Research Shows Military Service Can Hurt Some Job Seekers’ Prospects

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Even though they’re almost universally heralded as heroes, U.S. military veterans entering the civilian workforce may encounter a downside to the positive reputation they earn for their service.

New research from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business suggests veteran job candidates can be typecast as agentic and unemotional, and are likely to be overlooked for jobs that leverage emotional intelligence and interpersonal and leadership skills.

Instead, members of the public, other workers and even experienced managers showed a tendency to relegate veteran job candidates to roles where they would be working with things rather than people.

For example, in a restaurant setting, veterans were perceived as better suited as dishwashers or prep-cooks, while similarly qualified applicants with no military experience were seen as better-suited for customer-facing roles as hosts or servers.

The research comprises 10 studies and randomized experiments with almost 3,000 participants, including people with no hiring experience, as well as seasoned managers and recruiters. A manuscript describing the research is forthcoming in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Process.

“This bias was occurring among actual managers who are in the business of hiring people,” said Aaron Kay, Ph.D., a Fuqua management professor and senior author of the research. “In one of the studies, we tested this in a large American restaurant chain. As these managers were evaluating applicants’ resumes, their choices showed they thought veterans were more suited to the kitchen as opposed to jobs where they would be dealing with people. Importantly, veterans were not liked less—managers just thought the kitchen is where they would thrive.”

A well documented challenge

The challenges veterans face when transitioning from military service to a civilian life are well-documented, Kay said, and the military and employers have worked to address these systemic problems with various strategies. But there’s little research on employers’ perceptions of military veterans, and how they may factor into the types of jobs veterans land when leaving the service.

“We have seen companies make efforts to hire more veterans, but their efforts often fall short when it comes to recruiting them and placing them in the right roles,” Kay said. “And it may be because no one has really ever tried, from a basic theoretical perspective, to understand others’ perceptions of veterans.

“People may perceive a veteran job candidate as brave, calm under pressure and having a get-it-done kind of attitude,” he said. “But the way the economy is moving, many new types of jobs also require creativity, interpersonal skills and emotional capacity. When choosing between two equally-qualified job candidates, the average person and even prospective employers show a tendency to prefer the applicant without military experience for jobs requiring social-emotional abilities.”

Translating their experiences

Veterans may be able to counteract some typecasting simply by editing their resumes. In one study, when a candidate’s resume included military service and volunteer experience demonstrating his emotional side—in this case, nurturing rescue animals—prospective employers considered his social-emotional skills equal to other similarly qualified non-veteran candidates.

“For a long time, it has been assumed the main impediment to getting veterans the jobs they deserve has been articulating their work experience in ways civilians can understand,” Kay said. “As a result, a lot of work has gone into developing technology or methods that help veterans explain their military experience in non-technical language.

“But that may not always level the playing field, because a big part of the problem is that people see them as a certain type of person,” he said. “Our research suggests there could be ways veterans could present their skills that can help them overcome these perceptions. We are going to keep working on understanding these hiring biases and how to eliminate them, as well as working with veterans to understand their experiences as they transition to the workforce.”

Kay collaborated with researchers Steven Shepherd of Oklahoma State University, the first author of the paper, and Kurt Gray of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The research was funded by a Microsoft Military Affairs research gift.



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