Should HR be doing more to tap the potential of military wives?

As the new film Military Wives premieres, Eve Haworth, an HR and international recruitment specialist, takes a look at an overlooked talent pool.

"military wives" poster


I’ve recently returned from yet another “What does Brexit mean to you” event and as ever, I’m still none the wiser. The biscuits at these events are always outstanding, perhaps a deliberate distraction ploy as we head like Alice down this rabbit hole. I take comfort in the fact that I’m not alone in this, but I am acutely aware that, as employers, we will need to fully re-evaluate our talent attraction strategy. Two leading UK employers spoke about their commitment and methodology to attract ex- service personnel and, as I listened, my mind wandered back to a warm gin-soaked summer evening, where without even realising it, I may have stumbled upon something worthy of review.

For as long as I can remember, the firms that I have worked for have had an on-going commitment to hiring ex-military personnel. In the UK I’ve led both public and privately funded training projects to upskill those making the transition to “civvy street”, I’ve mapped both behaviours and transferable skillsets in order to partner with MOD organisations and recruitment agencies to promote roles with those finishing their term. I’m currently responsible for hiring in the USA where our commitment to veterans is paramount. As an employer we’re not alone in this, just last week I read about guaranteed interviews for military personnel for certain government posts.  There’s just one massive untapped resource that is often overlooked, the spouses.

Lightbulb moment

So, back to last summer and my lightbulb moment. In a pub garden I met a very lovely woman and the inevitable “What do you do?” question popped up. “I work in recruitment”, which is usually the simplest term to explain my days. “And you?” I asked. “Oh, nothing at the moment,” she said. “Once employers learn that my husband is in the army, interest in my application dries up.”

I was shocked, but was I surprised? Possibly not. We spoke further and it seemed that this had become quite a trend within her community where she knew of people never receiving constructive post-interview feedback for specific skilled roles (finance and HR being two examples) and others putting their careers on hold and just taking any job that they could – one was a trained paralegal who is now front of house at a cinema chain, another an experienced systems analyst working on a supermarket check-out. Neither role is unpleasant and neither individual is desperately unhappy, but both were a little surprised that they were unable to secure a post with a more obvious alignment to their professional training and prior career.

Unspoken discrimination?

I think of the simple problem all recruiters work tirelessly to fix- lack of available and suitable talent. It is as simple as that and yet many businesses try to overcomplicate it. In the military spouse demographic, we have available talent, but how do we measure if it’s suitable or deem that it’s unsuitable? Is military spouse recruitment an unspoken discrimination? If it is, should we not, as employers, be looking at ways to support servicing forces and their families and not just look at “rehoming” former servicemen and women?

Generally joint households are built on two incomes, most mortgages take two salaries into consideration. If military spouses must put their careers on hold, these family groups are immediately at a disadvantage now and in the future. In a way all the good work to support ex-military personnel is being unpicked slowly but surely by the job searching adversity that their non-servicing spouses face. I think back to the Brexit event and the employer showboating how many tank engineers their firm was able to employ and retrain. We all clapped, it was fabulous, but did these individuals have partners at home furiously applying to every new job on Indeed, paying to have their CVs re-written, registering with agencies weekly and still seeming to get nowhere?

So, back to basic recruitment. What are the hardest roles to fill? Contracts. Historically fixed-term contracts, although I’d imagine this will change post April 2020. Military spouses are ideally suited to this kind of work – maternity covers, long term sick cover, all welcome. If there’s an opportunity to extend, great, but this won’t be the deal breaker it can be to a non-transient workforce.

Military spouse competencies

Let’s now consider competencies, especially since employers are all moving towards hiring those with the right technical and behavioural fit to our organisations. I use five competency categories when hiring in addition to the CV technical match. I also consider future competencies and the ability to demonstrate skills that have not yet been used in the
workplace. These are:

1. Interpersonal competencies- can they work in a team, can they communicate, can they defuse conflict, do they respect others?

2. Individual competencies – can they take responsibility, can they make decisions, are they accountable, do they have a clear view of their value?

3. Managerial competencies – can they lead, can they plan, can they inspire others?

4. Motivational competencies – can they set the bar, how do they inspire others, do they have emotional intelligence?

5. Problem-solving competencies – are they tenacious, how do they get to the root of a problem, do they use data to present a solution?

I now consider the Top 10 attributes that have become a recurring theme through asking for input from the wider military spouse community.

1. Organised – you must be in order to pack up a home and family and relocate at short notice
2. Adaptable – compromises must be made consistently
3. Resilience – stressful situations are both managed and support provided for others
4. Strong interpersonal skills – able to build new relationships quickly and manage them positively
5. Culturally aware – a relocation overseas? No problem
6. Tenacity – determination to enjoy quality time with those important to them
7. Independence – individuals who are used to running their life with minimum supervision, must solve problems and multitask in new environments
8. Collaborative- – a community mindset at the very least
9. Empathetic – there is always worry and from time to time tragedy
10. Driven – despite constant rejection in job seeking they never give up.

Considering all the above, I urge recruiters and HR professionals to review their hiring strategy and take this quite extraordinary demographic into consideration.

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