There are many aspects of one’s identity. While the most common types of identification are ethnicity, gender, or religion, individuals also identify themselves through their profession, medical status, socioeconomic status, military affiliation, or other cultural contexts.
I serve as a town manager, live and work in Massachusetts, am an African American male, am an Air Force veteran, have a strong faith system, have been married for more than 30 years, and I live in a home where special needs are a daily focus. So, when the subjects of diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice come up, I have many reasons to find significance. In this article, we will explore those that identify as veterans and how this identification might cause bias against them in local government hiring practices.
Veterans as a Marginalized Population
What is your municipality’s perspective related to veterans? Is your community overlooking the strengths that veterans bring to the table? If so, why? Is it an unconscious bias, or have the hiring authorities fallen into stigmas resulting in detrimental practices? The word “marginalized” has been used to categorize various people groups, but are veterans included in this descriptor? According to Merriam-Webster, “marginalize” means “to relegate to an unimportant or powerless position within a society or group.” A great number of people would include veterans in this category—maybe not with their words, but rather clearly through their actions. The perceived skills and experiences of a veteran could easily be dismissed or devalued, or generate fear of bringing in a leader who is too strong-minded or overly strict into a municipality. Some may have concerns about a veteran job applicant’s post-traumatic stress. As a result, many great candidates may be overlooked in the hiring process simply because of their military background. Are you still with me? Let’s go deeper.
The Minnesota Psychological Association posted an article that described marginalized populations as “such persons [that] are systematically excluded from full participation in the American dream and consequently lack the self-efficacy to improve their life situation.” The author lists other groups beyond people experiencing poverty or minorities, to include military combat veterans, along with many others. Take this in for a moment. What do you think inspired the author to add veterans to the same category with people experiencing homelessness, people who have been incarcerated, people who are racial/cultural minorities, and people of age, to name a few?
In Massachusetts, it is not lawful “for an employer, by himself or his agent, because of the race, color, religious creed, national origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation…or status as a veteran of any individual to refuse to hire or employ or to bar or to discharge from employment such individual or to discriminate against such individual in compensation or in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” Did you notice the veteran status part? Why is that there…unless there was a reason to include it based on cases brought before the court for one reason or another. Are veterans being underserved and overlooked in your community?
Veteran Stereotypes from TV and Movies
It is human nature to form opinions of certain groups of people or places based on personal experience. If all we’ve known about a group of people is what we see on television or in movies, we walk away with an opinion based only on that content. This can create an unconscious bias. For example, Hollywood has painted some interesting imagery of military professionals throughout the years. More specifically, senior enlisted leaders are often portrayed as grumpy old men with a loud voice and demeaning speech. Those of you with many years of experience under your belts may remember Gunnery Sergeant Emil Foley from an Officer and a Gentlemen or Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket.
The point is that the average person is not familiar with the military and, as a result, many form their opinion on the military personalities commonly portrayed by television and movies. Unfortunately, this perpetuates negative stigmas associated with veterans. I challenge you to avoid falling into the trap of that mindset! You will miss out on exceptional talent that can lead your teams into the future. Furthermore, the commitment and dedication of veterans is often unmatched within the workforce.
Misconceptions about Relocations and Position Changes
Another common misunderstanding that occurs with veterans is a perception that they are unreliable and incompetent because they have lived in many communities and had multiple jobs across a variety of functional areas. I’ve heard statements assessing the many locations a person has lived in (the average military retiree has moved a minimum of every two to four years) as a negative mark because “we can’t be sure they would stay here, they seem to hop around to multiple jobs and locations.” What hiring managers need to understand is that in the military, positions are assigned as the need arises. One person’s promotion, demotion, or relocation causes a domino effect that often requires individuals to change positions before they typically would. This aspect of a veteran’s work experience can be especially distracting to those that have not been exposed to the military lifestyle or have not held jobs in multiple regions.
Another common statement is “You’re not from here, so you wouldn’t understand.” Only part of that is true. Just because a leader is not from that city does not mean they cannot understand or adapt to the nuances of the local area. There’s not much new under the sun, just variations of engagement or encounters. In fact, veterans are likely more adaptable than the average employee, given the multiple community settings they have experienced and adjusted to over the years. And often a fresh perspective can be valuable on the job.
Can you see how experiencing different communities and job positions are examples of strengths and not detriments? I was in a conversation recently where a municipal leader with 40 years of experience proclaimed that a manager or administrator staying in one community for an excessive amount of time could actually be worse than that manager having changed positions every six to nine years. The point was made regarding the possibility of stagnation of thought and action, and how the risk of this phenomena may increase among leaders that do not change roles over a great number of years. However, when multiple relocations are brought up in a negative connotation when reviewing a veteran’s resume, it makes one think…is the critique based on multiple position changes or the fact that the person has served in the military?
