Tuesday, November 13, 2012

We Love Our Veterans! (But We're Afraid to Hire Them)

You've seen him in movies on TV; the veteran who returns home a loose cannon, unpredictable and violent. You've read about him in the news; the soldier who goes berserk and kills 16 innocent civilians or mows down his comrades. And now you're worried he (or she) might show up at your office for the next job interview.

Hidden Fears of Hidden Wounds

An estimated 17 percent of Iraqi and Afghanistan war veterans come home with post-traumatic stress disorder. Eight out of every 100 civilians also suffer from it. So we can look at the glass as half-empty or half full; the vast majority of returning soldiers don't have PTSD, or combat veterans are twice as likely to have it in comparison to non-military peers.

The unemployment rates for veterans suggest that many hiring managers prefer to err on the side of caution. Their average jobless rate in 2010 was 11.5 percent compared with 9.4 percent for non-veterans. Younger veterans fared even worse -- 20.9 percent compared with 17.3 percent for non-veterans.

In some respects, employers feel caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to hiring returning combat veterans. On the one hand, most of us feel grateful to our brave soldiers, who have been on the front lines fighting to preserving our freedom. In addition to the patriotism than can lead employers to favor hiring veterans, we also recognize the character traits military service builds that can make them excellent employees.

On the other hand, this same sense of gratitude and duty can work against our returning veterans by making employers reluctant to seek out accurate information; after all, who wants to question the mental health of our military? All too often, this means ignoring the elephant that's already in the room. In an anonymous June 2010 poll by the Society for Human Resource Management, more than half (53%) of responding HR professionals said they didn't know if workers with PTSD are more likely to commit violence in the workplace. And a 2011 survey of 831 hiring managers by the Apollo Research Institute found that 39 percent were "less favorable" toward hiring military personnel when considering war-related psychological disorders

Let's be honest; with weekly news stories about employees "going postal," is a hiring manager who's uncertain about the link between PTSD and violence going to take that chance?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Violence

First of all, the majority of people who experience a traumatic event don't develop ongoing psychiatric problems. Those who do experience symptoms do so to varying degrees. These symptoms include severe anxiety, sleeplessness, nightmares, social isolation, emotional numbness, irritability and a feeling of being on guard. A key symptom: The individual relives a traumatic event when confronted with reminders or thinks about it when trying to do something else.

Among those who do experience post-traumatic stress disorder, the link between is unclear and indirect. For instance, a new study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found a correlation between some of the untreated symptoms of PTSD and criminal misbehavior. Interestingly, though, it wasn't the PTSD diagnosis per se that was related to criminal arrests but rather PTSD sufferers who had a high degree of unaddressed anger and irritability. Similarly, there are plenty of pre-existing factors that can muddy the waters when trying to clarify the relationship between PTSD and violence; growing up in a violent home and a prior history of substance abuse increases the risk of aggression in veterans and civilians alike.

In reality, violence is uncommon among people with mental illness, and the rare instances that do occur are most often associated with other factors, such as active substance abuse or refusing to take medications. There are also protective factors that significantly decrease the likelihood of violence, such as effective mental health treatment, stable employment, and a strong support system.

The Bottom Line

Most veterans don't develop PTSD, and the minority who do have the same kinds of reactions of people exposed to a hurricane or a car accident. Furthermore, it is treatable and rarely leads to violence. Employers who let their fears guide their hiring decisions are missing out on a wealth of talent (and may act counter to the law, a topic for another article). The best gift we can give our returning heroes is to hire those who are qualified for the job (not out of pity or indebtedness), assume they are mentally healthy (unless we are told or have evidence that suggests otherwise), and, if problems arise, focus on the behavior at issue rather than a diagnosis.

Checking References: Overlooked and Underrated

Donald Trump, famous real estate mogul and noted for television boardroom firing, has an important rule for his own business, "Hire slowly, fire quickly." He is an advocate of knowing the people you hire. In his famous show, "The Apprentice," he challenged promising hopeful future Trump employees to compete difficult marketing, sales and management tasks. He evaluated their performance, working style and personality throughout the process before selecting his apprentice. Getting that kind of insight into a job candidate never happens in real life. At a time when jobs are tough to find, employers should have the edge and competition for a single job may hinge on the positive recommendation by a former employer. Interesting thing is, many employers don't take the time to check references. Compelled by a charming candidate in one interview, that singular mistake can stick an employer with a troublesome employee.

So, even knowing the importance of the reference-checking process, why would an employer avoid it? Surprisingly, many people overrate their ability to read people. They feel that an interview will reveal all. Reference checking is hard and an inconvenient and uncomfortable process. Unless someone has never been employed before, it always involves an employee who has "left his/her employment." Unless the change was the result of relocation, the separation occurred for a reason and that reason can be difficult to ascertain.

Reference checking can be tough on employers as well as employees. Employees may be leaving a bad employment situation that is not their fault. Personality conflicts can happen and there are bad managers that may provide negative references that prevent a person from starting over with a new job. Former employers may not be completely revealing for fear of retribution. How can we deal with this challenge? For future employers reference checking is essential. Never avoid this step. Here are a few tips on making your reference checking meaningful:

If you interview before you check references, ask the candidate which references you should contact and what they might say. If a job seeker says, "Please don't contact my former employer," then all the flags should go up. There are probably legitimate reasons for this (the candidate is still employed, the company is downsizing or there were conflicts at the workplace) yet you still need to know (and verify) what they are before you commit.

Start by checking the facts. Combined with a resume and interview, a reference check will give you significant clues as to how an employee may work with your company. At a minimum verify the facts a potential employee provided. Aside from the basics (length of employment, wages, job title), check that "assistant to the administrator" and "administrative assistant" mean the same in the former workplace. Any discrepancy should be noted and discussed with the job candidate.

Ask the right questions of the right people. If you need guidance, check with your HR department or attorney. Often reference checking happens after an interview and employers are looking to confirm how they already feel. That can cause overlooking "red flags" or facts that contradict preconceived opinions. Be quiet and listen carefully to what is said and more importantly, not said. Ask the same questions for each candidate to someone who worked with him or her. Ask about candidates' actual responsibilities and how well they performed them. Find out if candidates worked well with others, worked best independently or with a team, and about advancement and attendance and attitude. If you are making progress with the reference you may ask about the candidates' best qualities and areas that could use improvement or attention (pay attention to that one). Finally, find out why the employee left the position and if the previous employer would rehire this candidate. That is a significantly different question than, "Is this person 'eligible' for rehire." If you are very lucky, the reference will let you know if you should or should not hire the candidate.

Finally, remember that finding the right team member is difficult and it is even challenging for Trump. With all the information he receives from reality television, the decision isn't always clear. A good lesson from "The Apprentice" is that hiring is as much about who you eliminate as who triumphs in the process. Use the tools at your disposal, like thorough reference checks, to make the best decision for you and your company.