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Episode 1: Engaging Your GovCon Workforce

We are pleased to announce that we've launched a podcast! GovCon HR Round-Up is a project that we have collaborated on with our esteemed partners at Berenzweig Leonard, LLP to bring you monthly segments of high-quality and informative GovCon HR content. To join us live each month, please register using this link. 

In our inaugural episode, we dive into employee engagement and what government contractors can do to maintain an engaged workforce. Hosted by Joe Young, President of GovConPay, this episode features insights from industry experts Declan Leonard and Seth Berenzweig. As they discuss the critical role of communication in workplace success, especially for government contractors, get ready to uncover unique challenges faced in this space.

You can watch the first episode on YouTube, listen on Spotify, or read the transcription below. 

Joe Young: Good afternoon, Government HR Professionals! With that lead-in, guys, I think we've got to bring a little energy.

Declan Leonard: I'll tell you what: Kudos to the house band. They sound great today.

Joe Young: It sounds good. So welcome, everyone, and good afternoon. My name is Joe Young. I am the president of GovConPay, and it is my great pleasure to welcome you to the inaugural govt HR govt con roundup. I should get that right here on our first one. We're getting there. So we are coming to you live from these amazing studios here at the headquarters of Berenzweig and Leonard LLP. And I am here today with the founders of that firm, Seth Berenzweig and Declan Leonard. Hey, guys, How are we doing?

Declan Leonard: I'm doing well today. Yeah, Great.

Seth Berenzweig: And welcome everybody. I'm Seth Berenzweig. I manage our corporate and transactional practice here at the law firm.

Declan Leonard: And I'm Declan Leonard. It's great to be here. I head up our firm's employment law practice, and I'll just say, you know, we've known Joe and his colleague Braden French for a couple of years now, and Seth and I were talking about this - we’re so impressed by how deep GovConPay is in the GovCon industry. So, we jumped at the chance to do this podcast with you all. I am so looking forward to this first one.

Joe Young: No, we appreciate it, guys. We love to try and bring government specific content to our clients, to our partners, to our friends, and working with experts like you is always a privilege. And you guys are the star of the show today. I'm here to try and guide us along. I know we're going to bring some great content to our listeners today and going forward as we look to do this on a monthly basis.

Declan Leonard: So fantastic. 

Joe Young: Ready to jump into it?

Declan Leonard:  Absolutely. Let's do it.

Joe Young: All right, great. Well, our topic for today and for our first session is employee engagement. I think engagement has been a pretty big buzzword here, kind of in the HR and employment area, for a number of years. You know, Declan, how would you even kind of define engagement in the environment today when people mention that?

Declan Leonard: Yeah, it's a great topic, particularly to start off the year in January. You know, everybody sort of, you know, everyone's ready to hit the ground running for a new year. Engagement, you're right. It is a buzzword. You hear it a lot. It's really a fancy way of saying communication. You know, communication throughout life, we all know, is indispensable.

It's largely the secret to success, personally and professionally. But in the workplace, it's so, so critical. And as we'll talk about today, even more so for government contractors. And again, our event today is going to be talking about engagement for government contractors. Studies show that when you have ineffective communication in the workplace, everything else just kind of goes down from there.

Joe Young: Absolutely. And as we do, we said so we want to focus on that government contracting space. What in your guys' work with your clients have you seen is kind of uniquely challenging to the government contractors along with this topic?

Seth Berenzweig: Well, government contractors are a unique animal. You know, we take that environment somewhat for granted here in the D.C. region, but it really is a unique space, and it's hard enough to manage and retain a workforce. But since we're here in the federal space, a lot of the employees are offsite, aside from all the other challenges related to telework, and in this post-COVID environment, you have employees that are largely offsite. They're there with the customer they're teaming with with the sub at the prime.

So, on top of all the other challenges, you have a workforce that, to a large degree, is essentially invisible. That makes it even more challenging and even more imperative as far as the communication protocols that Declan mentioned a minute ago.

