The “Dual Culture Conundrum” in GovCon

Having spent a considerable amount of time in the cleared space, I’ve come to realize that there’s a critical issue affecting recruitment and retention in the industry – the “Dual Culture Conundrum.” It’s surprising that there isn’t more open discussion about this, given its major impact on the workforce. While companies strive to build strong internal cultures, the reality is that employees often experience the culture of the government customer on a daily basis. 

I am sure we can all relate to this. Some agencies have great cultures on-site, while others are downright horrible. At Mount Indie, we call this the “dual culture conundrum.” 

 The government contracting (govcon) industry is unique in that it often requires employees to often times navigate two competing cultures. On the one hand, there is the culture of the company itself, which is typically more inclusive and open-minded. On the other hand, there is the culture of the government customer, which can be more traditional and let’s just say… “rigid”. 

This can create a difficult situation for employees, who may feel like they have to “code switch” between the two cultures. For example, an employee who is used to working in a collaborative and inclusive environment may find themselves in a situation where they are expected to be more formal and hierarchical. This can be challenging, and it can lead to feelings of isolation, frustration as well as issues with attrition. Nothing is more frustrating than losing an employee due to difficult onsite culture, especially after investing so much into building your own company culture. 

  • Defense contractors have several options to assist employees in navigating the dual culture conundrum. While seasoned contractors may be accustomed to this duality, it can be a jolting experience for candidates new to the space. Ignoring this issue and accepting it as the norm is the worst approach we could take. Instead, proactive measures can make a significant difference in easing the challenges posed by this cultural dichotomy. 


How Pods can Help 

A highly effective approach is to create small groups, known as “pods,” where individuals with shared interests in specific technology skills or any common hobbies come together. While work-related skill pods are valuable, there’s also potential for pods centered around activities like golf, cooking, or Pickleball. These diverse pods act as forums for open discussions and collaborations, providing employees with a collective opportunity to enhance their skills and foster a sense of camaraderie. 


Here is a more detailed explanation of the benefits of creating pods around technology interests: 

  • Pods can provide a sense of community and support. When people are learning new skills, it can be helpful to have a group of peers who are also on the same journey. Pods can provide a safe space for people to ask questions, share ideas, and offer encouragement. 

  • Pods can facilitate knowledge sharing. When people with different skill levels come together, they can share their knowledge and expertise with each other. This can be a great way to learn new things and to get feedback on your own work. 

  • Pods can help people stay motivated. It can be easy to get discouraged when you’re learning a new skill. However, being part of a pod can help you stay motivated by providing you with a sense of accountability and support. 


Pods can also be formed around resource groups or social events: 


  • The “Virtual Happy Hour” pod: This pod could be responsible for organizing virtual happy hours for geographically dispersed employees. They connect with employees from all over the country and have a chance to socialize and get to know each other better. 
  • The “Remote Coffee Chats” pod: This pod could be responsible for organizing remote coffee chats for offsite employees. They could match employees up with each other based on their interests or departments and have a chance to chat informally about their work or personal lives and bonus points if you pay for coffee. 
  • The “Onsite Resource Center” pod: This pod could be responsible for creating a resource center for onsite employees. The resource center could include information about company policies, benefits, and training opportunities. It could also include links to helpful company articles. This would help onsite employees to find the information they need and feel more connected to HQ. 

Second, govcon companies can help their employees understand the culture of the government customer. This means providing them with training on the customer’s expectations and norms. A great way to do this is through a buddy system where a new employee is teamed up with a veteran employee on the contract to show them the ropes. Speaking of veterans, this is an awesome approach to welcoming transitioning veterans into your company as well as individuals who are new to the government contracting space. 

Veteran Transition Pods: Implementing veteran transition pods can be highly beneficial for onboarding veterans into the company and assisting them in navigating the shift from a rigid military culture to a more commercial company culture. These pods provide a supportive environment where veterans can connect with one another, share experiences, and receive guidance, easing their transition and promoting a smooth integration into the company. 


Here are some additional of the benefits of a buddy system pod: 

  • Makes onboarding easier: A buddy system pod can significantly ease the onboarding process for new employees, including veterans. By assigning a buddy to each newcomer, the pod ensures that they have a designated point of contact for questions, guidance, and support during their initial days with the company. This personal connection fosters a more welcoming and inclusive onboarding experience, reducing feelings of uncertainty and improving overall job satisfaction. 
  • It can help to promote knowledge sharing. Buddies can share their knowledge and expertise with each other, which can help both employees to grow and develop. 
  • It can help to improve communication. Buddies can provide each other with feedback and support, which can help to improve communication between offsite employees and the company as a whole. 

If the term “buddy” doesn’t resonate with your company’s culture or seems too informal, change it to something that aligns better with your organization’s values and language. The essence of the concept lies in providing essential support and guidance to new employees, especially during their onboarding phase. 


Consider alternative names such as “mentor,” “guide,” “onboarding partner,” or “support companion.” Each of these terms conveys the same core principle of having an experienced colleague who can offer assistance, share knowledge, and foster a sense of belonging for the newcomers. The focus should always be on the underlying idea of creating a supportive and nurturing environment, regardless of the label used. 


The impacts of not addressing the “Dual Culture Conundrum”  


Admittedly, onsite environments can pose challenges, leaving contractors feeling like second-class citizens. I’ve witnessed instances where the government has made extra efforts to be inclusive, while, unfortunately, there are cases where contractors are treated as if they are being pushed to the sidelines. 


The reputation of certain agencies, program offices, or technical points of contact often precedes them, leading candidates to actively avoid them. This can create significant challenges in attracting talent, and unfortunately, there might be little that can be done to change this perception. 


There are a number of things that govcon companies can do to mitigate the negative effects of the dual culture conundrum on recruiting. Here are some tips: 


  • Transparency is Key: It is crucial to be upfront with potential candidates about the onsite environment. While it may not be necessary to spill all the tea, being clear and transparent about the prevailing culture helps set realistic expectations for prospective employees. 
  • When evaluating candidates, focus on identifying soft skills that align with the onsite culture. If the customer values employees who are more reserved and focused on their work, prioritize those qualities during the selection process. Believe it or not, some candidates don’t care about the social aspect of work and just want to deliver and then leave.  
  • A powerful approach to influencing the culture from within is to prioritize referrals. There’s no better way to shape the culture positively than by bringing in friends and trusted acquaintances as new hires. Referrals can foster a sense of camaraderie and shared values, enhancing the overall team dynamics and contributing to a more cohesive and enjoyable work environment. 


In the dynamic world of govcon, the “Dual Culture Conundrum” is a significant challenge that cannot be overlooked. However, despite its complexities, there are proactive measures that companies can take to foster a positive and inclusive work environment. By being transparent with candidates about the onsite culture and focusing on aligning soft skills during the hiring process, companies can attract individuals who thrive in the given environment. 


Creating supportive pods, whether for technology interests or social activities, offers a platform for knowledge sharing, motivation, and community-building among employees. Embracing the power of referrals further reinforces the company’s commitment to a harmonious culture, where friends can uplift and empower each other. 


While some aspects, such as the reputation of certain agencies, may seem beyond our control, we have the power to impact positive change from within. By embracing a proactive and empathetic approach, we can bridge the gap between the dual cultures and cultivate an atmosphere of growth, inclusivity, and support. Despite the challenges, we can build a workforce that not only thrives but also drives transformative success within the govcon industry. 

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