How to Respond When Someone Disparages Military Service in the Workplace

(Department of Defense/Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison)

Ugh. It happened. You heard someone saying something negative about veterans, military service or the armed forces and immediately jumped into battle, challenging their views. Were you justified in speaking your mind and defending a commitment you feel proud to have chosen? Of course. Could doing so risk your reputation in a civilian workplace? Yes, it could indeed.

Knowing when and where to share your outrage at ignorant or offensive comments about military service is critical. You are certainly entitled to voice your views, especially ones deeply personal to you and those you served alongside, and articulating your position correctly can lead to deeper awareness and understanding for those around you. But doing so without forethought, however, can be risky.

Here are some tips for responding when someone reacts negatively to your military service in the workplace:

1. Consider the Speaker

Is this person known for being provocative and "spouting off" without much thought? Or is this someone who's not educated on the subject and is simply sharing an uninformed view with the hopes of learning more?

Take a second before reacting and consider how you'll respond, based on what you know to be true about the speaker. For example, trolls online thrive on engaging in and launching vile conversations, hiding behind the anonymity of the keyboard. Is this someone for you to engage with and potentially risk damaging your reputation? Likely not.

Or is this someone important to your career? For instance, if a colleague shares an ignorant statement about what military service is about, and this person is someone you previously respected and worked well with, you might consider approaching them with more tact. Perhaps they developed their perception of military service from social media and television. In this case, a conversation offline, without an audience, could serve to educate them on your experience. 

2. Consider the Medium

Are you engaging with a negative comment on Facebook or in a company meeting? Did you overhear someone speaking to another person, or did they speak to you directly? Was this comment published in a respected media outlet or shared as an offhand comment at a social gathering? Where and how the speaker shared their comment matters.

For example, if someone has too much to drink at a social event, they may strive for attention by being outlandish. They might be sharing their true feelings or not. Hard to tell. Consider whether getting into an intelligent conversation with someone impaired is in your best interest.

If someone addresses you after knowing your military experience, this is a different scenario. Here, it's important to consider whether addressing the comment publicly (in a meeting, group chat or other public forum) is warranted, or whether that could do more damage. For example, if you called out a senior company leader in a group meeting for an insensitive comment, will you be helping that person learn from their error or will you embarrass them and jeopardize their willingness to learn from their mistake?

Again, you can represent your feelings and should feel confident standing up for your beliefs. But there is a time and place to have those conversations to get the ideal desired result.  

3. Consider the Timing

While you might feel upset, offended, angry or frustrated by an ignorant or insulting comment, ask yourself whether you'd be best served to take a minute to gather your thoughts or if responding in the moment is optimal. 

Acknowledge what you're feeling and what just happened. Pay attention to who the speaker is, what the setting is and what factors could be driving their need to share such a comment. Then form your response as a careful and thoughtful retort, not an angry and profanity-filled reaction. 

The goal is to control what you can control -- your response -- and not to play into someone else's sinister or childish behavior.

No one wants to feel slighted or insulted for a decision and commitment as noble as military service. Many do not understand what it means to serve, yet feel empowered to share their negative or uninformed views with those who served. You have every right to share your truth and views.

The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty" (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication and reputation risk management.

A contributing writer for, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.

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