Nichole Gatto-Wild Talks Employee Engagement, Communication, Evolution of Human Capital Executive

Nichole Wild, Director of Human Resources, URS Federal Services, Inc

Nichole Gatto-Wild, Director of Human Resources, URS Federal Services, Inc

Nichole Gatto-Wild is the director of human resources for URS Federal Services, Inc — a construction, engineering and technical services firm that has provided support for the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, Energy, as well as NASA and the intelligence community.

Wild joined URS in 2002 after serving as an HR Manager at Deloitte, and after supporting Wells Fargo in Charlotte, N.C.

WashingtonExec spoke to Wild about her methods for communication and employee engagement through Yammer, how her company dealt with sequestration and the evolving field of the human capital executive.

WashingtonExec: How do you manage and communicate budget cuts in the current economic climate in government contracting to ensure continued employee engagement, while also educating about the economic outlook?

Nichole Wild: It’s not so much about the ‘how’ we communicate; it’s about the ‘what’ and the ‘when’. At URS, the key is to constantly and openly communicate with staff about the current economic outlook of the business.  We don’t want our employees to make assumptions about the state of our business, because in most cases they overestimate the negative and often react to it in unfavorable ways. It’s important to be honest, even when the answer is ‘I don’t know.’  By being honest you will earn employees’ trust and therefore they are more likely to stick with you through the tough times.

At URS, we just completed a series of town hall meetings at all offices in our Systems Engineering & Information Solutions Group.  Our Vice President & General Manager, Mark Gray, provided a ‘state of the company’ update to all employees and allowed a significant amount of time for questions and answers. We have also utilized our internal social networking site, Yammer, to relay messages from senior management.  In addition, several months ago when sequestration was looming on the horizon, we proactively conducted a “Lunch and Learn” series for URS Federal Services employees to ask questions about sequestration.  All of these different venues for communication were well received by the staff.

The messaging is also important.  Encouraging employees to stay engaged and to continue providing great service to our customers has a direct impact on our ability to retain customers; excellent service delivery also provides additional opportunities for our team.  Our employees understand that what they do comes back to them in the form of job security and additional opportunities across the organization.  Tenure, strong performance and reputation are critical to job satisfaction and retention in this tight employment market.

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“It is vital to be actively engaged with high potential employees to ensure they know they are valued and understand how they fit in the organization”

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Additionally, it is vital to be actively engaged with high potential employees to ensure they know they are valued and understand how they fit in the organization.  Ideally, you are having those conversations and reinforcing that message regularly.  We refer to these discussions as ‘stay interviews,’ during which we learn more about employees’ reasons for wanting to stay with us and how we can make the workplace even better for them.  URS has a formal Talent Management Review that identifies our high potential employees within the organization.  This review ensures everyone, from senior managers to the URS Federal Services President, is aware of who the top performers are within the Federal Services Division.  Many companies have formal succession planning programs but they neglect the most important piece—notifying those high potentials that they have been identified as possible successors.  Doing this in a vacuum defeats the purpose, so we make sure our high potential employees know who they are and what the future holds for them within our company.

In terms of managing budget cuts, I always encourage management to exhaust all avenues before resorting to layoffs.  Reduce travel costs by using video conferencing or FaceTime, reduce frivolous office supply purchases, and eliminate expensive lunch meetings and order sandwiches in a conference room instead.  These are visible changes seen by employees.

WashingtonExec: You mentioned that the current job market is tight. Would you say then, that it’s an “employer’s market” rather than an “employee’s market” at the moment?  

Nichole Wild: No, I would say that most government contractors are in the same boat with regards to budget cuts, especially those who support DoD contracts– so perhaps in the past jumping from contractor to contractor wasn’t as risky as it is now, especially when tenure is being used more often as the selection criteria for a lay-off, since it mitigates risk to the company.

WashingtonExec: Please elaborate on Yammer. Why is it effective for URS?

Nichole Wild: Yammer is an effective tool for collaboration that provides URS employees with the opportunity to connect with colleagues, share capabilities and build relationships.  As URS has grown, it becomes more and more important to create awareness and opportunities to connect.  Yammer helps employees connect directly on topics and areas of expertise and it helps fill a gap in our communication toolkit and complement other systems of communication.  It is important that as an organization we progress in using emerging technology to be more effective in our communications and our ability to share knowledge.  Also, better collaboration helps us to improve delivery to our clients, since we are accessing a world of talent with diverse expertise.  We realize that our emerging workforce is entering URS with skill sets pre-disposed to open communication and the reliance upon technology to do their best work.  We need to be using tools, such as Yammer, that meet these changing needs.

