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Life After the Uniform

Soldiers in group

Chris Birdsall

Chris Birdsall is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration in the School of Public Service at Boise State University. He completed his PhD in 2016 and his MPP in 2012 at American University in Washington, D.C. Prior to his graduate studies, Chris worked as a Legislative Aide in the Alaska Legislature. His research focuses on public management, performance management, and higher education. He has published in the International Public Management Journal and presented papers at numerous conferences including the annual meetings of the Public Management Research Association, Midwest Political Science Association, American Political Science Association, and Association of Public Policy Analysis and Management.

In a 2015 letter that has come to be known as “The Call to Continued Service,” the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff urged servicemembers transitioning to civilian life to continue their service to the country as “business leaders, volunteers, and public servants” in their communities after hanging up the uniform. Many veterans are heeding this call by seeking employment in the federal government. Veterans bring unique skills and perspectives to the workplace, but their presence also creates a number of human resource challenges for public managers. Two immanent challenges are growing resentment between veteran and nonveteran federal employees and high veteran turnover. There is a great need for research on how veterans integrate into the federal service than can inform the development of strategies for improving relations between veterans and nonveterans and reducing veteran turnover. Toward that end, Matthew Vanderschuere and I have begun a series of projects exploring the dynamics of veteran employment in the federal government.


Military veterans comprise more than 30 percent of the federal executive branch workforce, compared to just 6.5 percent of the private sector workforce. The influx of veterans working in the federal government is the result of policy spanning back to the Civil War era aimed at helping veterans re-enter civilian life and find employment. The Obama Administration expanded these initiatives with Executive Order (EO) 13518, which established the Veterans Employment Initiative (VEI). The VEI requires federal agencies to enhance employment opportunities for veterans by developing agency-specific plans for advancing veteran employment. In EO 13518, President Obama stated: “Our veterans, who have benefited from training and development during their military service, possess a wide variety of skills and experiences, as well as the motivation for public service, that will help fulfill Federal agencies’ staffing needs.” Veteran employment has expanded 5 percent since the Obama administration implemented VEI.

Although the VEI and other veteran hiring policies enjoy broad support, the influx of veterans employed in the federal government creates a number of unique human resource challenges requiring public managers’ attention. First, veterans bring a unique set of values and experiences to the work place through the socialization that occurs during military service. Second, preferential treatment of veterans can create animosity between veterans and non-veterans. Finally, new-hire veterans turn over at higher rates than new-hire non-veterans, placing a significant resource burden on agencies hiring large numbers of veterans, as the costs of replacing a federal employee are quite high.

Despite the large number of veterans working in the federal government, reports of higher turnover, and other human resource issues, scholars do not yet know much about how veterans integrate into federal service. To help fill this gap, Matthew Vanderschuere and I draw on diversity management scholarship to explore whether diversity management can improve veteran job satisfaction.


Since the Pension Act of 1818, which provided a pension to U.S. Revolutionary War veterans, the United States has implemented a long line of policies designed to help military veterans re-enter civilian life in the United States. Today, military veterans receive government assistance in areas such as health care, home buying, higher education, retirement, vocational rehabilitation, disability compensation, life insurance, and employment in state and federal government. Although all of these programs represent significant financial commitments from the federal government to support veterans, veteran hiring initiatives represent a particularly significant commitment, as they have big implications for the composition of the federal service.

The federal government has given special consideration to veterans in the hiring process since the U.S. Civil War. However, it was not until the Veterans’ Preference Act of 1944 that veteran hiring preference was codified in law. According to the Act, disabled veterans and those who serve in an active duty capacity during military campaigns receive preference over non-veteran candidates in competitive appointments, as well as retention preference in times of workforce reductions. Although these policies enjoy broad political support, the increase in veterans in the federal service has not come without human resource challenges.

Since the Pension Act of 1818, which provided a pension to U.S. Revolutionary War veterans, the United States has implemented a long line of policies designed to help military veterans re-enter civilian life in the United States.



According to Office of Personnel Management statistics, new-hire veterans have lower retention rates than new hire non-veterans in 20 out of 24 executive order agencies. Turnover is an expensive problem in the federal government, as the cost to replace an employee ranges from 90 to 200 percent of their annual salary. Turnover also costs organizations in the loss of institutional knowledge and culture, and a long line of public management research shows that excessive turnover hurts organization performance. More importantly, veteran turnover goes against the spirit of veteran hiring initiatives, as they aim to increase long-term veteran employment.

Why are veterans turning over at higher rates than non-veterans? Generally, employees may leave their jobs for a variety of reasons, such as other higher paying job opportunities, but job satisfaction is one of the strongest predictors of turnover intention and actual turnover. When employees are dissatisfied with their jobs, they search for other opportunities, evaluate the costs of quitting their current job, then decide whether they want to move on. In previous research, Vanderscheure found that, among federal employees indicating a desire to leave their current job, veterans were 23.5 percent less likely than non-veterans to express a desire to leave federal service entirely. If veterans expressing high turnover intention desire to stay in the federal service, there may be ways for public managers to improve their job satisfaction so they remain in their current agency. An important first step in doing so is better understanding veterans as a demographic group with unique values and work motivations.


