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Culture Clash - Preparing for surprises in your first civilian job
by Carolyn Heinze, Contributing Editor

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Here’s an unoriginal observation: The civilian workplace differs greatly from the military. We all know this, of course, but that doesn’t stop one’s first professional foray into civilian life from being an original experience, if only for the person involved. It’s a bit like expatriating to a foreign country: The people may look the same as you do, but if you want to adapt to the culture, you’ll need to learn the language.

Troy Johnson, a Tampa, Florida-based career coach who is retired from the U.S. Army, notes that one of the most striking challenges for him in his first civilian position as a Disabled Veteran Outreach Program (DVOP) specialist was that employers approach leadership and management much differently. “In the military culture, we are so used to getting direction and guidance - it’s pretty cut and dried,” he says. “What I experienced in the civilian workplace was that there were managers that would tell you what to do, kind of, but there was a lack of direction and guidance.” While managers would give direction, they didn’t necessarily offer up the tools to carry out the task effectively.

Nor are civilian leaders always readily identifiable, observes Susan P. Joyce, retired from the U.S. Marine Corps and president of the Marlborough, Massachusetts-based Web consulting firm NETability, Inc., as well as editor and publisher of Job-Hunt.org. She relays that when she took her first civilian job in Harvard University’s personnel office, “I missed seeing people’s ranks on their shoulders.” Sometimes, the people that were acting the most authoritative were lower-level assistants, while those who were really in charge were more laid- back than she’d expected them to be.

For Johnson, another tricky area was how training was carried out - and consequently linked to the year-end performance appraisal. He recounts that in his initial days on the job, his training consisted of shadowing an existing employee for several days, and that was pretty much it. “Toward the end of the year when it came time for the evaluation, that was when they told me: ‘This is what we are evaluating you on. These are the expectations and how we feel you did - or did not - meet them,’” he recalls. He adds that these expectations weren’t laid out ahead of time, and that he found them unrealistic and unattainable - something he could have addressed had he known about them up front.

Johnson counsels job candidates to ask as many questions about expectations as possible: What does your employer want from you, exactly? What are the performance measures? To whom should you report? How can you perform to the level set out by the organization? These are the questions that candidates should pose not once they have signed their job contracts, but well beforehand, during the interview process.

“The job interview is two-way: You have to interview them as much as they are interviewing you,” Johnson explains. “You need to ask some of those key questions during the interview process so that when you go in, you already kind of know what the culture is like.” Nothing is worse than accepting a position and then, not long after, discovering that both it and the company are not a good fit for you. “The employer is trying to find the right candidate; you should be trying to find the right employer. It’s a two-way street."

Once on the job, Johnson emphasizes the necessity of leaving the military behind. “This is especially important for higher-ranking officers - they are so used to being in the military that the loss of identity and rank is often very difficult for them,” he notes. “Some may be working for someone that is a few years younger than they are, and they don’t have the particular experience that this person has.” The adjustment can be difficult, as is resisting the temptation to give orders. “Civilians are not used to that.”

Instead, counsels Johnson, go in there with your eyes and ears open to assess the organization’s culture and environment. “You don’t want to go in and be overpowering - you need to adjust to that workplace,” he says, underlining that it’s unwise to complain or criticize your colleagues or the company’s processes - at least at first - until you’ve learned the organization’s politics.

And, part of learning a company’s politics is to know when to share . . . and when to hold back. “When you’re in the civilian world, salary is a secret thing,” Joyce cautions. “Whereas in the military, when it comes to salary, all the cards are laid out on the table.”

Joyce jokes that to make their transitions easier, newcomers to the civilian world need to cut civilians some slack. “We can’t straighten them out; we have to live in their world,” she laughs. At the same time, don’t forget about all of the assets you bring with you, thanks to your previous experience. “Military training gives us many advantages. We understand things on a level that many civilians don’t.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.

Return to January/February 2011 Issue