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  • Writer's pictureJessica Garrant

Rethinking HR: A Foundational Guide for Startups

Human Resources. The title says it all, or at least it used to. A teacher once told me, “most HR reps stay in this field because they truly want to help people.” After 16 years of being an HR practitioner, I firmly believe this to be true. Still, we’ve all seen the picture I’m about to paint: A company decides to bring on its first HR representative and you can practically hear the collective groan of dread across the organization. So, why is it that HR tends to have the worst reputation within the company and when did HR stop being a resource for people? More importantly, how can you help your HR function be effective and revered by your employees as the resource it was intended to be?

Ask yourself what your vision is for HR now and in the future

When it comes to your business plan, it is important to keep its purpose front and center. It should provide a comprehensive overview of the goals, strategies, and actions necessary to achieve success. Organizations with effective strategic frameworks spend copious amounts of time ensuring that all department leaders are fluent in the organization’s business plan. This communication is critical for leaders to make informed decisions that are aligned with the defined direction.

HR serves as a vital link between the company's overall strategy and its human capital. Their understanding of workforce dynamics, skills gaps, and talent trends can inform and shape strategic decisions. Still not convinced? Here are just a few ways HR will provide important foundational direction for your startup.

  • Collaborate with the leadership team to determine the optimal workforce structure, identify key positions, and establish effective reporting lines.

  • Identify critical skills and core competencies for all positions allowing recruiting efforts to zero in on ideal candidates.

  • Propose initiatives to attract and develop top talent.

  • Direct employee engagement and retention strategies.

  • Provide guidance on compliance matters, such as labor laws, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and ethical practices.

By excluding HR from the alignment plan or, worse, neglecting to involve them in the overall discussion of the company's strategy, your organization is hindering its most valuable resource—its people—from performing to their utmost potential. Just as a stool needs all four legs to stay upright and stable, a successful business plan requires the involvement of every fundamental pillar, including HR.

It is entirely possible that your view of Human Resources is much different than what is intended. HR should be thought of as a business partner, thought collaborator, and strategic sounding board. If you perceive HR solely as a department responsible for recruitment and termination, don’t be surprised when you see substantial turnover and your reviews on Glassdoor reference a toxic work environment.

Don’t use HR as a scapegoat

Time and time again, HR practitioners are tasked with delivering unfavorable news or changes. While this certainly comes with the territory, the same can be said about any departmental leader or CEO. Therefore, each department should be in charge of communicating the information associated with its function. Why would HR be tasked with delivering unfavorable sales numbers resulting in bonuses being cut? When CEOs and other leaders hide behind HR, they not only undermine their own leadership but also create a rift between employees and the HR department. This rift festers, produces a level of mistrust, facilitates blame being misplaced, and renders your HR department useless.

When the employees don’t trust HR, they’re not going to go to them with concerns, suggestions, or requests for help. Instead, they can disengage, lose sight of the organization’s mission, and eventually seek employment elsewhere. To put a financial spin on it, have you thought about the cost of turnover or the ripple effect that occurs when a once top performer bows out and goes to a competitor?

Keep in mind that for HR to be truly effective, it needs a system of reciprocal partnership between itself and the senior leadership team. This is not limited to startups and holds true regardless of an organization's size or stage of development. With support starting from the top, HR becomes empowered to do what it does best – facilitate productivity and foster alignment among individuals at all levels. When HR professionals find themselves facing the challenge of being overruled or undermined by higher-level individuals in an area where they lack expertise, it causes HR to lose credibility with its peers and the employees it supports.

Stop thinking of HR as the sole creator of your culture

Startups have a unique advantage when it comes to shaping culture. Unlike established companies, startups have the opportunity to start fresh and intentionally create a well-rounded, diverse, and welcoming culture right from the beginning. This starts by understanding that the behavior and actions of a company’s leadership team set the tone for culture at all stages of the company’s life cycle.

Every member of the organization closely observes how the leaders behave and make decisions. This is even more apparent for early startups since roles and responsibilities often overlap with smaller headcounts. If a leadership team prioritizes transparency, collaboration, and respect, these values will permeate the entire organization. Conversely, if the leaders exhibit negative behaviors or adopt a hands-off approach, the effects can be detrimental and toxic to your environment.

While HR undoubtedly plays a crucial role in promoting and maintaining a healthy work environment, it is important for startups to realize that relying solely on HR to handle culture will not work. Instead, work collectively with your leadership team – including HR – to clearly define what your vision is for your startup's culture and how you plan to achieve it. While you’re at it, this process can go hand in hand with the creation of your company’s Mission, Vision, and Values.

By shifting your view of HR to be more of a business partner tasked with people strategy and tactical execution, startups can begin building upon a strong, well-rounded foundation. After all, there’s nothing worse than backtracking to catch-up or trying to revise a toxic workplace.

Happy Gnome HR is here to support and guide you along the way. Schedule your 30-minute Consultation by clicking the link above today!


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