Workplace veterans face an unwelcome hero cult

According to a new study from the University of Cincinnati, some military veterans returning to the workforce face the stigma of negative stereotypes even as their service is expanded.

Daniel Peat, an assistant professor and management educator at UC’s Lindner College of Business, found that veterans faced a confusing paradox of equally unwelcome extremes from colleagues, managers, or civilian peers putting them on pedestals or classifying them in a harmful way because of their service.

The study was published in the International Journal of Human Resource Management.

Peat and co-author Jaclyn Perrmann-Graham, a UC alumnus who teaches at Northern Kentucky University, surveyed 40 veterans from 12 organizations about their experiences returning to the civilian workforce. They found common themes.

“If you’re a veteran, everyone assumes you’ve been in combat or shot people or have post-traumatic stress disorder,” Peat said. “But it was interesting to see that putting veterans on a pedestal has similar negative effects.”

Peat serves in the US Army Reserves. For the study, he interviewed 40 veterans between the ages of 20 and 60, including 26 active-duty military personnel. A third of the participants were women.

Respondents said portrayals of veterans in news media and pop culture often carry negative associations such as poor mental health or violence. Respondents attributed these stereotypes to some of the inappropriate and inappropriate comments from civilian peers.

One respondent said people were surprised to learn that he was not politically conservative like many veterans. Others said opinions about military personnel are skewed by war movies that portray returning veterans as psychologically damaged by their experience.

“They find out I’m a veteran and was in combat and they automatically think I have PTSD and I’m a half-crazed psychotic lunatic,” one respondent said.

Friends or co-workers sometimes associate a veteran’s service with the completely unrelated experiences of their own family or friends of veterans without acknowledging each person’s individual story.

“A teammate of mine found out I was in the military and they said, ‘Oh man, my uncle was in Vietnam and he doesn’t want to talk about it,'” another respondent told researchers.

“Nobody asked the question, how was your experience? Nobody has that curiosity. Instead, they make assumptions,” Peat said.

Still other respondents said it was difficult to get credit in the workplace for equivalent or better military training and experience.

Service members shared how they made adjustments to fit into their new civilian culture, Peat said.

“Veterans sometimes use dark humor as a coping mechanism, but that gallows humor doesn’t necessarily fit with norms of social behavior,” Peat said.

Unlike other high-stress professions like nursing, law enforcement, or firefighting, veterans entering the workforce are not surrounded by people with a similar outlook.

Peat said HR managers might be aware of the unfair stigmatization of veterans, which has been highlighted in previous studies, but he thinks they should also consider how veterans are also magnified at their detriment.

“There’s an old joke in the military, ‘Thank me for my service,'” Peat said. “It’s indicative of someone who wants to be enlarged. But it’s rare to see that in the army. Most people don’t want to be thanked for their service. Their service is often more personal and driven by a multitude of reasons.