Declan Leonard: And there also, Seth, as we've seen with a lot of our client base, Joe, you probably see this too with, with your exhaustive, very exhaustive client base of government contractors. We can't pay their spread out all over the country, right?

Hopefully, it will be within the parameters of the country, but sometimes, it will go even further than that. But let's stick to even just being in the United States with all the different states and all the different states' laws. We'll talk about those challenges today and how you can, you know, do your best to stay on top of them and try to overcome those challenges. 

The other thing that I would say, and you're right, Seth, I mean, in the government contracts realm, is that it's a whole different animal. One of the other ways is when you work for a regular commercial company, you kind of, I mean, you're an at-will employee, but you kind of work indefinitely.

Like, you know, you're kind of the foreseeable future government contractors, the employees really kind of work to the next base year, option year, you know, rebid of the contract.

So there's that more of a definite term that comes into play that I think presents a unique challenge.

Seth Berenzweig: And I think one of the other challenges about it is not only in terms of the fact that you're managing employees in different states, which comes with its own set of rules and regulations depending upon where they're located. 

But the fact is that you're operating with rules that are generally HR-applicable but also federal sector-specific. So, really, the federal sector HR professional is really kind of a professional juggler because he or she has to juggle a lot of balls at the same time every single day.

Declan Leonard: Absolutely. I mean, our attendees today, I think are going to be heavy in the HR realm of government contractors. You all play such an instrumental role in trying to keep all this straight. And so a lot of this that we're going to be talking about today is going to be directed to you.

Joe Young: Now, Declan, there are certain strategies that you've seen or worked with on your clients that they have implemented to try and combat some of these challenges.

Declan Leonard: Yes. So there's a lot, and I think that's probably what we're going to spend the crux of today talking about trying to give helpful tips, what we've seen to work in real life, you know, real-world with with with both our clients. And Joe, you encounter them, too. So, this will be a discussion by all means Today. 

I always say start with an HR audit. You know, that's the very first thing. Paperwork. Yeah. HR audit usually means what you're talking about is the handbook, your employment agreements, your offer letters, your policies and procedures, and things of that nature.  That is by no means an end in place. I think it's very much just a starting place. But when you have your ducks in a row as a company with your written policies, it exudes a level of confidence and credibility to your workforce. And I think that goes a long way towards engagement and retention of employees.

Seth Berenzweig: I would also follow up on that and I would add directly related to that, encourage setting and managing expectations early. 

So, for example, you talk about a handbook and management and retention of the workforce. As we've noted, there are members of teams that are going to be spread out throughout the country. When you are recruiting and when you are interviewing folks, you need to be aware of and incorporate different rules in different jurisdictions.

I just saw the other day that the state of California has a brand new rule, for example, with a broad invalidation of. Yes, well, exactly. A broad invalidation.

Power. Yeah. Yeah. Well, well, we'll probably need a drink before we talk about California. But it not only invalidates non-competes but wait, there's more… 

There's a requirement coming up in just a couple of weeks that employers have an affirmative obligation to proactively notify every employee subject to one of those non-compete in their original agreement to let them know that it is void and unenforceable.

And if the company doesn't do that, it's subject to a penalty of $2,500 per violation. You have different transparency requirements in Oregon in Washington, D.C. 

So where you are and how you follow and set those expectations is also going to be key. But it's also an opportunity to show the employee that the company knows how to turn square corners, that they're organized, that they're proactive, and that they can help describe those parameters and benefits as they start that relationship.

Joe Young: And that starts I think it's important from from day one. I think as we're all everybody struggling to find new employees, is that opportunity, that onboarding process. It’s become so important to just, you know, to communicate that and display that to new employees. As you said, hey, we've got our act together. We can execute on this. We're going to make your onboarding process seamless and we're going to make sure that you feel a part of the organization from the get-go.

Declan Leonard: Yeah, I mean, I can't tell you, as you know, firsthand experience. I mean, you've got a pretty good client, I mean, pretty good employee base, I should say. And so you have real-world experience in that, you know, that you never get that, you know, the proverbial never get a second chance to make a first impression. People will carry that with them.

