Giles O’Halloran presents his advice on adapting to and overcoming the issues that may arise in the civilian workplace…

The move to civvy street can be a stressful one. It is not just looking for and securing the job you want that can be stressful, it is also about working in an environment that is often very different to what you are used to.

This article is therefore about some of the negative aspects you may come across as part of that transition process. I am not saying that every employer or workplace experiences the things I cover below. However, I would prefer to make you aware of them so that you can then consider these as you progress in your civilian employment. Often, it is more about adapting to and overcoming the issues that may arise.


Some of you may experience this and others may not. It is often a divisive process and is all about people trying to position themselves in such a way that they benefit or can influence their environment. This is not just about management, and more often than not, employees will try to work around the management line in order to influence others. So just be aware that some people use this as a tool to protect their status or role, and I would advise you stay clear of office politicking. Identify those who play the game and try to minimise the impact it has on you.


Depending on your work environment, you will often find that communication with colleagues can be frustrating or hard work. The thing to remember is that ex-Services people know how to speak to one another, communicate succinctly and with clarity. This is not always the case with the civvy world. Some people are naturally poor communicators, and I don’t just mean on a face-to-face basis.

They will forget to keep you informed or rely too much on technology (such as email, text etc) in order to communicate. Again, just keep this in mind, understand the best way to connect or communicate with colleagues and find out their communication preferences. This will help a great deal when building trust and a good working relationship with others.

The Working Environment

Whether you go to work in an office, a factory or a large depot, many find it can be claustrophobic, repetitive and aggravated by the two previous sections – politics and poor communication. If you let these get to you, it could anger you, frustrate you and lead to stress. So, again, take the time to understand the differences and adapt how you approach or manage your work environment. This does not mean you should compromise your personal professionalism, I simply mean you need to be aware of the differences.

An example of this could be deadlines. The Services know the importance of these but this is not always the same in civvy street. Deadlines may be missed or moved, but do not get frustrated by this. Just treat it as another way of how you can differentiate yourself professionally from others by being able to meet or beat deadlines set. It is very much about mind-set rather than just managing the situation.


Very few civilian employers have the same management training or development as the military. This is even the case in the global corporations. Technical experts are often promoted to become managers and are also expected to be leaders. However, they often possess little or no experience of leading staff and receive very little guidance. The military does it the other way and looks for both potential in technical and leadership capability before promoting people.

I am not saying the military is perfect, but I am saying that you need to be mindful of the fact that management development or promotion can be very different in the civilian world. However, you also need to understand that respect for management differs as well. Although management lines exist, it will not be the same as the military. Whereas military law helps enforce the chain of command, I am afraid employment law is there to protect the individual. This sometimes causes conflict and leads to managers fearing to take the right courses of action as they fear the potential risks of doing so.

So, again be mindful of this and understand something about the management culture or how employee interaction happens where you work. Some companies have a very flat management structure and rely more on collaboration than command. Therefore just adapt the way you work, moving from a chain of command to a team-based approach. In reality, you will be able to adapt to this more capably than your civilian colleagues.

Time & Working Hours

The military has an interesting approach to working hours due to the nature of the work they do. Often you will work long hours under stress, whereas others can be quite relaxed and your workload light. There could be sports on a Wednesday afternoon and some units knock off at noon on a Friday.

Working days in civilian employment are usually quite rigid or more may be expected of you for more of the time you are in work. Even though you may be contracted to work a certain number of hours, many employers have additional clauses around flexibility or they will ask you to sign out of the Working Time Directive. Remember that it is your right to decline opting out and you are responsible for working the hours you need.

Do not get into the trap of having to work long hours all the time because it is expected. Good managers will stop you from working long hours, but if the work is being done and it means extra hours, many will let you manage your own time. However, your health comes first. If they expect much more than is in your contract, I’d say you need to seriously consider moving on before it becomes a problem.

In the same light, time and the art of timekeeping is something sacrosanct in the military. However, you need to remember that most civilians will never have heard of the ‘5 minutes before 5 minutes before’ and do not respect the same rigidity around time or schedules. Why? The simple truth is consequence. A civilian will never understand that a five minute delay in fire support will cost lives. They have never experienced this kind of pressure or need.

So, they do not respect or understand the importance of timing as those from a services background. Simply take it into account and again, do not compromise, but realise they will never understand the value of timing as you will.

Reacting to Change

Your career in the military will be testament to your ability to manage and deal with change. You will have developed skills under harsh conditions, you will have had to adapt to adverse environments, and you will have had to deal with preparing for, going on and returning from active duty. These and the fact you will have changed roles every two to three years means that change is part of your career to date.

However, most civilian employees do not react well to change, and some do not change roles or environments as much as you have. They will therefore not be comfortable with, or able to adapt to, or embrace change as well as you. However, your personal experience could again be a most valuable asset to fuel your advance, helping others to adapt and then managing change effectively in the workplace.


The most common thing I hear from Service Leavers is “I miss the banter. “ Banter in civvy street is never going to be the same as the military, unless you perhaps work for a company that employs a large number of ex-military personnel. There is still banter in the office or workplace, but you will find it will be very different due to the laws and working environments of civvy street.

You will need to be mindful of legislation that now controls how people are treated in the workplace – protection from harassment, discrimination etc., all the stuff you will have covered in D&E briefings. Although banter can be a great way for a team to bond, share experiences and build esprit de corps, it can have a negative side. So be careful of how banter is perceived by colleagues, as you do not want to end up in a tribunal situation where you and your finances are at risk. Enjoy being you and having banter, but always be careful of who is around or might take offence.


Do not expect civilian colleagues to understand what you may have been through in your career to date. I assure you that no matter how hard they try, they will not understand or be able to comprehend some of the operational environments that you may have experienced or been exposed to. So, if you take this as a given, it may make it easier for you to deal with or understand your colleagues. Many will genuinely be interested in your experiences or previous work, but don’t expect them to truly understand the pressures you have worked under or had to endure. If you follow this principle, it may help you wind down a little when working with civilian colleagues.


Life in the military comes with stress, but be prepared that the working environment, the work or the way things are done in civvy street may well get to you or frustrate you in a way you have not yet experienced. It is often because it is a different kind of stress, perhaps something you are not used to and mixed expectations that then add to the problem.

I have seen this happen with employees and the worst case has been with an individual who left a high tempo operational role and walked straight into an office job. They never took the time to adjust, to deal with the stress of their previous role and the massive change from operational theatre, to working in an office.

So, first take the opportunity to speak to specialists and medics before you leave the military. Dealing with combat stress and the outcomes is a courageous step and much more noble than just locking it in the mind. Getting it sorted will then help you adjust and also help you deal with the change in working environment.

Stress can be and is a killer, so if things get to you at work, find ways of minimising it – take regular breaks, play sport, go for a run in lunch breaks, turn off your work mobile at home, talk to colleagues etc.- there are many ways to manage and reduce stress. So, take the opportunity to reduce it as much as possible, as changing roles, work and the level of stress can have a massive impact on your body, your mind and your life.

I hope I have provided you with a few pieces of advice that will help you transition to your new life and career. Please remember that you are unlikely to experience all of the above, but they may come up every so often in your career. Being forewarned is forearmed, so just understand the situation and you can then work your way through it.

About The Author

Giles is an experienced HR and Recruitment professional. He started life as a recruitment consultant supporting a number of Blue Chip organisations, before joining IBM and developing his HR experience in a number of key roles. He has since worked for two global recruitment organisations in senior HR roles and is now an independent HR and Employment consultant. Giles has also provided CV writing, interview and network support to private and public sector clients for over a decade.