Veterans make up growing share of federal workforce so why is their morale faltering?

Nearly three in every 10 new employees hired by the federal government have worked for Uncle Sam before -- in uniform. But even as the federal government has fo...

Nearly three in every 10 new employees hired by the federal government have worked for Uncle Sam before — in uniform.

Even with budget downturns and slackened hiring at many agencies in recent years, the feds have managed to keep pace with steep veteran hiring targets mandated by President Barack Obama in 2009.

In 2012, nearly 29 percent of new hires were veterans — by the government’s count, the highest percentage of new veteran hires in some 20 years. That equated to more than 56,000 veterans joining the ranks of the civil service that year.

But even as the federal government has found success onboarding veteran employees, new questions have been raised about the workplace environments veterans are encountering.

As a group, veterans’ perceptions of workplace fairness are more negative than their nonveteran counterparts, and they’re more likely to feel disengaged from their supervisors, according to the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey published by the Office of Personnel Management in November.

Fewer veterans said that prohibited personnel practices were handled properly by their agencies or that managers communicated well with their employees, according to the survey.

What are the root causes of these feelings?

Current and former federal employees, who are also veterans, cite a few key factors: the often-difficult transition to civilian life, in general, and federal managers’ perceptions of — and misconceptions about — veterans as employees.

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Veterans are used to taking charge

The transition from military to civilian, in even the most ideal circumstances, is trying for many veterans. Most civilian jobs lack the structure and discipline of the military. Veterans may find it hard to relate to co-workers in those jobs who simply don’t have the same experiences veterans have racked up on their resumes.

“When I was 23 years old, I was in charge of a 38-man platoon,” said Brandon Friedman, who, as a young lieutenant in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, commanded troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. “When I was 25-years old, I was second- in-command of a 110-man rifle company. … It’s one of those things that in the military you’re given that level of responsibility so young, and for the most part in the public and private sector, you’re not leading 30 people or 100 people until you’re very senior.”

Friedman left active duty in 2004. He went to work for the Veterans Affairs Department in 2009 to help start up its digital communications team. He now works at public relations giant Fleishman-Hillard.

Still, in the 11 years since he left the military, he said, he’s never managed a team of more than a handful of people.

Friedman said he wonders whether the military is doing enough to prepare vets for the world of civilian employment, and what role that might play in the veteran discontent the survey uncovered.

“Veterans are used to a very structured environment; they’re used to having their leaders mentor them and take care of them in ways that you don’t often find in the private sector and sometimes in government,” he said. “They’re also used to taking charge of situations — leading people. And a lot of times, those opportunities aren’t there [in government].”

‘Everyone loves and supports the troops, but —’

But even if vets themselves feel they are prepared for civilian employment, managers don’t always agree.

A June 2012 report from the Center for a New American Security revealed many private-sector employers frequently have misgivings about hiring veterans in the first place.

Hiring managers worry that their skills won’t translate to the job at hand and that veterans, accustomed to the order and the discipline of the military, are too “rigid” to be collaborative or creative employees.

While the report specifically surveyed private-sector employers, its findings likely hold true for the federal workplace too, said Alex Horton, who served as an Army grunt during the troop surge in Iraq. He left VA last year after three years on the department’s digital communications team that Friedman led.

More troubling may be the negative stereotype of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In actuality, PTSD manifests in only 11 to 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to VA estimates. But media and pop culture depictions tend to portray nearly all veterans as unstable and prone to violence.

“Everyone loves and supports the troops,” Horton said. “But then, when people become a veteran, there’s like this weird dichotomy. When you wore the uniform you’re a hero, and you’re selfless and you’re brave and all that. Then, when you take it off, you’re broken, or you’re suffering from PTSD.”

Agencies tight-lipped about veteran workforce

While the government may not have the same reticence as private companies about hiring veterans, the vets themselves don’t always give federal managers high marks, either.

For example, just 29 percent of veterans agreed that promotions in their work unit are based on merit — 5 percent fewer than nonveterans, according to the most recent survey. Fewer veterans also reported that their supervisors had talked with them about their performance over the last six months — 74 percent compared to 79 percent. Fewer veterans also reported that managers clearly communicate the goals of the organization — 59 percent versus 63 percent for nonveterans.

