Transitioning out of the military and into the private sector is the subject of a great deal of study and analysis for good reason. Many tend to think having military service on your resume will help you get a job, but in my experience, longstanding misconceptions about the military often conspire against you when walking into an interview. For those who are familiar with what service entails, the military portion of your resume is just another part of your work history to consider — but for many, personal perceptions about the military, based on pop-culture rather than reality, can bias an interviewer.
In some ways, this bias is the element of the transition process that goes widely unaddressed — in part because no one in their right mind would admit to having negative biases toward those who have served (that would be PR suicide) and, to be honest, there are so many persistent issues we see time and time again among departing service members on the job hunt that it seems almost counter-intuitive to dedicate time and effort to understanding the nuances of perception. When your resume still has misspelled words in the heading and uses military specific vernacular throughout, you won’t even have a chance to worry about bias in an interview — you’re not going to get the interview to begin with.
In the past, I’ve discussed how to land yourself an interview, so let’s assume you’re among the well-prepared veterans that either put a great deal of effort into perfecting your resume or outsourced it to a resume professional (a great option for those who can afford it). You got a callback and scheduled an interview — now what do you do?
There are literally thousands of websites out there dedicated to telling you how to “nail” your interview — some better than others — but the basic tenants of the process are so well covered throughout that I’ll spare you lectures about dressing appropriately (which varies based on position and environment), answering the cliché interview questions (“describe your biggest weakness”), or being on time (if you can’t do that, the interview is moot because I’m not going to hire you). Instead, we’re going to address a few veteran-specific interview recommendations that aren’t as readily covered on the sites dedicated to helping you find work.
Some of these tips involve mitigating the negative perceptions some may have about your service — which will invariably lead to a debate among some about whether or not you “should have to” do that. Listen folks, I’m with you — it’s an unfortunate thing to have to work around, but the idealistic debate about what we should have to do won’t help a guy or girl that just got out and needs to put food on the table for their kids to eat. I’m not interested in helping people find jobs in Utopia, I want to help you find work right here in the nation we served.
This is not an exhaustive list of interview tips, of course — but here are three that you don’t often see addressed elsewhere:
Think of your interview like a first date.
We tend to see job interviews as a chance to sell our skills to a company — they need someone that can do a job, you know how to do that job, and the interview is your chance to convince them of that. There’s truth in this, of course, but it’s in practice that this model starts to become an issue.
On active duty, you’re not given a say in the job you’re assigned, the duty station, the environment, or your command. You’re given orders, and you execute them. Once we get out, we tend to approach job interviews the same way: the objective is to get the job, and if we accomplish that, we’ll do what we’re told, where we’re told, and under who we’re assigned. The thing is … that’s not how job interviews are supposed to work.
If you need this job, you’ll take it regardless of the fit. I know, it’s honestly how I found my way in the role of Regional HR Manager for a large defense contractor. I didn’t want to be an HR guy; I wanted to pay my bills. The rest just developed naturally because it doesn’t matter what job I’m doing — I’m going to go out of my way to be good at it. For many separating service members, that fear of joblessness will drive you to take just any offer that comes along, but even in those circumstances, it pays to be cognizant of how you fit into this new role and company culture. If you shoehorn yourself into the wrong job, it won’t be long before you find yourself on the job market once again.
So approach your interview like a first date: you want to be personable and well-liked, but ultimately, you should be looking for the company that you feel is likable too. In a best-case scenario, you’ll walk out of the interview sure you want to work there with the interviewer sure they want you to — but there are a number of other plausible outcomes. You may well be a perfect fit for this new job, but this new job may not be a very good fit for you. If you find yourself with multiple offers, this consideration should weigh into that decision-making process just as much as the more common thoughts of salary or security.
And by embracing the idea that this job needs to fit you as well as you fit it will help alleviate some of the nervousness you feel as you’re paraded into offices in an uncomfortable suit. That “date” approach will also help you to break from any misconceptions the interviewer may have about veterans. Instead of being Brett the former Soldier, you can establish yourself as just Brett. Your service is a value-added, not the value in itself.
Avoid resorting to being a robot.
If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to compete for a meritorious promotion while you were in uniform, you likely had an opportunity to appear before a board of senior service members who asked you a series of questions meant to assess your knowledge of your branch, your competency with your job, and your general demeanor. Often, you’re told beforehand that being right or wrong doesn’t matter nearly as much as maintaining proper military bearing: a confidently delivered wrong answer, in many promotion boards, is just as good or better than a passively delivered right one. Again, I’m not here to debate the merit of the process — I just call it like I see it.
That mentality may win you a stripe on your collar or sleeve, but it won’t land you a job. Interviewers are often not the people you’ll find yourself working for or alongside — they’re HR professionals that conduct dozens of interviews a week sometimes. They often know even less about the job you’re applying for that you do, and as such, they’re looking for you to have the right answers to a few job specific questions so they can put a check in a box that says you’re qualified. What differentiates you from the rest of the checked boxes is your ability to engage with the interviewer like they’re a human being.
I’ve done a lot of interviews, and if you think you’re going to crush yours because you read up on all the “right” answers to interview questions online, you’re missing the point of the process. I know the answers Yahoo tells you to give me because you and the other ten people I interview for this position all use them. Once I’ve ascertained that you’re professionally qualified for a role, I’m trying to assess your fit within the company — and that’s not something I can do when you’re just regurgitating common responses like a corporal hoping to become the next meritorious sergeant. Doing so will only reinforce concerns many have about veterans being a poor culture fit for an easygoing office environment.
Censor yourself, of course — we all need to maintain a level of professional discourse during an interview but offer real honest responses (that preferably make you look good) rather than pre-packaged anecdotes you prepared ahead of time or the top response you got off Google. There’s nothing wrong with being a real person that’s looking for work, and they’re always more memorable than the third robot to come into my office today.
Do your homework.
It would be a mistake to assume that you don’t need to prepare for an interview. Everyone knows you need to iron your slacks or skirt, everyone knows you need to be on time, but few people seem to understand the value in researching the company you’re there to try to work for. If you want the job, you should know what it is and something about the company itself. If you walk into my office empty-handed, you’re already at a disadvantage — I want to see someone with notes — and someone who’s prepared to take more. Chances are good, the hiring process will involve more steps then just your time with me, and I want to know you care enough about those steps to jot them down.
The two simplest things you can do to demonstrate an awareness of the company that will set you apart from your competition only take a few minutes each. First, don’t just Google the company (though that’s a good idea), also go to their website and check out some of their press releases. Those releases offer you a glimpse into how the company wants to be perceived, and having an awareness of that can really set you apart.
Second, prepare a minimum of three questions to ask the person interviewing you. These questions shouldn’t be hard-hitting journalism, but rather a demonstration of your sincere interest in the company and the position. If you can muster it, I’d recommend coming up with at least five, just in case some of yours are addressed in conversation before you have the chance to answer them.
Nearly every interview ends with the HR professional asking, “So, do you have any questions for me?” That’s not just a courtesy — it’s your time to shine. I know some hiring managers that will dismiss a candidate (when there’s tough competition) for not having any questions, and while not all HR guys and gals operate that way, you should know that when you’re asked for questions, having some will reflect well on you — and having none could cost you the gig.
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