And it reduces, you know, credibility and sometimes morale in the workplace. So how have you seen that process?

Joe Young: Yeah, we interestingly, as a lot of companies in COVID went from a very centralized organization in-office environment to a very decentralized one, with able to get the great thing, that great talent to support our organization all over the country, but then brings those additional challenges as far as engagement and retention, one thing that we've done, we've put a lot of effort, a lot of really thoughtful effort into how we onboard new employees.

And one thing that we've done, I think that's pretty unique, that we get constant, great feedback from our new employees. It's every single one of our new employees gets a half-hour scheduled with every member of our executive leadership team, even some of our founders who are not actively involved in the business anymore get engaged in some of these half-hour meetings.

Sometimes they're small groups. When we have people come in, sometimes they're even one-on-one. And the impact that we've seen from our employees to say, Hey, you know, I've never maybe meet some of these people in person, some out of the area. But to have that first impression and that interaction, to say, hey, I know what this company's about, I know they value me to the point that, you know, the retired CEO who's now kind of emeritus, he spends a half hour with me so he knows what we're all about, where we started.

Seth Berenzweig: And when you talk about employee management and employee retention, I would imagine that technology also has an impact here. And we certainly want to be able to leverage down the technology to assist in that regard. 

Do you have any thoughts or have you seen any deployment of technology that can provide any kind of assistance on this front?

Joe Young: Absolutely. I mean, we are I joke with people all the time, pay is in our name and we do payroll. We do that really well, but we are as much in kind of the HR process reengineering business in the HR technology business as we are in anything so having an onboarding process that is not relying on paper, right, simple processes, right. You know, employees can onboard and do their tax forms and do their benefits, do all that, like on their iphone or on their mobile device. Really critical to that first impression. 

And then there are tools for engagement for, hey, can you survey your employees? Can you create an environment where employees can collaborate online through tools like that?

We also and I think people are doing it more of this environment of annual really broad engagement surveys of giving your employees an opportunity to really voice things around, things around, “Hey, what's your workload like? What's your work-life balance? Do you feel that there's accountability across the organization?” So we've done that allows people in a, you know, a way which, you know, you know, obviously not identifying themselves.

To not ask your door down to the manager level to break that feedback by department and then kind of look where there's departments and then have those managers also engage. Because I think with engagement we talked about that relationship with the manager.

Declan Leonard: Yeah, 100%. Yeah. I think companies, at least in my experience, don't use surveys enough. It's kind of maybe gets back to what is it Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, you know “you can't handle the truth” you kind of you kind of worry about like what you're going to what you're going to learn. But honestly, it's better to learn it in a survey, even if it's anonymous, and even if you get maybe some of the squeaky wheels being a little bit more vocal in that anonymous setting, it's better to do that than getting the thing saying, Hey, I'm leaving. Oh, why were you leaving? Oh, I've been unhappy for months and months and months, you know. So I think surveys play a very much a critical role.

Yeah. You mentioned the role of managers, managers as they interact with HR - Seth, what are your thoughts on that?

Seth Berenzweig: Well, i think training is something that is a word that's that's kicked around a lot. But training for managers is particularly important in the HR space, not only in terms of the mission of the company and to make sure that as the companies missions and objectives get updated, that that is really communicated to and through the managers, but to quite frankly make sure that they're aware of things that are changing in the employment law space because they're they're really the front line.

They're the ones that are really toeing the line in that regard and being the critical feedback, especially when they're at a customer's site. So having that feedback and having that ongoing training with management is something that I think is really important. The other thing to keep in mind is that, you know, there's there are always shifting missions of companies in the federal space, among other things, that has to do with the procurement cycle.

So making sure that the team is aligned and there's training also on what the communications and what the objectives are for growing the company is important too, because at the end of the day, we're all about helping the company grow and scale.

Declan Leonard: And not keeping that procurement process necessarily a secret to the people who are actually working on that contract. Right. The billable slots that are actually working there, look at them more than just fill the slots. Look at them as employees, valued employees. And so can you imagine, you know, you're an employee and this is your you know, either your main source of income for your household or their substantial source of income.