“When you’re looking at a difference of 4 or 5 points, that’s enough that you should be at least concerned about it,” said Jeff Neal, former chief human capital officer of the Homeland Security Department, where veterans make up more than 27 percent of the workforce. “It’s a relevant issue to look at when you see that kind of difference pretty consistently.”

OPM, which for the first time highlighted the morale of veterans as a potential trouble spot in its annual survey, seemingly agrees.

But agencies were reluctant to talk with Federal News Radio about their individual efforts to address the needs of their veteran employees.

The four largest agency employers of veterans — the departments of Defense, Transportation, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security — all declined to make their agency’s chief human capital officer available for interviews or did not respond to Federal News Radio’s requests.

A spokesman for DoD — which employs the highest percentage of veterans — said it wouldn’t be appropriate for DoD officials to “talk about ‘vets’ feelings’ writ large” and said comparing the experience of veterans at DoD with other agencies would be an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Veterans in the fed workforce more likely to report a disability

Unraveling the causes behind veteran employees’ workplace sentiments also requires taking a hard look at a few key demographic factors.

For example, veterans working for the federal government are four times more likely to report having a disability, according to the OPM survey. About 29 percent of veterans reported having a disability, compared to just 7 percent of nonveterans.

People with disabilities, regardless of veteran status, rated workplace fairness and the support they receive from supervisors even lower than veterans did, the survey revealed.

“It may very well be that part of what’s driving the veteran responses is not necessarily their veteran status, but their status as somebody with a disability,” Neal said.

Veterans, as a group, are also skewed older than the broader federal workforce. Just 14 percent of federal-employee veterans are under the age of 40, compared to nearly 30 percent of the broader federal workforce.

Again, regardless of veteran status, age plays a substantial role in employee outlook and morale, he said.

Employees 20 years into a career, who aren’t eligible to retire and can’t easily pick up stakes and find a new career, are prone to a midcareer morale slump, Neal said.

Disillusion with management

Eric Young, a federal correctional worker, fits both of those demographic categories. A Gulf War veteran who left the military with a 60 percent service- connected disability rating in the mid-1990s, he has worked for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for the past 19 years.

When Young started working at BOP’s federal detention center in Miami, he was part of a growing influx of veterans into the federal government thanks to the post- Cold War downsizing of the Defense Department during the Clinton administration.

At the time, the Bureau of Prisons — like other law enforcement agencies — was recommended as a good fit for veterans to use the military skills they had already honed, Young said.

But Young quickly became disillusioned, he said, particularly with management at the agency.

“Coming from the military, you knew if you took care of your supervisor, then they would take care of you,” he said. “Unfortunately, when I came to the Bureau of Prisons, it was the opposite. The supervisory line staff were basically all for themselves. … It was more of, ‘What can I do for myself to better me — to hell with everybody else.'”

Young described frequent discord between staff members, who were often veterans, and supervisors, who were often not, and said he felt stymied in his climb up the career ladder.

Despite being eligible for veterans’ preference, Young said he felt he was “roadblocked” when it came to promotions. “I had individual management officials retaliate against me,” he said. “I guess when people don’t like you, they hinder your upward mobility.”

Young said he now knows he could have taken his issues to the Merit Systems Protection Board or the Office of Special Counsel. But, at the time, he was unfamiliar with the programs or the protections they afforded, he said.

Young’s frustrations with BOP management led him to become involved with the American Federation of Government Employees. Last September, he won election as president of the union’s national Council of Prison Locals.

Federal government receives the most employment-discrimination complaints

Young is not alone in his perception of a workplace stacked against him — or other employees.

A majority of all federal employees, including veterans, agreed that prohibited personnel practices are not tolerated at their agencies, according to the survey. But fewer veterans — 63 percent to 67 percent of nonveterans — agreed with that statement.

Prohibited personnel practices include nepotism, race and sex discrimination, whistleblower retaliation and violations of veterans’ hiring preferences and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act (USERRA).

