3 Questions You Should Never Ask A Military Veteran In The Workplace

If you get the chance to hire a veteran, don’t mess up what can be a hugely rewarding engagement by saying something distasteful—or downright stupid.

Photo: Merilee Kern, MBA | Source: Courtesy Photo
Photo: Merilee Kern, MBA | Source: Courtesy Photo

Veterans Law Attorney cites critical questions to avoid when interviewing a military veteran for hire—and 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 October 2019, the 3.2 percent veteran unemployment rate represented the 14th consecutive month this metric was lower than the non-veteran unemployment rate (at 3.5 percent)—an indication that the hiring of veterans is going strong.

Considering NCSL.org estimates 18.8 million veterans are living in America today, representing 7.6 percent of the country’s population, this is a robust, trained, and skilled workforce 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 several critical considerations business owners should 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.


Veterans in the workplace – 3 questions to avoid

According to retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Berry of Berry Law Firm, you can improve your veteran hiring and retention by making small changes to your interview process.

Photo: Warren Wong, Unsplash
Photo: Warren Wong, YFS Magazine

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 is a list of questions to never ask, including:


1. Do you have PTSD?

First, in an interview situation, it’s illegal to ask this mental health question before a job offer has been made under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and even after 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.

Second, 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,” which will make it difficult to establish trust, a healthy rapport and a sustainable professional relationship ongoing.


2. 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 for a veteran who had to take a life in defense of their country. It 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 courtesy of privacy.


3. 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 that may have been difficult to come to terms with.

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.


Improve workplace conversations with veterans

In a DiversityInc.com workplace article, Army veteran Ryan Kules stated, “Far too often, people assume a level of familiarity with former military that not only breeches proper office conduct but also invades one’s “personal space.'”

Photo: Stephanie Liverani, Unsplash
Photo: Stephanie Liverani, YFS Magazine

With that in mind, according to a Military.com article, here 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?

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, here 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 greatly 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 suggested by 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:

  • 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.”


As the Executive Editor and Producer of “The Luxe List,” Merilee Kern, MBA is an internationally-regarded brand analyst, strategist and futurist. As a prolific branding and marketplace trends pundit, Merilee 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. Connect with @LuxeListEditorMer on Twitter.


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