the likelihood that veterans will thrive in the organizational environments in which they find themselves.

Effective veteran hiring is not merely about the recruitment process but extends well beyond it. I-O psychology emphasizes the significance of maximizing the investment made in employees after they are hired. The aim is to create environments where veterans not only fit in but excel. Recognizing this, organizations must consider veteran inclusion as a crucial component of their retention strategies. This article explores how I-O psychology can play a significant role in ensuring veterans not only secure employment but also thrive within their new workplaces.

Organizational Drivers of Inclusion for Veterans

1. Cultural competency. Building a culture of inclusion starts at the top. Management, hiring managers, HR professionals, and Learning and Development (L&D) teams should invest in understanding the realities of military service. Training programs like Psycharmor's Military Culture Basics and the SHRM Foundation's Veterans at Work Certificate Program can be integrated into existing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) knowledge development initiatives. Organizations must assess the levels of knowledge required within their workforce, ensuring those who regularly engage with veteran talent receive in-depth training.

2. Effective onboarding: I-O psychology recognizes the importance of socialization and cultural adaptation during the onboarding process. This phase should extend beyond information sharing and involve facilitating adaptation experiences. Two key areas of focus for I-O psychologists are designing onboarding experiences that assist veterans in unlearning military-specific behaviors and aligning with the civilian workplace and ensuring person–environment fit.

3. Identity adjustment: Transitioning from military to civilian life involves a significant shift in one's identity. I-O professionals can assist veterans in this process by breaking it down into meaningful stages, including realizing the loss of a military identity, relinquishing former roles, and reconceptualizing their identity in the civilian context. Organizational responses can include acknowledging these stages and taking actions to facilitate each phase.

Focusing on Unlearning and Person-Environment Fit for Veteran Onboarding

Specific to maximizing the posthire investment in veterans in organizations, there are two key areas of focus that I-O psychology practitioners can specifically assist with:  (a) designing onboarding experiences that assist veterans in unlearning military-specific behaviors and aligning with the civilian workplace and (b) ensuring person–environment fit. This section goes into great specific detail on how to support veteran inclusion and career transition specific to these two focus areas.

Organizations should recognize that unlearning is a significant task for veteran talent (e.g., Becker & Bish). Not only do they have to learn what is expected in the civilian world, they have to unlearn much of what made them effective in a military environment. We understand the strength of military culture and how quickly the military onboarding process indoctrinates newcomers. Leaving a strong culture like this behind can be problematic. The process of unlearning and learning to adapt to various forms of organizational culture takes more than a simple uniform change. I-Os are well placed to dig deeper here and to assess what newcomers should be exposed to and experience within the first 30 days in the organization and building this out to the first 60 days and 90 days. I-O psychology practitioners involved in designing onboarding experiences should consider both the content that needs to be shared (e.g., type of knowledge) as well as the process (e.g., timing of events

Person–environment fit is another well-known concept in I-O psychology. To support veteran inclusion, we need to keep in mind two key aspects. First, P–E fit is not static, it adapts and develops over time. The risk is that often it is assumed that the veteran is responsible for making sure that they fit into the environment. What our research indicates is that when that responsibility is shared, when people within the organization also take steps to adapt the environment in response to veteran hires (and other talent segments with unique characteristics), the adaptation process is more effective. Becoming more culturally competent is an example of this type of organizational response.

Second, within the P–E literature there is a distinction made between hiring people who add to existing capabilities (current knowledge, skills, abilities) and are hired as supplementary fit, as opposed to people who are hired because they possess capabilities that are not readily available in the organization and these people are hired as complementary fit. How does this relate to veteran hiring? Well, we find that employers often hire veterans because they possess knowledge, skills, and experiences that are different to other employees. So, central to the veteran hiring strategy is a strong business case for how these capabilities will enhance the existing workforce. Thus, the veteran is a complimentary hire. That’s fine, and this strategy has been successful for many employers. However, this strategy is often not explained to the veteran. So, instead of surging forward with the confidence that their experiences and capabilities are highly valued in their new workplace, they may in fact falter as their comparisons to others continuously highlight how different they are. I-O can help here by again by veteran specific onboarding and supervisor training (e.g., Hammer et al., 2019). The simple act of acknowledging their differences, and that these differences are valued, will make a difference during those early days of transition. Then, additional socialization processes can work to build connections to other veterans and beyond.

Identity Adjustment for Veterans and Organizational Responses

Transitioning from military to civilian life involves a significant shift in one's identity. I-O professionals already working within the career transition area more broadly and veteran employment space are well aware of the impact of transition on identity. The transition experience involves some form of loss of work-related identity and the reshaping of identity. I-O can continue to assist in facilitating this process, again by making identity transition explicit and providing relevant tools. If we consider transition as just another part of career development, that process begins before the last day in service and continues well past a hiring date.

