With Susan Fowler’s recent outing of Uber’s toxic culture, the topic of human resources (HR) in tech seems to be on everyone’s mind. Fowler reported filing multiple harassment complaints with the company’s HR department, only to be repeatedly rebuffed in a series of increasingly bizarre denials of responsibility. Many readers noted similarly poor experiences with company HR departments, trotting out the tired advice that HR is “only there to protect the company” and that it was against any employee’s best interests to ever speak to us. Others, who had likely worked in companies with actual HR, criticized the tech world’s lax approach to it.
Like a pack of Peter Pans outrunning adulthood, for years it seemed like the startup world was allergic to HR. For the entirety of my career in tech, I’ve heard jokes where the punchline is that we were there to ruin the fun. Companies still brag about not having HR, and many that do have it call it something else entirely. Bare bones practices like payroll and “culture” are often delegated to an office manager or receptionist without any HR training.
As for Uber’s approach, a Recode article last week noted that the company’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, saw Uber’s People team as a recruiting function—a common approach in the industry. However, a great HR department can mean absolutely everything to a company’s strategy, and missing out on that is a huge opportunity loss. Beyond finding the best people for the team, HR can enable individuals and teams to perform at their peak and help CEOs navigate the toughest issues of their careers. HR just can’t be replaced by an app or steered by someone without experience.
So if you’re a company with 50+ employees that wants to avoid an Uber-esque disaster and you still don’t have HR, here are the reasons why I think you should reconsider.
Being a grown up about policies
Let’s consider Uber again. If a female employee reported one of your male leaders for inappropriate conduct, are you positive that you’d know what to do? Do you have a written strategy for approaching tough situations like harassment? Do you have a way of collecting anonymous feedback, or a designated, trained person for employees to talk to? Does reading this make you want to call me in a panic? Many startups hear “policy” and run for the hills, but in these cases, simply having them in place is a powerful reassurance of what your values are as a leader. Snakes thrive in ambiguity.
Paying people the right amount of money
The tech salary landscape is constantly changing; it’s insane. Do you know if you’re paying below (or above) market? If you don’t know and aren’t reviewing this regularly, raises will likely only be going to the squeaky wheels. Less confrontational types who don’t feel like having a negotiation standoff with you will simply leave your company behind.
Making people better managers
A big, important part of strategic HR is coaching managers. The top reasons people leave companies is because of a bad or inexperienced manager, and a lack of foreseeable career growth. Can you afford those losses? A good HR partner will work with leaders and managers at all levels, teaching them how to give helpful feedback, develop career plans, and build trusting, high performing teams.
Turning heart into grit
An action-empowered HR department will also build relationships with employees, collect formal and informal feedback about what people need, and transform all of that into business results for you. They’ll take employees who are having a hard time at home out for coffee to see how they can help shift some work. They’ll recommend a key project or promotion for that hardworking and kind team player — the one who doesn’t take every chance they get to humblebrag. They’ll tell you about the tough stuff that’s going on and if you let them, they’ll help you weed out the chaff. There’s a running theme here. Without real HR, only the loudest and most self-serving will thrive in your startup’s culture.
Yes, HR’s job, like anyone’s, is to serve the company and its business goals. However, in a healthy environment, employee growth and happiness are parallel to those goals, not a challenge to them. While bad HR apples are definitely out there, good ones are often stifled behind bad policy and poor leadership. Hire an experienced and empathetic professional, trust them to tell you what’s up, and then let them do something about it. The best HR practitioners are employee-first in their approach, but to be effective they require leaders that value this approach and empower them to do their best work. And despite their promises and back-pedalling, that’s the exact point that Uber missed.