And you know that a contract is coming either to the end of a base year. You don't know whether or not the option year has been exercised or you're bidding on something and you don't know if it's under protest or whatever. I think there's got to be more transparency between company leadership and the employees who actually do the work onsite, you know, for the agency, because I think that that's a morale killer when you leave them in the dark like that, they go home to their spouse, their family, their significant other, whatever, and they say, I don't even know what's going on here.

And then what are they going to do? They're probably going to start looking elsewhere.

Seth Berenzweig: There also needs to be transparency between management HR And the sales team in one of the groups that we work together in the HR Governance forum which we can talk a little bit about shortly. There was some really interesting conversation about how the HR Leadership was at times amazed about how the sales team were like, you know, puppies running up a hill all by themselves saying, well, this is what we did.

And you know, in terms of, you know, costs and overhead, if there's no communication about the objectives and pricing, then that's something that's also going to put the company out ahead of its skis.

Declan Leonard: Yeah. And of course, you know, one of our big functions in the government realm, in addition to ploy relations is recruiting. And so like you just said, if sales is out there and listen, what a critical role sales is. But if it's out there and making promises and and and getting work, but if they have not closely aligned with that recruiting function within HR

Again, another absolute morale killer. Big disconnects actually really impacting the bottom line from a revenue standpoint.

Joe Young: Yeah. Yeah. You know, one other topic, obviously key to engagement and retention is, you know, feedback and performance reviews. Candidly, what we've seen with a lot of our clients in that small and middle market space is i think our government contracting clients from our commercial clients seem to be a little bit behind the curve and implementing performance reviews or are still looking at annual reviews where it seems like everything is moving towards more, more frequent free feedback, quarterly reviews or even things may be more frequent than that.

What are you guys seeing in that area as far as your clients, what they're doing and what some of the challenges are?


Declan Leonard: And that's one of the things that we talked about earlier. These are our technology platforms. And I think again, I'm kind of a technophobe here. Maybe you're a close second, But I think those play a vital, vital role. But only one piece of the puzzle they cannot you know, sometimes I see these platforms that are so in-depth that it loses the human touch of what a review really is.

You're trying to plug, you know, a number to somebody who maybe has some potential, but maybe from a number standpoint, they're barely meeting expectations. So I think moving away from these annual reviews, I mean, you can do an annual review, it's fine. But I think what we're seeing, maybe not wholesale adoption, but definitely more quarterly reviews. You know, it's funny because there's this phrase in HR, you always hear of exit interviews. Now some companies are saying let's do stay interviews. Let's talk to people almost like along the lines of surveys, but not anonymous. And let's talk to them and see how are you doing? Not how did you perform on this or what was your metric here? But like, how are you doing? How do you feel here?

Are you happy here? Are you fulfilled professionally here? Do you see yourself and where do you see yourself here?

Seth Berenzweig: Yeah. And what are the things that we can do to help you grow? Professional development is something that our firm takes a lot of pride in. And, you know, there have been a number of studies that have indicated that while monetary compensation is very important, professional growth and development and the intellectual aspect of that, this is something that is at least as important and to let people know that you want to know, be inquisitive, try to find out from your key players what is it that we can do to continue to help with your advancement in your professional development of the company That's also going to be accretive to revenue because then they're going to be able to to to delve into those areas and to improve the contribution that they can provide to the bottom line.

Declan Leonard: Of mentoring professional development, as you say. I mean, it's just so critical and because of the unique structure of government contractors, because of the fact that many of the supervisors are the first line managers are actually with the employees off-site either remotely or at a government site, you could say to yourself, well, HR Is here at headquarters is the first line sort of boots on the ground.

Supervisors are out there. So that's a decentralized process and so the managers play a more pivotal role. I would argue just the opposite. It makes your role even more critical because if you have managers out there who are managing nine different ways, 20 different ways, whatever, that's why it's HR Is role to stay intimately involved in this process and it's training.

It's periodic check-ins. They have to partner with management, but even more closely given the locational challenges.

