What You Should & Shouldn't Ask Veterans During Job Interviews

When Veterans Day comes around each year, thoughts commonly go to honoring those who served in our armed forces with food and drink specials.

That makes sense and paying veterans back for their service is absolutely the right thing to do. But what about doing even more?

We spoke with John S. Berry, Jr., an attorney and veteran himself, about hiring, transitioning, and working with veterans in bars and restaurants. From letting go of stigmas surrounding those who have seen combat to avoiding certain topics, Berry shares why veterans make great employees and how operators and team members can help them succeed.

Why should bar and restaurant owners and operators seek to hire veterans?

Veterans are accustomed to working under stress and delivering very exact and precise results. In the restaurant and bar industries, margins are slim, so having employees who can deliver with precision is a major competitive advantage. Veterans also know how to square away their appearance and provide a competent face, which is valuable in any consumer-facing industry.

What questions should be asked about a veteran's military service during a job interview?

As reported on Military.com, it’s great to ask questions about who they are, where they’re from, and what they like to do. I agree with conversation starters recommended from companies like Starbucks, which include:

  • "How long did you serve?"
  • "What did you do (in the Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Air Force, Guard, or Reserves)?"
  • "Why did you choose that branch?"
  • "Do you come from a military family?"
  • "Did you visit any other countries?"
  • "Where was your favorite place you lived?"
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What questions should be avoided (and must be avoided, legally) during a job interview with a veteran?

Here is a list of questions to never ask, including:

  1. "Do you have PTSD?" First, in an interview situation, it’s illegal to ask this mental health question before a job offer has been made under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and even after unless certain conditions are met. So, avoid this line of questioning (even after a hiring decision has been made) or risk exposing the company to legal repercussions. Second, it’s just disrespectful. The veteran will likely think they’re being stigmatized and labeled as “damaged goods” in some way, or regarded as a stereotypical “unstable veteran,” which will make it difficult to establish trust, a healthy rapport, and a sustainable professional relationship ongoing.
  2. "Have you ever killed anyone?" Most veterans who served in combat don’t want to discuss the details of their military service with a civilian, whether it be a boss or workplace counterpart. This question can be offensive, disconcerting or generally uncomfortable to the veteran who did, in fact, have to take a life in the defense of his or her country—and can be equally objectionable for veterans who made many sacrifices, but did not have to take the life of another. The notion of taking another human being’s life in the line of duty is a highly sensitive and emotion-evoking topic that demands the utmost courtesy of privacy.
  3. "Have you ever been shot?" While the veteran may not have a current disability from an injury, you don’t want to take the chance of touching on what could be deep-seated emotional wounds and traumatic memories of physical distress that may have been difficult to come to terms with. Furthermore, the veteran who was not in combat is likely proud of his or her accomplishments in the military, and, whether or not they’ve engaged in gunfire and/or been hit, may perceive the comment as belittling.
  4. In a DiversityInc.com workplace article, Army veteran Ryan Kules stated, “Far too often, people assume a level of familiarity with former military that not only breeches proper office conduct but also invades one’s ‘personal space.’” With that in mind, according to a Military.com article, here are a few other things one should avoid asking military veterans in a job interview or any other form of conversation:
    • "Is it hard to get back to real life after being in the military?"
    • "How could you leave your family for so long?"
    • "What’s the worst thing that happened to you?"
    • "Were you raped?"

Once hired, what are your top tips for helping a veteran transition to their new career?

Welcome them onto the team with a mentor or “running mate” who can help guide them through the processes.  Coming from a very structured environment to a business environment may be difficult, and you may lose a good fit due to a jarring transition.

Check this out: A Place at the Bar: People with Disabilities and Veterans

What should management and other team members avoid asking veteran coworkers about their military service?

Here are a few top-line things to avoid:

  • Don’t make combat references or analogies. It’s bad form to tell a veteran that dealing with a competitor or other professional foe is like “hand-to-hand combat” or that you’re taking “friendly fire.” Relating these kinds of serious phrases in the mind and heart of a veteran to civilian experiences can be distasteful at best and even deemed utterly reprehensible.
  • Don’t make fun of any military branch if you didn’t serve. It’s generally accepted for veterans to lightheartedly make fun of the other branches of service with and among fellow veterans. You might hear a vet refer to Marines as “crayon eaters,” joke about the Air Force “not really being military,” and other such tongue-in-cheek remarks. However, veterans greatly frown upon a person who has never served making fun of their branch of service or any other.
  • Don’t bad-mouth military conflicts. You may think you are showing empathy by talking about “unnecessary” wars and deployments and that our veterans should not have had to make sacrifices. Political views aside, you may be speaking to a veteran who is proud to have served in that conflict and, irrespective of all, respects the governmental decisions made to go that route. Don’t risk degrading the veteran’s actual service—and choice to throw themselves into the fray—because you disagree with the nature of the conflict.

Are there programs that can help veterans transition to civilian jobs?

While separating from the service, military members are given a transition class but it is often too broad to be actionable for many veterans. Many charitable organizations are committed to the cause of aiding in transition, including the Big Red Challenge, which Berry Law is proud to partner with for their annual challenge race to raise funds for the cause. Many veterans also reach out to Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) for easing the transition to civilian careers.

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Are there incentives available to business owners who hire veterans?

This depends on the state and the nature of the business. Some agencies will give contract preference to companies with more than a certain percentage of Veterans in employment.

What's the most important thing you want business owners to understand about hiring veterans?

You are still hiring an individual—the veteran tag is helpful in understanding some of a candidate’s background and values, but treating every veteran identically is not a great solution for anyone. Veterans will usually be very hard-working and loyal, but their motivations and inspiration are as varied as the civilian population.

About John S. Berry, Jr.
Attorney John S. Berry Jr. helps his clients fight some of the most important battles of their lives. Not only has he led successful teams in the courtroom, resulting in several jury trial victories, but he has also led soldiers in deployments to Iraq and Bosnia. His warrior ethos has become the foundation for the firm’s success. Beyond the battlefield and the courtroom, John’s leadership experience extends to local community and national organizations that protect our constitutional rights and our veterans.

Prior to joining the firm, John attended the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia (1993-1997) and Creighton University School of Law, where he graduated cum laude in 2003. John is also a graduate of the National Criminal Defense College at Mercer Law School in Macon, Georgia (2004), Trial Lawyers College and the Nebraska State Bar Association Leadership Academy. John is past president of the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association and is a fellow of the American Board of Criminal Lawyers. John maintains an AV Preeminent Rating through Martindale Hubbell. He has been recognized as one of the National Trial Lawyers’ Top 100 Trial Lawyers (2012-2019).

John has presented and lectured in the areas of criminal defense, trial skills, and veterans disability appeals. After receiving his commission as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army, John completed Airborne School and Ranger School. In 1999, while assigned to the First Cavalry Division, he deployed to Bosnia for Operation Joint Forge. John also served as a Company Commander in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and later as a Battalion Commander in the National Guard.