Serving in multiple positions and living in various communities provides service members with a wide array of experiences, each one building a more well-rounded leader with purposeful depth and breadth. A commissioned officer may start out as a pilot, serve as an executive assistant, do research and development, become a generalist delivering sustainment services, and end as a special advisor to someone in a more senior position. On the enlisted side, a person can start out as a mechanic, move to a training and development position, go back to maintenance, be given the opportunity to be a recruiter or in a dedicated human resources role, and end as a senior operations leader across a myriad of functional organizations.
These job changes are not indications of failure or ineptness—quite the opposite! The veteran leader was trusted and often purposefully selected to fulfill these responsibilities as time transpired. If hiring officials are unsure of how to assess the experience and exposure of the veteran, it is likely that devaluing may occur while strengths go overlooked. In this case, it is beneficial for the hiring manager to reach out to someone outside of the hiring process who has military experience in order to glean insight into an applicant’s military career.
Questioning a Veteran’s Commitment
When compared to other candidates, hiring authorities may unconsciously question a veteran’s commitment, but when working with those who have served in the military, “commitment” is not something you need to worry about. In fact, in a study conducted by Arizona State University School of Public Affairs (in conjunction with the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, National League of Cities, and Alliance for Innovation), HR directors reported that veterans performed better than their peers in both reliability and work ethic. Loyalty is so indoctrinated in a service member that, in some cases, it proves detrimental to veterans who transfer to the civilian sector. For example, an employee who has served in the military will endure a toxic work environment much longer than their counterparts because they do not want to see a project fail or “let the organization down.” The traits of loyalty, commitment, and a strong work ethic can be expected when you hire someone who has served in the military.
From the Air Force to Municipal Management
Despite all the positive experiences that the military provides, local government executive recruiters, as well as elected officials, often view hiring veterans as a risk. I can speak from personal experience when I tell you that the stigmas discussed here still exist. My path to becoming a town manager began with the Air Force. I started as an aircraft mechanic and ended as an installation command chief, a position equivalent to an assistant city manager. The jobs I had in between empowered and strengthened me for the final position. As a mechanic, I advanced from turning wrenches to supervising, training, teaching, evaluating, and mission planning. The next role projected me into leadership development and human capital management. After this, my focus narrowed to human resources responsibilities at various levels, from ground floor through institutional impacts. In my final military role, I was afforded an opportunity to lead side by side with a base commander as a command chief.
The installation command chief (referred to as command sergeant major in the Army or Marines) is a senior leader for the entire community. This is where I had a deeper level of involvement with sustaining all functions that made the base able to conduct its business. In this role, I learned about snow removal, a critical skill for any town manager in New England. I was further involved with setting and confirming the recreation user fees and memberships rates for the pool, lodging, equipment rental, and other items, which then became a catalyst for understanding the enterprise funds concept for a municipality. I also took part in relationship building with the Native American tribes that surrounded our installation. This carried forward to my town manager role, where contacting a tribal historic preservation officer was not new to me. Finally, environmental public health impacts have been a consistent concern throughout my Air Force career, with each location needing to conform with federal, state, and local guidelines. This foundational knowledge has been a huge benefit as our community continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic.
My personal experiences represent only one example of how veterans—depending on their experiences, positions held, education, and influences—are the right fit for municipal leadership roles. Without doubt, these professionals are suited for city manager and department head responsibilities. Although one may not have municipal experience, the core functions and competencies needed to run a city and a military installation are the same, even if specific terms may differ. Even more importantly, when a community experiences an emergency or crisis, it is likely that the veteran will have the discipline, decisiveness, ethical values, and determination to navigate through the challenges with clear vision.
Unconscious Veteran Bias in Your Community
That brings us back to my original question: is there an unconscious bias in your community against veterans? What can you do to expand your view and application of diversity with this in mind? Will you be a positive voice in destroying this stigma, so your municipality may reap the benefits of having a veteran continue active service in your county, city, town, borough, or village? Don’t let bias against veterans cause your organization to miss out on hiring someone from this pool of talented individuals.
HENRY HAYES JR. is town manager of Sudbury, Massachusetts. He is an Air Force veteran and a member of the ICMA Veteran Advisory Committee.
If you would like to hire a veteran, learn more about our Veterans Local Government Management Fellowship, which allows a transitioning service member the opportunity to work in your office free of charge for up to 25 weeks. For more information, contact Lynn Phillips, ICMA senior program manager for veterans programs, or Darrin Tangeman, Veterans Advisory Committee chair.