For veterans, identity adjustment can be seen as progression through three stages: (a) realizing, (b) relinquishing, and (c) reconceptualizing. The realization stage is when the reality of leaving the service hits home and the person begins to realize the strength of identity linked to being a member of the military and of a particular service branch. The next stage, relinquishing, is where the loss of identity group and the social impacts of the transition emerge as well as dealing with expectations of what post transition life will be like. As an individual moves forward, they begin the third stage where they are reshaping their identity, establishing new social structures, finding new applications for their skills and finding ways to maintain links to the military that work for them (Becker et al., 2022).

I-O professionals have much to offer veterans throughout this reconceptualization process. Those with direct access to veterans can consider ways to break the process down into meaningful chunks and acknowledge the many facets involved in this reshaping of identity. Organizational responses can also include discussion of these stages and actions that can be taken at each stage to both acknowledge where you are but also help to move forward to the next part of the process.

It is useful to adopt a career construction perspective. Construction requires action and career transition requires focused effort. Although each veteran is in charge of this process, organizational resources can certainly help support the building process. Be proactive facilitators, designers of experiences that support this process. Consider the importance of establishing new networks while finding ways to stay connected and the critical role that managers play in supporting veteran talent through mentoring, coaching and advocacy.

Shaping the Conversation Toward Evidence-Based Practices

To support veteran inclusion and career transition, I-O psychology should focus on evidence-based practices:

  • Using people analytics. Organizations should utilize people analytics to understand the diversity within the veteran population and tailor their inclusion strategies accordingly.
  • Dispelling myths. Efforts should be made to challenge stereotypes about veterans and educate organizations on the damaging impact of these stereotypes on employment outcomes.
  • Building military competence. Continuing education and awareness programs can help build military competence within organizations.
  • Researching. Research on veteran transition and integration, drawing from military psychology, human resource management, and DEI literature, should be conducted.
  • Evaluating and benchmarking. I-O professionals can use their evaluation methodologies to conduct organizational reviews, benchmarking studies, and corporate scorecards to identify areas in need of improvement.
  • Tailoring strategies. Strategies used by large organizations can be adapted to suit medium-sized organizations, ensuring a broader impact.

In conclusion, I-O psychology offers a robust framework to support veterans not only in finding employment but also in thriving within their new organizational environments. By understanding the unique challenges veterans face during their transition and implementing evidence-based practices, organizations can maximize their investment in veteran talent and create truly inclusive workplaces.

Each year, the SIOP Military & Veterans Inclusion Committee gets an opportunity to share insights into relevant military-connected topics and the intersection of the field of industrial and organizational psychology during the month of November in celebration and reflection of Veterans Day (November 11). The committee shares insights from its members through four different articles and several social media posts. This article is the third article of four; the first and second articles are online.

For Further Reading

Becker, K. & Bish, A.J. (2020). A framework for understanding the role of unlearning in onboarding. Human Resource Management Review, 31(1), 100730. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2019.100730

Becker, K., Bish, A., Abell, D., McCormack, M., & Smidt, M. (2022). Supporting Australian veteran transition: career construction through a person-environment fit perspective. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 1-25.

Becker, K., Bish, A., McCormack, M., & Abell, D. (2022). Reconceptualizing identities: Veterans' perspectives on career transition challenges. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 34(2), 155-176.

Hammer, L. B., Wan, W. H., Brockwood, K. J., Bodner, T., & Mohr, C. D. (2019). Supervisor support training effects on veteran health and work outcomes in the civilian workplace. Journal of Applied Psychology, 104(1), 52–69. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000354

Kristof-Brown, A. L., & Guay, R. P. (2011). Person-environment fit. In S. Zedeck (Ed.), APA handbook of industrial and organizational psychology, vol 3: Maintaining, expanding,
and contracting the organization (pp. 3–50). American Psychological Association.

Muchinsky, P. M., & Monahan, C. J. (1987). What is person-environment congruence? Supplementary versus complementary models of fit. Journal of Vocational Behavior,
31(3), 268–277. https://doi.org/10.1016/0001-8791(87)90043-1

Rudolph, C. W., Zacher, H., & Hirschi, A. (2019). Empirical developments in career construction theory. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 111, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.
jvb.2018.12.003

Savickas, M. L. (2005). The theory and practice of career construction. In S. D. Brown & R. W. Lent (Eds.), Career development and counseling: Putting theory and research
to work (pp. 42–70). Wiley.

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