- The Essential Military-to-Civilian Transition Resource

The First Day...and Beyond

Settling Into Your New Civilian Job

By Carolyn Heinze, Contributing Editor

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Article Sponsored by: USAA

It's definitely the hardest -- not all that different from how it felt when you were a kid that first day at a new school -- the initial day on the job. For those who are transitioning out of the military, the anxiety surrounding this event risks to be even higher, since not only are you becoming acquainted with a new post, but also a culture that is nothing like the one to which you had grown accustomed.

The good news is, there are a number of things that you can do to take the reins into your own hands and make the transition smoother. Kevin Tucker, career coach, C-Cubed Career Consulting & Coaching in Stoutsville, Ohio, advises new recruits to come into the job armed with research. "They should do some research on the front end, just as they should have done research to see if this was the right job for them," he said. Before settling in on that first day, try to book a conversation with your future manager to see what it's going to be like, and ask for any counsel they might be able to offer. If possible, speak to the person you are replacing to learn what they have to say about transitioning into that specific job.

Before even settling into your new position, Elisabeth Sanders-Park, president, Worknet Solutions in Riverside, Calif., suggests that new job recruits seek out a civilian mentor to help guide them through the process. "Maybe it's somebody who has been in the military; maybe it's someone who hasn't," she said. "Regardless, it's someone with whom you feel safe, and to whom you can ask those questions that may seem a little silly."

Once on the job, it's a good idea to identify one or two additional people who are able to fulfill this role at work. "Let people know that you are going through a bit of culture shock," Sanders-Park counseled. "Find those people in this office that can answer your questions."

While the tendency is to prepare for the responsibilities dictated by the job, what new recruits are often unprepared for is the personal interaction with supervisors and colleagues. "We don't generally prepare for the lunch table, that first morning we get toured around the office, and the way we greet people in U.S. business culture," Sanders-Park observed. Things like handshakes and eye contact help to establish rapport, but the body language that shows respect and attentiveness in the military often comes across as aloof, removed - and even odd - in the civilian workplace. "Prepare not just for the duties of the job; prepare for all of those in-between moments when a lot of bonds are really formed."

Tucker says that new recruits can initiate this process by asking their colleagues about the job itself, or even their own personal interests. "You need to start building relationships and learn who these people really are," he said. "Then you can find those individuals with which you share a common bond."

Building rapport with your fellow employees is arguably one of the most important initiatives to take, since how you interact with those around you often contributes to how well you can actually do your job. "Rapport is built with subtlety and it can be lost very quickly," Sanders-Park warned. "Be careful about trying to jump in and assume that you know how this is going to go. Trying too hard is such a put-off as well - it's too much." If you gain a reputation for being either too shy or too aggressive, it will be difficult to shake. Watch and listen to those around you and, when an appropriate thought or anecdote comes to mind, share it.

You should also be prepared for the questions that may be asked of you. For civilians, ex-military personnel often seem somewhat exotic, and they may be curious about your previous experiences... often to the point of being blatantly - or ignorantly - inappropriate. Sanders-Park recounts an anecdote shared by one of her own clients: in the first few days on her new civilian job she was asked, outright, if she had killed anyone while at war. "It was a completely inappropriate question, and how do you answer those questions? You answer them differently with family and friends than you might with your new co-workers," she advised. "You may be asked why you left the military, or whether it was dangerous, or whether it was scary." Before setting foot in the office, be clear with yourself on what you want to share while on the job, and what you will keep to yourself.

At the same time, many have praise for ex-members of the military, and those transitioning into the civilian workplace should be conscious of this, and use it to their advantage. "People will assume many positive things about you because of the military, such as reliability and loyalty," Sanders-Park pointed out. "Capitalize on those positive assumptions about people coming out of the military and identify what could be negative assumptions about people coming out of the military, and make sure that they understand that you're an individual."

One challenge that many new recruits face - whether they're ex-military or not - is the lack of orientation and training that today's companies provide. More often than not, new hires are given a brisk tour of the facility before being shown to their cubicle, where they're left to sink or swim. If there's a company handbook or employee manual available, read it cover to cover and make an appointment with your supervisor if you have any questions. Then, Sanders-Park underlines, seek out those colleagues who look like they may be of help.

"Find people who you like and get along with, who seem like your kind of people and who also seem to be successful in the culture," Sanders-Park said. "If you watch and listen, you can find out who those people are." It may actually be your supervisor, or it may be the receptionist. Ask yourself: who seems giving and willing to help? Who makes themselves look better by putting others down? "If you get tossed into a situation, you've got to find your go-to people, and you've got to do it in a way that you don't look lost." An encouraging point worth noting? If you were thrown into a cubicle and left to fend for yourself, chances are everyone else was too - and many of them will be sympathetic.

Above all else, Sanders-Park emphasizes that new recruits succeed best if they are supported by mentors. "In the first 72 hours on that job, you are going to want to know who your mentors are, both on the job and off the job," she said. During the first six weeks, your secondary task is to review yourself and how you did, what worked and what didn't, and what you need to improve. Mentors offer you the opportunity to bounce all of these ideas off on someone with more experience, and are invaluable as you make that transition into civilian work life. "After that, you will have a good footing under you."


Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.


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