IDEALS: Overcoming Unconscious Veteran Bias

In honor of Veterans Day, we recognize the leadership value that veterans bring to local government

By Darrin Tangeman, ICMA-CM | Nov 1, 2020 | ARTICLE

Over the last five years, I have dedicated a significant portion of my personal and professional life advocating for and establishing programs to bring military veterans into the local government profession. My passion was initially catalyzed by my own struggles to break into local government following my retirement from the military. However, I quickly gravitated toward advocacy for other veterans after observing the many sociocultural obstacles and unconscious bias that veterans often face from other career local government professionals.

I sometimes hear from my peers that they are hesitant to hire a veteran because they may not be a good fit. This belief is often perpetuated by false stereotypes from popular culture that often portray veterans as too regimented or autocratic in nature. This bias often leads to eliminating talented, well-trained, disciplined, and experienced leaders that have a passion for public service before they even have the opportunity to interview.

Some colleagues have even confided that they are concerned by a veteran candidate’s leadership training and experience, and see them as a potential threat to their own future success. This of course is shortsighted and contrary to the diversity and inclusion mantra of pull up a chair—there’s room for everyone at the table.

In warfare, the phrase winning hearts and minds is a concept in which one side of a conflict seeks to prevail by making emotional or intellectual appeals to sway supporters of the other side. With less than three percent of our nation’s current workforce having served in the military, it takes significant time and effort for hiring authorities and HR professionals to relate and humanize a veteran’s experience and skills to the local government profession. While winning the hearts and minds of individuals is a good start, it is not enough. It takes sociocultural change and broader organizational reinforcement to achieve long-lasting change.

We can start with training our employees and HR professionals, but even the most well-designed training is not enough to resolve veteran bias by itself, so we must reinforce these ideas within our broader organizations. When local government professionals are told their perceptions of veterans are wrong, they sometimes feel attacked and often shut down. A key to success is to avoid blaming individuals and accept that bias is normal, but organizationally unacceptable.

So, what can we do to help military veterans succeed in a second career in local government? As local government leaders, we must lead from the front, proactively mentor and coach veterans in need, train our leadership and team to understand the skills and value veterans bring to local government, remove arbitrary local government experience barriers in our recruitment process, and ensure that our organizational values reinforce a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

I am proud that ICMA has placed significant resources toward raising awareness and developing support structures to recognize the leadership value and directly relevant experience that veterans bring to local government. The Veterans Local Government Management Fellowship is one such program that has succeeded in placing veterans in local governments across the nation, including more than 10 chief administrative officers in the last four years, so that individuals can continue to serve communities just as they served our country. ICMA also formed a task force in 2018 to develop the Veterans Guide to Finding a Job in Local Government and the Human Resources Recruitment Handbook for Hiring Veterans for Local Government Positions.

Lastly, ICMA will officially form a Veterans Advisory Board in 2020 to support the transition of veterans to local government, develop and improve programs and services aimed at improving veteran preparation for local government careers, and conduct outreach to build better relationships among the veteran community, military installations, and local governments.

 DARRIN TANGEMAN, ICMA-CM, is city manager of Woodland Park, Colorado. He is the co-founder and local program coordinator of the Veterans Local Government Management Fellowship, and chair of ICMA’s inaugural Veterans Advisory Board. (dtangeman@icma.org)

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