The United States’ workforce is becoming increasingly diverse, as the share of racial and ethnic minorities and women in the labor force is expected to grow rapidly in the next decade. In response, public management scholars are increasingly focusing on the importance of diversity management practices in the public sector. While diversity management is loosely defined, it usually involves not just recruitment and outreach of diverse personnel, but also strategies aimed at harmonizing differences among employees and reducing relational conflicts that arise with increasing diversity.

Much of the existing public sector diversity management research focuses on race, ethnicity, and gender. These are important sources of employee identities, values, and motivations, but other characteristics, such as education, religion, organizational membership, tenure, and functional background are also important sources of identity and values with implications for workplace outcomes. More recent diversity management scholarship recognizes that employees often connect to multiple identities, stemming both from traditional demographic characteristics, as well as significant life events. For servicemembers and veterans, military service is a strong source of identity influencing workplace values and attitudes.

Military training and the unique demands of military service imprint shared values and expectations among veterans. The United States asks servicemembers to place the national security needs of the nation over their own lives. The difficulty and sacrifice required in military service creates strong bonds among servicemembers and veterans that last long beyond active military service. The socialization of servicemembers is reinforced beyond service through numerous veteran benefits (such as veteran hiring preferences) and prominent veteran service organizations, such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of the United States, and Wounded Warriors.

The numerous benefits, accolades, and special recognition veterans receive in the United States makes them a high-status group. Previous research suggests that high-status groups are likely to form a strong group identity that will often be more powerful than attributes such as race, especially in cases where one’s racial identity is perceived to be lower status. For many veterans, then, veteran status may be one of the most significant attributes influencing their self-concept and their values.


Where previous research has demonstrated that diversity management practices can increase job satisfaction for women and minority employees, we explore whether similar effects exist for veterans as a distinct demographic group. To explore this issue, we use data from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) published by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). FEVS asks a sample of federal employees to share their perceptions of workplace experiences, agency policies, leadership, and rate their overall job satisfaction. The survey also asks employees to report individual attributes, such as age, race, gender, veteran status, and sexual orientation. The survey is a useful tool for public management scholars interested in researching human resource issues in the federal government.

Using FEVS, we ran several different econometric models to explore how veterans respond to diversity management practices in the federal government. Our analyses produced several interesting results. First, we found that veterans report higher job satisfaction than non-veterans, holding factors such as salary, tenure, and other demographic characteristics constant. This likely reflects the fact that veterans historically enjoy high social status and receive recognition for their service in the federal workplace, leading to higher job satisfaction, on average, than non-veterans.

This is not uniformly the case, however. When it comes to female federal employees, we found veteran status actually reduces job satisfaction. Why might female veterans express lower job satisfaction than female non-veterans? Previous research has shown that diversity management programs benefiting specific demographic groups may potentially create resentment among non-beneficiaries, as they may question the competence and commitment of employees receiving preferential treatment. It is possible that female veterans experience more, or are more cognizant of, resentment from non-veteran employees who question their deservingness for preferential treatment. Indeed, in the wake of President Obama’s veteran hiring push, there were numerous reports of resentment between veteran and non-veteran employees.

Our research indicates, however, that diversity management significantly mitigates the negative effects of veteran status among women working in the federal government. We also find that diversity management improves job satisfaction among veterans, generally. This suggests that diversity management practices play an important role in harmonizing differences between veterans and non-veterans in the federal service.

An important secondary finding in our research is that organizational fairness––which concerns whether employees feel organizational and personnel procedures are applied fairly among employees––significantly enhances the positive effect of diversity management on job satisfaction, among veterans and non-veterans alike. This suggests that it is important for public managers to ensure programs and policies aimed at benefiting veterans, or other demographic groups, are viewed as just and fair among both beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries.

When it comes to female federal employees, we found veteran status actually reduces job satisfaction.


U.S. military servicemembers and veterans make significant personal sacrifice by serving their country. Preference in the federal hiring process is an important gesture rewarding them for their service and helping them reintegrate into civilian life. Public managers can play an important role in this process by ensuring that the growing veteran presence in the federal government is a net positive and does not create resentment between veterans and nonveterans in the federal service. Our research suggests diversity management is a critical component of successfully integrating veterans into federal service.

Veterans exhibit distinctive workforce qualities which justify their unique consideration when tackling common public management challenges, such as employee performance, motivation, retention, and job satisfaction. Therefore, to truly maximize the value added by veteran employees, managers must recognize their distinctive attitudes, behaviors, and motivations, and include veteran status alongside other employee attributes in diversity management programs or policies.