WashingtonExec:  How do you deal with the generation gap between younger new hires versus older employees in terms of ensuring they stay engaged and develop an attachment to the company?

Nichole Wild: A good leader in any organization understands in order to be successful you have to understand your target audience and how to motivate your workforce successfully, especially when times are tough.  Motivating the Baby Boomers requires different “carrots’” than the X/Y Generation. At URS, we try to identify the difference in expectations so we can ensure employees stay engaged and happy in their work.  For instance, Baby Boomers place a higher degree of importance on recognition; therefore, URS has company-wide Pyramid Awards program, which recognizes teams and individuals for outstanding service.  Generation X appreciate recognition but they also place a high value on work/life balance and corporate social responsibility, so URS offers a competitive leave plan, telework arrangements and, in 2009, we created the Community Initiative Plan.  This plan allows exempt employees to take time off during the work week to volunteer at local charities.  Employees appreciate being able to give back to the communities – and not having to use their personal leave time to do so.  These programs mentioned help keep employees engaged and excited about who they work for.

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“I have found that, regardless of the generation, all employees expect fairness and consistency when it comes to accountability: they want to know and understand the rules and expect that, regardless of your level or position, you will be held to the same standards as everyone else.”

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I have found that, regardless of the generation, all employees expect fairness and consistency when it comes to accountability: they want to know and understand the rules and expect that, regardless of your level or position, you will be held to the same standards as everyone else.  A good leader understands this and ensures all employees are held accountable.  Having “untouchables” in the organization impacts credibility and can erode morale quickly, so it is important that all managers be cognizant of the fact employees are watching and expect fairness and consistency across the board. Having a formalized ethics program helps to send the message that we treat all employees equally.  URS has a very robust ethics program with a detailed Code of Business Conduct and Ethics, which is acknowledged annually.  In addition, we provide live ethics training for all employees each year and all employees have the URS Ethics hotline number, a confidential resource for employees to report anything they deem questionable.

WashingtonExec: What is the biggest challenge for Human Resources during this economic cycle?

Nichole Wild: For those of us supporting the government, our biggest challenge, aside from managing sequestration and funding cuts to our own HR teams, has to be partnering with our management team to win proposals that use the Low Price Technically Acceptable (LPTA) selection criteria.  This is a significant change from how we have done business in the past; therefore, creating winning pricing strategies and attracting the right staff for these proposals can be a huge challenge.  Additionally, as an incumbent contractor, your current workforce was likely not hired under the LPTA guidelines.  As a result, salaries can be higher than salaries of competitors operating under LPTA criteria, especially when considering annualized salary increases.  It can be tough to compete in this market.  On a positive note, LPTA provides new contractors a great opportunity to win new work.  The challenge is appropriately staffing a proposal with good talent while also ensuring the price remains competitive.  It is a balancing act, but one we are becoming more familiar with as we bid more LPTA work.

WashingtonExec: How has your company handled sequestration?

Nichole Wild: Sequestration was definitely precedent-setting.  At URS, we had to create Furlough and Reduced Work Week Policies, FAQs and a comprehensive communication plan.  Our main goal was to ensure sequestration had as minimal an impact to the employees as possible.  Some of our Defense contracts required base closures one day a week, so we tried to adjust employee schedules so they could work four ten-hour days so salaries would not be impacted.  Unfortunately, other contracts reduced funding so we were required to adjust employee schedules to accommodate.  In those instances our policy allowed employees to utilize their paid leave time and they were able to retain all full time benefits during the sequestration period.

WashingtonExec: How has the role of human capital executive changed since you first entered the field?  

Nichole Wild: It has evolved into a much more strategic role, which is valued more than in years past.  It is a pretty visible change too.  For example, the HR executive offices are now located in the C-Suite.  With the changing employment laws and the understanding of how attributions and law suits have an impact on the bottom line, management understands the importance of having HR focused on ensuring company policies are fair and consistent, having employees that are engaged and happy with their work and benefits that are competitive so we can continue to attract and retain top talent.

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