Starting Up HR At A Startup

August 16, 2018

Written by Filip Vrnoga, HR Intern

HR as a profession is in an awkward stage - certain industries and businesses have it running more and more on computer power instead of people power. It's hard to argue with the number crunching capabilities of the Silicon Valley’s latest algorithms. Yet, it is these same companies that are eliminating HR and some say evolving them into people teams. Meanwhile, many Fortune 500 companies (1 of which I have firsthand experience with over 6 years) are doubling down on old-school HR architecture, but sending a lot of their processes to the cloud. Workday, Workforce, and Kronos are the standard solutions for what most companies consider a standard problem. This blog’s stance will be that the problem is not at all standard - and solutions need to be as aggressively pragmatic as the employees they serve. The idea of standardizing a solution for different work environments and the people tied to them is ridiculous. The value lies in the people behind Human Resources. This is a team that has the potential to be as creatively cutting edge as they are structured. Starting to sound anything like your engineering team yet, maybe your creatives? Good.

A little about me to set the stage; I’ve always wanted to work in a startup environment - after all it’s the hot thing to do as a millennial amirite? I recognized that the most fitting role for me was a people oriented one, that combined my business savvy and organization management education with my interpersonal skills.  Enter Fox & Co. Design, a motion design studio started in 2015 with an impressive portfolio of clients that clearly is punching well above their weight class. With their desire to implement their first ever HR-anything, I onboarded. Anyone who’s ever worked in any sort of leadership or team-facing role knows the job starts from the first ‘hello’. Relationships begin to form immediately, and navigating them on behalf of the company will be your core function.

When starting from the ground up, I spent a sizeable amount of time compiling resources and doing research to get a pulse on where the motion design industry, HR, and startup culture would intersect. It seems logical that most HR professionals wouldn’t necessarily find work in an industry with which they have advance knowledge of. I certainly had very little design experience, but dedicated reasonable effort to understanding the basics of what the team I was supporting did during their day to day. This augmented my understanding of the business and let me relate well to the team. This gets to the first reason why standardized HR solutions aren’t solutions at all - each team, industry, company, and office has such a unique blend of variables it is impossible to create contingencies for everything and keep things genuine simultaneously.

In one way or another, anyone who’s involved in this career path has to enjoy some level of structure. This will help you as you go through the content creation phase. Building an end to end process requires planning and holistic thinking. As such, I went straight for the concepting board. What I needed to do was fairly clear, and included topics such as recruitment, talent management,  and training. Even with a blank canvas, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel when countless resources are available in the HR field, but there is a need to personalize it. Consider what will be most impactful to your startup and meet with your founder to understand the timeline you’ll be working with. Processes, policies, etc. only matter if they can be used, so if you’re creating content that's out of scope for the business I’d recommend revisiting your focus. You’re not future proofing, you’re creating content that will be obsolete before it ever sees the light of day.  

Beyond content creation, I took to gathering feedback and revisions. The only way to mess this stage up, is to not do it. Whether you’re sending out a pulse survey or doing one-on-ones with the team, you need to status with the people your work will be effecting. This is a lesson in humility as well as open and honest communication. Probe the team, have the tough conversations. At this stage I got responses from a grand total of 5 people - insufficient you might think at first glance, but the meat was in between the lines. Consider the workspace and how your current culture (or lack thereof) would scale if given the chance. With that in mind, I saw responses that lined up with known results at the Fortune 500 level.

When I was confident with the final product, I committed to publishing and implementing what I created. This is another stage where your results will vary. Don’t be surprised if you need to go through multiple rounds of feedback or repeat this whole sequence to ensure it meets current needs of the business. Let's talk logistics for a second. Anyone who’s ever sent out a mass email knows that when you to:all you to:nobody in terms of your engagement levels and likelihood of them actually absorbing the information. This is why I took the rollout of my efforts as personally as I did the feedback and revisions phase. Each team member should receive personal messages and a follow up that is relevant to their needs. Speaking of relevance, please don’t expect your engineers to sift through information (or even worse absorb) for your marketing guys - the less streamlined your presentation is the more drop-off you’ll see. Set access rights to appropriate levels and understand that for everyone in the company other than yourself, less is more. Just because you have ‘the big picture’ envisioned in your mind doesn’t mean your team can or should.

So yes, good HR will be creative with people, and they’ll be engineers in the sense that they’re analytical and data driven. As you look at your own team, your own founder, and the business that represents you all - know that none of them will work a day in their lives for you. You’ll be working for them. At the startup level, expect to take the standard role of an HR Generalist to a whole new level. I’ve never seen a slow moving startup, certainly not one that's lasted. Run with what you have, but don’t get overly invested in any single strategy because the people that walk in are different with every passing day.