Avoiding startup HR fails leads to more productive, happier teams.

People Fails from the Field (And How to Avoid Them!)

Most startups are fiercely focused on their moonshot, finding product-market fit and figuring out how to keep on keeping on (and growing on!). When it comes to HR, to riff on John Lennon, in startup life people and culture is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

The thing is unless you are a solopreneur, you have a team and if you’re keeping on keeping on, your team is growing. Enter HR. Yes, it’s happening (whether you focus on it or not!) and here are the most common mistakes startups make on the People front:

1. Not Having an HR/People Function

We get it – in the heady days of early startup land, survival (and then, if you’re lucky, growth) is the name of the game. You have customers and markets to understand, products to build and revenue to chase. What you don’t have time for? Thinking about People. Uh, wait, hang on: turns out it’s people who are going to do all those critical things. And in the early days, people (as always) are critical indeed. So, you will have to start thinking about why you’re there, who you need and how you are going to find, attract, retain and reward your team. You may not have a dedicated People function until much later (typically 50 people or more) but you will have the need for a People (formerly known as HR) function. Do yourself a favor and think about who and how you’ll resource the People function (fractionally, as part of your leadership team). And start thinking now about the kind of company you want to build (hopefully one that you are your teammates will be proud to work for and to recommend). Not thinking about HR is a surefire fail.

2. An Overly Transactional Focus

Again, time is of the essence so it’s fairly common that early stage HR/People takes on an overly transactional focus, meaning it’s only concerned with things like the market comp required to hire a super developer or web ops engineer, the minimal benefits plan that will keep people keeping on, making sure payroll is indeed happening (yay for cash flow) or hanging out taxi chits at your holiday party (in your workspace, natch). Don’t get us wrong, the administrative and transactional aspects of People are imperative (after all most people, save for some founders and committed equity holders, won’t keep on keeping on if their paycheque ceases) and being compliant with workplace legislation is also critical (we say it’s tablestakes, must do stuff). Transactional HR is necessary but not sufficient. You need to move beyond the must-do to the can-do – so you can elevate the People function to one that is about inspiring people, cultivating a unique culture aligned to your disruptive mission and galvanizing (the right) passionate people to work collectively to achieve the (seemingly) impossible: startup success. Do yourself a favor and think big with your People aspirations – after all people are going to make or break your company. For real.

3. Defining Your Culture in Trite Sentiments

Think of culture as your internal brand: it’s everything about your reason for being as a company, who you are, how things are done, who gets rewarded and why. It’s your values, your employee experience, the way you describe your company and the opportunity to prospective new recruits and the way you treat people, the way you communicate and the way you deal with both adversity and crushing it. So with that in mind, it’s gotta to be unique; don’t borrow values and corporate culture from a bullshit bingo board. Seriously, take the time to define your unique values and articulate your distinct culture. It will take some effort to do but it will pay off in terms of attracting and retaining the right people so you can grow together and grow your company together.

4. Culture is As Culture Does: Not Walking the Talk

At Netflix, they call it “no brilliant jerks” and other organizations have their takes on this idea, meaning, even if someone is ultra-talented, if they don’t align with the culture, if they are making it difficult, challenging or uncomfortable for other team members, then they don’t have a place there. I’ve even seen this include customers (i.e. clients that don’t align with the company culture are shown the door). It’s about alignment, consistency and doing the right thing (not the easy thing) to stay authentic. People will notice. The right people will notice. It will be good.

5. (Inadvertently) Creating a Culture of Compliance & Building Bureaucracy

When things get growing and more people are added to the team, things can change. This change – and the real challenge of leading and managing a growing team – often spurs people to add rules and layers of management and processes. Likewise, growth often means new leaders are heading up teams and it can be a lot easier to look up policies that apply to a situation instead of having hard conversations and working through things together. Sometimes this happens even before significant growth (I’m thinking here of companies that ‘borrow’ (er are inspired by?) employee handbooks and employment contracts enterprises where they used to work. The result? Five-person shops where they have dress code and policies. Again, don’t get us wrong, we are all about being compliant with all workplace legislation and regulations. What we’re saying though is that, inadvertently when you introduce policies and thick handbooks you may well – and unintentionally – be creating a culture of compliance and a workspace where bureaucracy burgeons rather than cultivating a culture of innovation. Stay lean and stay innovative!

6. Recruiting Pure Play: Post (and Pray)

Take it from Laszlo Bock (CEO at Humu, former SVP People at Google and author of the book Work Rules): hiring is the most important part of HR and hiring the right people is the best return on investment for HR. Yet most startups are making many typical mistakes when it comes to recruiting the critical talent they need to grow and thrive. Waiting too long to identify people needs, ill-defined role descriptions, lack of alignment between positions and the moonshot, lack of proactive recruiting (instead hiring and external recruiters and/or posting (and praying), no defined recruiting process.. we can go on. Let’s put it concisely: recruiting is the most important part of HR so focus on it in a meaningful way and the results will pay off your growing company.

7. (Not So Great) Expectations: When Good is the Enemy of Great

Startups are hard going. There are real constraints in terms of time, money, resources. It’s hard, really hard. And yet, here we are. There’s also opportunity and potential and the real excitement that comes from being in on the ground floor of an organization that’s setting out to be the change. That’s the height of possibility. The challenge is making sure that everyone holds each other accountable to do their best work and to continuously be better collectively. Sometimes, in the midst of all the challenge and constraint we can (sometimes, not always) let things slide, let standards slide or not be transparent about how someone can improve. The role of the company’s leadership is to decide what matters, guide and inspire the team to deliver on what matters, and give everyone the courage to let go of what doesn’t.

So there you have it.

If some of these #HRfails sound familiar, and you’re looking for a fresh way to manage your People function, check out our People courses – or check out our upcoming courses!