Under USERRA, which was passed by Congress in 1994, veterans and service members can’t be disadvantaged in their civilian careers because of their military service. For example, if a civilian employee in the National Guard is called up for duty and deploys, he or she has full rights to be reinstated to that position with full benefits once he or she returns from active duty.

Of the 1,500 USERRA complaints received each year, about 20 percent come from federal employees, which makes the federal government the largest single USERRA violator.

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But despite veterans’ declining confidence in workplace fairness, the numbers don’t necessarily show an uptick in new cases, according to Patrick Boulay, chief of the special unit within the Office of Special Counsel that investigates USERRA violations.

“There aren’t really any earth-shattering trends that we’re seeing,” he said. “But we’re definitely still seeing problems. There are still violations occurring in the federal government.”

An “anti-veteran” attitude is rarely the culprit in USERRA violations, he said. Rather, he cites managers’ lack of understanding about just how far USERRA goes to protect veterans’ employment benefits.

So what’s behind the numbers of veterans who feel managers are biased against them?

Neal, the former federal CHCO and workforce expert, said the survey figures may not accurately measure actual violations of prohibited personnel practices, which denote specific sanctioned behavior, but more broadly indicate employee discontent with management.

“Being a jerk, for example, is not a prohibited personnel practice,” Neal said. “It’s a lousy management practice, but it’s not a prohibited personnel practice.”

Unless a manager’s behavior can be linked to specific anti-veteran animus, OSC would have a hard time pursuing the case, Boulay said.

The feeling may be, “‘I’m a veteran and I’ve served my country and I’m a government employee who’s being treated poorly,'” Boulay said. “‘Isn’t there something that can be done?’ And there isn’t always, unfortunately.”

Connecting to the mission is critical

Despite the trouble spots highlighted by the survey, many veterans see the federal government as a helpful bridge to private-sector employment or even as a fulfilling career in and of itself.

“People who are willing to put their lives on the line to serve their country often want to continue serving in some way,” Neal said. “And working as a civilian employee of the government is a way to continue public service.”

That sense of public purpose hit a nerve with Barrett Bogue, the outreach development team leader in the VA office responsible for promoting the GI Bill.

“Connecting to the mission is critical,” he said. “I do identify with the fact that every day I get up and I get to help veterans achieve their educational goals. That’s a pretty rewarding feeling.”

Bogue, a Marine Corps reservist and infantryman who spent the better part of a year in Iraq’s war-torn Sunni Triangle in the mid-2000s, came home after combat, finished up his degree at the University of Tennessee thanks to the GI Bill and applied for a spot in the prestigious Presidential Management Fellows program in 2006. His resume eventually came across the desk of a VA administrator in the agency’s office of Education and Training.

And far from being a liability, he said, his military experience has actually made him a better federal employee.

Marines training in the era of counterinsurgency warfare emphasizes the idea of the “strategic corporal,” Bogue said, meaning often even the lowest-ranking enlisted personnel are responsible for making rapid decisions in unstable environments.

“I came in with a lack of experience in the federal government,” Bogue said. “I guess you could say I had the same kind of fear that anybody else would have entering their first career job: How well am I going to perform? Am I going to be a good fit for this organization? And throughout my experience, the answer’s been, ‘Yes.'”

What else can managers do to make the federal workplace a more inviting place for veterans?

“If you can create a team environment for veterans, do so,” Bogue said.

In a post for VA’s VAntage Point blog published last summer, Bogue said if managers want to retain veterans, particularly those from Iraq and Afghanistan, they should give them a “larger role in the decision-making process, as well as provide them a cohort of peers and mentors in which they can grow and become the next successful generation of veterans.”

Eric Young, the federal prisons worker who expressed frustration he didn’t advance as far or — now 19 years on — as fast as he would have liked, says his mantra for managers who want to do right by veterans consists of two words: “upward mobility.”

“We’re a proud people,” he said. “We love the federal government. We love our country. And we just want to be respected and be able to take care of our families.”

This article is part of an ongoing Federal News Radio examining the morale of different segments of the federal workforce. In addition to veterans, the series will examine the morale of federal employees with disabilities and members of the lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community.


Obama memo bolsters protections for vets reentering workforce

Tips for agencies when hiring veterans with disabilities

Veteran hires at highest level in 20 years

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