Transitioning from Military to Civilian Employers

Learn the subtle and important differences in culture between business and military organizations.

Here are several:

  1. In the business world the ultimate concern is bottom line profit or loss, while the military is focused on accomplishment of the mission by whatever means it takes. The difference may appear subtle but the end result is not. The executive would rather abort his mission than risk the loss of profit. The difference lies in their values and tactics.

  2. Military personnel are known and respected for their loyalty and dedication to duty. In the civilian world, this may work to your disadvantage. Will you be surprised if you are laid off even though you are loyal and dedicated? In today's world, you need to think like a professional athlete, a "free agent". Work is an exchange: labor for pay. You have marketable skills and knowledge that you exchange with a company that provides you with the pay and benefits you want. For more, go to The Free Agent Outlook on Work.

  3. Stability in the military forces is well known; in the civilian world work life is often uncertain and changeable. When a mission change occurs, military forces are transferred and redeployed. There is no question of "job security". But, when a company's profits are threatened, cutting employees is often the first response.

  4. Discipline is another area of cultural difference. Civilian executives and managers can often be very autocratic and punitive. Unlike the military, where forbearance and time will eventually solve the problem of a difficult superior, the private sector frequently offers no alternative but to leave the company.

  5. Career progression and responsibility are handled quite differently in industry. A military person, by merit of rank and time in grade is usually assured both a challenging assignment and an orderly progression in their career. In your first civilian job you are likely to have less authority and responsibility. Your career progression will be less clear.

  6. You will need to become familiar with the appropriate dress for the industry that interests you. This may seem trivial, but it may be quite important in being selected for that first job.

To minimize the consequences of cultural differences, you would be wise to conduct some research:

  • Interview former military personnel holding jobs similar to those you might target and learn what you can about these issues. This is called information interviewing.
  • Do an old-fashioned reconnaissance mission to several high profile companies in your area. Read about networking; it will help you.
  • Read recent books on work in corporate America. Browse through the business and work sections of your local bookstores and library. Do the same on the Internet at websites like Powell's, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.


Return to Successful Military to Civilian Transition

Parts of this module are adapted from an earlier article by Robert E. Rainey: Rainey, R. E. (1992). Military Career: Changing to a Civilian Career. In L. K. Jones (Ed.), Encyclopedia of career change and work issues (pp. 186 - 189). Phoenix: The Oryx Press.