Transitioning From the Military to the Civilian Workplace

How To Handle The Three Biggest Challenges

Veterans’ Day is approaching and my kids have no idea why they have a day off from school. Service members are just that – serving our country. When you come home, you face a huge adjustment. This blog is for those who have served – this is my way of serving you…

As veterans, you have faced far more frightening and serious situations than the job interview. Yet, for many the thought of entering the civilian workforce comes with a myriad of concerns and challenges. I wrote a whole book to help you in the interview process which you can have for free at In the meantime, here are three challenges I want to minimize for you right away.

1. Translating Skills.  

A recent study indicates that many veterans find one of the biggest transition challenges to be explaining how their military skills translate to a civilian work environment. Some great news from the same survey is that nearly all veterans believe they have the skills needed to land their ideal job. So it is just a matter of communicating those skills.

To start wrapping your head around this, think about what you did on a daily basis in the military, and how many of the skills you used are essential for the normal workforce. In the military, you were in stressful situations that required you to think quickly, be effective with limited resources, and adapt to ever-changing circumstances, and as a result you built many, many skills. Veterans are adaptable, energetic, creative, and pay attention to detail, get the job done, communicate critical information clearly, meet deadlines, display maturity, and have an extraordinary work ethic. You are problem solvers, team players, and leaders.

The first step in preparing for a civilian interview is to recognize these skills, and the second step is to value them. You want to communicate these translatable skills—and the added value you as a vet bring to a civilian work situation—at every step of the job-hunt process, from resume and cover letter right through to the actual interview.

Having a veteran without years of civilian-workplace experience at the table can actually bring a fresh perspective to a situation. For an interviewer, the passion and confidence an interviewee projects can be more powerful than the recent experience he or she has or hasn’t had. As a vet, you can be a catalyst for innovative solutions, and protect an organization from the groupthink that can often occur when a team of employees has spent years in the same industry or field.

2. Adjusting To a New Culture

For those just coming out of the military, it is important to understand that there will be an adjustment period as you integrate back into civilian culture. The standard modes of military thinking and behavior can be vastly different from those of the civilian-workforce world, but once you recognize these differences you will be able to adapt to them more easily—after all, service members are excellent at adapting to new situations. Some of the differences between military and civilian-workforce culture include attire, language and word choice, the formality of verbal and nonverbal communication, receptiveness to opinions, leadership styles, the focus on responsibilities versus results, and even possibly the definition of success.

You have just come from a structured environment in which you were trained to develop responses and take initiative to accomplish a mission. These traits will be welcome in the civilian workforce, and you will have many opportunities to use them, just in different ways. While in an interview, you want to spotlight how you can adapt to new surroundings and how this means you will be able to fit with the company’s culture. Present yourself in ways that make sense for the civilian workforce but still let your personal strengths and qualifications shine through.

3. Dealing with Physical or Invisible Injuries.

Those who have survived a war often do so with injuries, whether physical or invisible. What is important to know from the very beginning, though, is that potential employees need only disclose disabilities if and when they need an accommodation to perform essential functions on the job. Other than this, applicants never have to disclose a disability on a job application or during an interview unless they choose to do so (EEOC, 1992). For more information about how to determine whether you have a disability under the ADA, visit ADA and EEOC.

If you do find that your injury will impact your ability to do the job for which you are applying, consider your options and what they mean for the employer. What accommodations would you need in order to be effective in the role? Explain these when appropriate, and, if known, their costs. Often minor adjustments can easily be made to create a productive work space—recognizing this can increase your comfort as well as that of your potential employer. You want to make sure you find a situation that is an excellent fit for both you and the organization.

As a veteran, you have already done it all! If the person interviewing you doesn’t understand this, it is your responsibility to make sure they know it by the end of the interview. The main challenge will be perception—yours and theirs. Believe in your capabilities and qualifications, and you will communicate this to others. You must not only know that you can do the job, but that you have already done the types of things that it requires. Preparing for the interview will help you bring this knowledge to the forefront and truly embrace it.

If I can help you, if you have a question – connect with me at or

6 thoughts on “Transitioning From the Military to the Civilian Workplace

  1. whoah this blog is excellent i love studying your posts.
    Keep up the great work! You realize, lots of individuals are searching round for this information, you
    can help them greatly.

  2. This is my first Veteran’s Day since my discharge last February. I now work in an insurance office with about 100 other people. There was no company wide email that went out thanking any and all service men and women for their service. I found this very offensive and i dont know what to do about it.

    1. I understand how it would be offensive that Veteran’s were not publicly recognized. Use this as an opportunity to recommend a new approach. Figure out who is the right person to speak with, I suggest HR. Then try, “I noticed there was no mention of the holiday. I think it would be a nice gesture, especially for those veterans working for the company, if something was said or done to recognize those that served. One thought is a donation to a charity…” Give some options and show them the benefit of making the change. Let me k now what happens next veterans day.

  3. I am still trying to calibrate my communication style to the touchy feely academic world.
    I love learning and want to go as far as possible as an adult student. I love my part time job on campus and find that my work ethic, initiative, different perspective, and commitment are valued. In the military you learn to focus your attention and keep adapting no matter what, and it is a habit. I am finding it hard to change the habit of speaking directly to the point in plain common sense language (with no foul language or attitude), with no intention of offense. I feel like a fish out of water sometimes.

    1. Speaking directly is not a bad thing or a habit that needs changing. That said, we all need to adapt our communication style to the person we are talking to. So pick up on the cues you are reading from their body language. Soften the directness with a question or with your tone for those who prefer that style. Just keep being you – that’s the key.

    2. It takes practice. Think about being curious. If you can tap that genuine curiosity, that will drive the tone of voice and facial expression that will be more well received in the civilian space. Keep it up – the awareness you have is more than half the battle!

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