June 14, 2017

Translating military culture to civilian workplace

Jenny Hale,
U.S. Army Human Resources Command Fort Knox, Ky.

Military culture is drilled into people from the day they arrive at basic training.

The military teaches its recruits how to become leaders, take charge, and make vital decisions. These are all attributes that make veterans highly valuable to civilian companies.

However, the transition to civilian life is not easy for all, and there are many aspects of military culture that are not well-received in a corporate or civilian setting.

In the military, it is not uncommon to identify someone as sir or ma’am, Mr. or Mrs., or by their rank. However, in the civilian sector, using formal titles like these can make co-workers uncomfortable. Most civilians address their co-workers by their first name. In addition, depending on the company culture and geographic location, military forms of address can be insulting.

For example, in the north, it is common to hear young to middle-aged women say, “Don’t call me ma’am,” as it is seen as a title reserved for older women. Be conscious of how your co-workers address each other and follow their lead.

In civilian workplaces, cursing is generally frowned on and can result in negative personnel action. While this language may be common in military life, swearing during a disagreement in the civilian sector is grounds for a call to human resources. Swearing off-handedly can also be grounds for disciplinary discussions. Understand your environment, the personality of your co-workers and the culture of the organization before using certain language. It is always wise to keep your conversations professional.

Veterans have a unique language and their job experiences differ from civilians. Military speech is heavy with acronyms and references to sensitive or complex job descriptions, Military Occupational Specialties, and other jargon that civilian employees aren’t able to relate to.
It’s best, when speaking with co-workers and writing emails, to avoid using jargon such as “roger,” “v/r,” and “break.”

Email etiquette is also different in the civilian sector. The military writes in active voice, where email copy is very direct and to the point. While this is appreciated in business, it can also come off as being demanding, rude or bossy. These attributes may not be well-received in the civilian market, depending on a job holder’s position, making it important to ensure that you choose your words carefully. For new employees, it does not hurt to follow up emails with a phone call to better convey your intended tone to unfamiliar co-workers.

In the civilian sector, a veteran’s rank doesn’t matter. Most civilians don’t understand the difference between an officer or enlisted soldier, let alone the niceties of military ranks. Take off your rank when joining the civilian sector and work on being humble, asking questions and understanding civilian culture. It is okay to be new at this, and years of career and job experience in the military sector may take time to fully translate into the civilian world.

Preparing for post-military life
To learn more about preparing for future careers in the civilian sector, visit the Soldier for Life — Transition Assistance Program. The program assists transitioning soldiers, family members, Army retirees and Department of the Army civilians with their transition career goals. Other services have similar programs.

SFL-TAP centers are located around the world and teach resume building, information about veterans’ benefits, career skills, offer higher education application services, entrepreneurship training, as well as provide access to hiring events, opportunities to network with civilian companies looking to hire transitioning soldiers, and more.

Visit to learn more, or go online on Facebook at Soldier for Life — Transition Assistance Program, on LinkedIn at Soldier for Life — Transition Assistance Program Connection Group, and Twitter at @SFL-TAP.

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