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Understanding the Differences between Military and Civilian Cultures in the Workforce

Updated: Apr 30

Hello, fellow veterans. I hope all is well, and you are staying safe in these past few challenging months. I have been writing about various topics in the past months that I have been writing articles in this newsletter, but I do not think I have written about veterans working in a civilian world. It is a different world out there. Whether you work or not, there is some information in this article that many of you may find useful and informative. So, I hope you enjoy it.

Military vs. Civilian Operational Models

Understanding how to operate in a strong, hierarchical, command, and control organization is required to reach success in the military. This background often provides veterans with a critical understanding of how many large corporations, and even many small ones, function.

However, some corporate employers function very differently from the military structure, even when they look the same. This different functionality can result in different expectations and responses that cause miscommunications for multiple parties.

Here is a basic description of the structural differences. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but these describe the basics:

Military: Command & Control Operations Model

Consistent military method and structure for logical operation:

  • Hierarchical/vertical structure

  • More exact rules of conduct

  • Defined roles, rank & status (defined/assigned military occupational career fields)

  • Consistency across units/organizations

  • Clearly defined career progression

  • Additionally, veterans share a bond in beliefs, traditions, values, and the importance of rank and structure

Corporate/Non-military: Collaborative Model

Civilian corporate structures are considerably less consistent than that of the military, generally including these elements:

  • Matrix structure

  • More implied or “understood” rules of conduct

  • Flexible/ambiguous roles & status

  • Variations across teams/divisions

  • Less defined career progression/opportunity for lateral assignments

  • Corporate culture imposes corporate values on the organization

Military vs. Civilian Career Progression

The progression in a career differs significantly between military and civilian:

The Military Ladder

Military members rise to the top, based on a career ladder (from enlisted one to enlisted nine within a 20 to 30-year career; or junior officer to senior officer). Most rise is in the same career field, like intelligence, logistics, aviation, infantry, medical, administration, etc. Some branches provide opportunities for enlisted soldiers to become Warrant Officers and Officers through a board and selection process.

The Corporate Matrix

The “chain of command” in the civilian world is not as transparent. In many organizations, you will have more than one supervisor - known as a “matrix.” If you work in the field of security, you could report both to a “shift leader” or “captain” of your department. On the non-military side, the opportunities are much less defined, both inside a company and when reaching for the top ladder-rungs or when changing companies.

Many companies have career field codes, typically much more flexible, which allow employees to transfer into new positions, provide them with the appropriate training, and expect them to succeed. The opportunities are boundless on the corporate side.

On the Job

Non-military companies are also less structured. Cultural differences present challenges for both parties on the job. Not all veterans adapt well to the more ambiguous work environment of non-military employers, and they simply need to learn the new cultural climate: ask questions and absorb the feedback with differences. Others adapt quickly and easily by observing the unique culture and learning to speak the new language. Some employers prefer not to hire veterans simply because they have preconceived ideas and notions (stereotypes) of their “rigidness” and “yelling” from media and social media-driven reports.

Military-Friendly Employers

To locate military-friendly employers, check out the Top 100 Defense Contractors (especially the ones with the most substantial dollar volume of prime contract awards), or look for lists of military-friendly employers. Some companies have created internal programs to educate the military on the collaborative culture and assist them in integrating into the civilian corporate culture.

To further identify military-friendly employers, type in search words on job boards, and search for the following:

  • Government / Department of Defense Contractors

  • Companies & Contractors Requiring a Security Clearance

  • Security & Law Enforcement Organizations

  • The Federal Government

  • Intelligence & Intelligence Training Organizations

  • Communications-oriented Companies

  • Companies seeking military experience and discipline: Home Depot, NGOs, Telecommunications

  • Schools (Troops to Teachers)

Some non-DoD companies include Sprint-Nextel, Merrill Lynch, Troops to Teacher program, Bank of America, Walmart, Lowes, Southern California Edison, Sodexo, and T-Mobile, to name a few, are very veteran-friendly.

Bottom Line

Understand that the culture in many civilian organizations can be dramatically different from that of military organizations. Research potential employers and present carefully planned questions during the interview process to understand your fit with the corporate civilian culture before pursuing or accepting the job.

I hope you enjoyed this information, and it has added something to your knowledge toolbox. Please share this with your fellow veterans if challenged with finding employment or challenged with dealing with other civilians. (Who knows?). You never know how the information you learn can be applied to help others in need.


Hudson, D. (2020). Understanding How Military and Civilian Cultures Differ. Retrieved from

Image provided by Midjourney (April 2023). Retrieved from

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