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5 rookie mistakes vets make in the civilian world

Nov. 12, 2012 - 06:14PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 12, 2012 - 06:14PM  |  
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They drop you on a foreign shore and nothing is familiar. The landscape, even the language seems strange. It's easy to put a foot wrong, and any mistake can be serious.

Welcome to the civilian workplace, an alien terrain where former service members often struggle to learn the local lingo and customs. Misreading the signs can lead to self-sabotage, short-circuiting a career before it has even begun. Here are five common missteps, and how to steer clear of them.

Misreading priorities

Veterans often bring down local ire by underestimating the importance of things. "They are used to dealing with critical consequences, with life-or-death situations," said career transition expert Duncan Mathison, co-author of "Unlock the Hidden Job Market: 6 Steps to a Successful Job Search When Times Are Tough" (FT Press, 2010).

"Now they walk into a workplace environment and see people getting all spun up about things that in the veteran's mind seem trivial, so they may dismiss it as being unimportant," Mathison said. "That can lead to people perceiving that they don't care, that they are not engaged."

End-of-quarter earnings really are a big deal, especially if everyone else says they are. "You need to understand what the organization considers to be ‘success,' and then you need to ask yourself: Am I as an employee involved in this mission?"

Mistaking appearances

Rookie mistake: assuming you know the person coming down the hall. "There are no uniforms here," said Emily King, author of "Field Tested: Recruiting, Managing, and Retaining Veterans" (AMACOM Books, 2011) and vice president of military transitions for human capital consulting firm The Buller Group. "You won't be able to tell who anybody is if they approach you."

That's a recipe for social faux pas. "You may assume that if someone looks younger, that they are going to be more junior, which tends to be the case in the military. Or you can make wrong assumptions based on how people dress, if they are more casual or less casual. There is no way of knowing who is more or less senior to you," King said.

The safest course is to lay low for a while. "If you've been deployed to another culture, you stay below the radar and collect all the information you can about the norms," King said. "Any time you go into a new situation, you need to pipe down and listen and get situational awareness. You need to figure things out before you try to storm the castle."

Benefits blind spot

Some civilian benefits are more generous than those in the military, some less so. The question is choice. The military gives a standard package, whereas a civilian employer may offer options. For example, some offer a variety of health plans. Which plan you choose matters.

"You've got to learn the differences. You've got to know the details," said June Lantz Walbert, a certified financial planner at USAA. Too often, veterans will make assumptions without reading the fine print.

"If people don't take a particular interest, then their health insurance coverage will not pay. They may have health insurance, but they may not be covered for something in particular. Then you reach a financial hurdle that you can't overcome," Lantz Walbert said. When it comes to benefits, "you have to think about where you are in life and what you should be doing in order to make the right financial decisions."

Over-sharing PTSD

As many returning vets have discovered, post-traumatic stress disorder is stigmatized in the minds of some, or at least misunderstood — which means talking about it at work can be a mistake.

Too often, veterans feel compelled to disclose the condition to their bosses to be candid or pre-empt concerns. But this may whip up potential bias and make for an unnecessarily complicated workplace.

The rules: You don't have to disclose unless you need special accommodation. For instance, a request for frequent five-minute breaks might require explanation. But "I advise my clients not to talk about things unless it is absolutely necessary," said talent development consultant Linda D. Henman, president of Henman Performance Group. "If you are on thin ice, don't carry a blowtorch."

You've got a right to keep private matters private. Why give up that right? "Unless there is overwhelming evidence that somebody else has to know, then why tell them? Most symptoms can be kept relatively quiet," Henman said. "If you are having nightmares or having trouble forming intimate relationships, those don't necessarily show up at work."

Wandering in the wilderness

In the military, the upward career path could not be clearer. Go here, learn this, do that and you'll be in line for promotion. But it's not that way in suit-and-tie land.

"In the civilian world, you can't even ask HR: What do I have to do to get this job? No one can tell you," said Ed J. Lizotte, director of military programs and veterans affairs at Post University in Waterbury, Conn.

There are no clear routes, no guarantees. Frustrated veterans can meander or waste time on fruitless avenues.

"The way to deal with that is to ask questions, and especially to seek out a mentor within the organization," Lizotte said. "Ask them what they feel would be a path for you to take, an opportunity to follow. Mentorship in the civilian world is a crucial thing for veterans to tap into."

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