Seth Berenzweig: It's interesting to see how their such and how HR Leadership is such a focal pivot point within the operations of a company. They have to interface with sales, with the executive team, with the board who are with the rank and file, and to really balance all of those considerations and personalities. So when you're doing it with a remote workforce all over the country, it's kind of like trying to walk down a beach where the sand is constantly shifting because in one state you're following one set of rules and then you're in another state where if you're providing an interview for someone in in in a certain state where there are a number of states where you have to provide the salary bands, you have to provide in Washington, D.C., advance notification of a pre-interview, is that right for an interview?

Declan Leonard: Yes.

Seth Berenzweig: With respect to the availability of health benefits, these are things that have to be done even before you interview. For someone who may or may not ever even work for the company. 

Declan Leonard: Yeah, that's absolutely right. And it gets back to that point of, you know, making sure communication is a combination of written policies, making sure those are just really, really buttoned up. So, for instance, you just mentioned D.C., DC just passed its own paycheck. Transparency law goes into effect probably in June of 2024, June of this year, because DC has to go through specific congressional hoops.

But yeah, in addition to posting the range of salary before you interview somebody, you have to tell that person whether or not you offer health care benefits. So yeah, that's something that normally happens. So HR is going to have to acclimate to all of these different things. They're going to have to keep track of these things. They're going to have to make sure their handbook takes into account all of these variations state by state.

We usually recommend that you do an addenda, you know, state specific addenda, because if you start to put all of the different states into one document, your employees are going to be very confused as to why people in Colorado are getting this much leave, why people in D.C. are getting this much leave, and why, let's say people in Virginia are getting really any guaranteed leave at all because we haven't gotten there yet.

Joe Young: Great. One thing I just recommend for our audience out there, we have about 10 minutes left if you want it. We do have some of our team monitoring the Q&A in the chat. So if you have any questions for Seth and Declan, please submit those. We'll try and get those addressed before we get off happy too.

One other time we touched on a little bit at the beginning, and this could probably be a show on its own, but as it gets into retention, we talked a little bit about kind of non-compete and the landscape of that is, yeah, it's changing dramatically.

Seth Berenzweig: Absolutely, just as we've been talking about things that are basically animals of state law, non-compete are largely animals of state law and that's also where the sand can be shifting underneath your feet because different states have different standards. Most of them apply their version of what's called a reasonableness test. But the thing that's really interesting about non-compete is that sometimes companies can from in from a retention standpoint and from a strategic consideration, bypass potentially a non-compete, and instead go with what is a little bit more of a narrow but still effective non-solicit where they can basically recruit by saying we don't have a non-compete we have a more narrow non-solicitation clause that allows broader freedom of range but simply provides reasonable restrictions with regard to for post-employment solicitation of specific customers and employees. The one thing that is also very interesting on the non-compete front is that there is activity here in Washington because Washington never misses an opportunity to try to regulate something. Declan, why don't you tell us about the interesting developments at FTC?

Declan Leonard: Yeah, Yeah. So the Federal Trade Commission is really making a big push, in essence, to really restrict potentially even outlaw non-compete and assess it. When we talk about non-compete, that's a very broad term. So what ends up coming out of this regulation, whether it's truly a non-compete, hey, you can't work in the same industry for 12 months, 24 months, whatever it is, or whether or not it becomes a lot broader.

And it's like, you know, you can't even have non-solicitations, so you can't restrict somebody from going after the very same contract, the very same work. When it comes up on a compete, the devil will be in the details. We'll see. But there's a very concerted effort definitely to do so. I mean, I always tell clients I mean it's a question I get all the time are non-compete is enforceable.

And you know of course every lawyer answers “well it depends”. And it's and it's a genuine answer because, hey, it depends What your non-compete says is that, you know, you can't work in the United States in this industry and that gets ludicrous. We would never advise that. But what I would say for non-compete is the one piece of the puzzle, or I'll call them restrictive covenants because non-compete is too broad.

They're just one piece of the puzzle. If you think you're going to maintain engagement and retention of your workforce with a written document solely, then you're probably big time mistaken. But if you make it as one piece of your puzzle, if you do all the things that we talked about earlier training, professional development, regular check-ins with your employees, you're probably going to be even more effective at retaining employees than you are than this, you know, eight and a half by eleven piece of paper.

Seth Berenzweig: And I just and I know, Joe, that gives you a second to to chime in, but I just wanted to note how unique of a time it is now that we're actually looking at the federal government regulating non-compete. It really is unbelievable. Here in Virginia, the employment law of Virginia has changed dramatically over the last year. Yeah, wage statutes in Virginia, misclassification.

Seth Berenzweig: Those weren't even a thing.

Declan Leonard: They said to call us California-lite. Right? You said no employment laws, right? Yeah. So.

Seth Berenzweig: Yeah, so. So the times are changing.

Declan Leonard: Yes. Yes. And I'll just I'll just end by saying, you know, I know it's a bit of a cliche, but what I find time and time again is, you know, documents, policies are so critical, treating people fairly. And that is obviously, you know, a broad topic. 

But treating people fairly is probably the best way to retain employees. At the end of the day, turnover is inevitable, but make sure to me, the most important thing is don't take our trade secrets, don't take our confidential information or proprietary information.

And so look at those provisions in your agreements, perhaps with more scrutiny than even these non-competes.

Seth Berenzweig: That's a good point. And make sure that those documents are marked, that they have protective legends on them because if they are taken, there's you set the expectations and you set the rules by just putting very simple legends or markings on the documents, which takes less than a minute and can end up protecting trade secrets and strategies which are crucial to the company.

Declan Leonard: Well, Joe, time flies when we're having fun.

Joe Young: It does. We are coming up on our half-hour here. And you I think the biggest takeaway is everything is always changing. I know it's, you know, and for the HR Professionals out there, I think that's like the biggest challenge of their of their job and their passion is and it's not, you know, federal regulation is for so many of these government contractors in particular who are spread across the country, knowing all these changes in every state and every local jurisdiction is really just is really a herculean task.

We hope that today. And what we're going to try to do going forward is going to try and provide some some feedback and some advice and some insights to help with that great challenge. I think we also learned today that communication, yeah, at the end of the day is really one of the most important and really most important things to retain those employees and stay engaged.

Declan Leonard: I think that's right. Today was a taste of what we're going to do for the next 12 months and we'll get deeper and deeper with each month.

Joe Young: Yeah. So on behalf of Seth and Declan, we really want to thank you for talking on that. But we really appreciate everybody's time. We hope you enjoyed this. This is our first time doing this so we could only get better. We look forward to next month. 

Our episode next month is going to be on February 15th. And I think a really interesting topic. It's going to be around the national labor relations boards new and some may say controversial joint employer rule and the special impact that that's going to have on government contractors.

So please keep an eye out on social media and our promotion for that upcoming event next February. 

Also, for those of you who are still with us, GovConPay and Berenzweig Leonard, LLP, are founding partners of an organization called the gov con HR Forum. And what this is, is we created this over a year ago and it's a membership organization for high-performing govcon HR executives where we create content, bring people in for dinner and create really a sense of community with the leadership in this space because what we found is, boy, with all the things going on, it's great to have some other people that sit in the same seat that you do every day that you can call up and say, “Hey, how you dealing with this? How are you dealing with that issue? And what are some of the challenges?”. 

So, our first event of 2024 is going to be next Thursday, January 25th at the Rin restaurant in Tysons Corner. And we are super excited. We have a speaker coming in who is an expert on the topic of A.I. artificial intelligence, which is all you can hear about these days and the impact that's going to have on HR. So we really think we have a really exciting topic. 

So as those of you are interested in joining us and learning more about the forum, please reach out to Declan, Seth or myself, either via email or on social media. We'd love to talk to you about it and extend an invitation to join us for dinner that night and what we think is going to be a great event.

So, we hope some of you out there would be interested to join us. We'd love to have you. So with that, thank you again for joining us for this inaugural session. And we look forward to seeing you next month on February 15th. Take care.

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