Don’t Drink the HR Haterade

‘HR is there to protect the company, not the employee.’

The Internet

This refrain may have your HR/People Ops lead feeling pretty demoralized right now.

HR is woefully misunderstood as a discipline. It’s undervalued and often maligned. Even before recent stories featuring HR fails hit the news.

We so don’t love HR that we’ve rebranded it as People Operations. (See also, “fun police.”)

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: your company needs HR.

In early stage companies, the HR/People function is often managed by one single person, who juggles many balls. You ask them to be conversant in recruiting, employment law, people/performance management, diversity/inclusion, market research, payroll/benefits admin, vendor management, compensation. For starters.

Also, you ask them to be mediators, coaches, trainers, brand stewards, event planners and more. Your HR lead can only succeed when other people —  who don’t report to them — do things that they don’t really want to do. (Who loves performance reviews?)

So, your HR/People lead’s role is as complex as your role. It takes 10,000 hours to become a skilled people manager; it probably takes more develop into an HR expert.

I’ve worked with some HR masters. Some of them could have run the companies we worked for. (Shout out to retired HR exec Fran Snow! Her expertise, mentoring, and advice made me a better manager and leader.)

And yes, it’s their job to protect the company. One way to do this is by making sure that people are not breaking the law, or violating basic ethical values.

Harassment is breaking the law. Creating a persistently hostile environment is breaking the law. Assault is breaking the law. Yes, it’s all unethical, too.

The problem we’re seeing out there is not “HR.”

The solution is to value the role correctly. And the HR role is only what you enable it to be.

In growing companies, you may have a talented HR/People lead whom you’ve promoted from within. They may lack broad domain-specific experience and training; they may not have support from people with relevant experience and knowledge.

To develop and support someone with this profile:

  • Sponsor them for trainings and/or certifications
  • Connect them with external domain experts, like an employment attorney
  • And, oh yes: you need to make their authority clear in your organization.

You communicate their authority and their value by giving them seat at the executive table. Whether they report to you, or elsewhere:  they must have your ear.

When they bring you information you don’t like — and they will —  you must demonstrate that you’re listening, and willing to actively support actions required to resolve the issue.

Even if it means figuring out how to let go of someone you had thought was performing well.

If you’ve had hockey stick growth in headcount, the HR/People role may demand a more senior professional to further develop the function. And also to mentor, coach and develop your existing HR/People team.

After all, you probably wouldn’t recruit one of your talented community managers to be CFO. It’s not supportive to allow anyone to struggle and fail in a role that has outpaced their ability to grow along with it, through no fault of their own.

Yes, it’s tough. And, it’s sometimes how it needs to be.

Photo: adapted from Lemonade Stand Poster by Carissa Rogers, via Flickr, under CC2.0 license.

This is one of a series of follow ups to What You Disregard, You Accept: Red Flags for CEOs, which I wrote in June, 2017.  I’m also cross-posting this to Medium.  The series:

Also, Dear Wonderful People who follow my blog by email.   You are used to getting 5-6 posts a year from me.   You’ll probably get that many from me this month, as I finish the series of followup posts to my red flags piece.   Thank you for reading, and after another post or two, I promise to drop back down to the usual dull roar.

HR Needs Teeth


I cut my “people management” teeth leading turnaround situations.  This included learning — a lot — from some truly great HR pros.   People with vast experience who mentored and taught me.

Back in the day, HR wasn’t always great.

Yet even good people could use HR tools and practices to support their people and create a good environment.

Over the last 20 years, Corporate America has sliced, diced, outsourced, and automated a once-holistic function.

Yes, it was once imperfect.  Today, in large firms, HR struggles to be even good.*   It’s toothless.

Growing firms today have the opportunity to re-create this function.  The Netflix culture deck is what can happen when you have great HR in the house.

An HR lead is a business partner, who will advance your business strategy and strengthen your culture.  They’re leaders of particular expertise and experience.

And they wear a few hats beyond Recruiter or Tax Form Wrangler.

Traffic Engineer.  The world is a safer place because we have civil engineers.  Using lights, crosswalks and agreement about which lane to drive in, they create process.

Your HR lead can create repeatable process for the traffic flows of hiring, and managing people and performance.   Early stage HR process can use whiteboards and spreadsheets.   Later, you’ll need more.  A solid HR lead knows when it’s time to scale.

Judge Advocates.  It’s complicated to comply with the law.   Getting it right can save your time, money, and reputation.

Unlike military Judge Advocates, your HR lead needn’t be an attorney.   They will build practices to keep you in line with the law, and advise you when your counsel should hear about a people issue.

Conscience Check.   You wish your employees would tell you when something’s out of whack.  They may not.   And you may not have time — or the experience — to really hear them.

Like a mediator, a strong HR lead will serve up checks and balances that support working in alignment with your values.

This may involve process — or simply listening when there’s an issue.  When someone is listening, you can respond before your people take their concerns online.   Or out the door.

I’ll reach out to a few HR pros to see if they’ll comment, because there’s more to say about doing this this leadership role right.

When you’re 5 people around a table, you better not need HR.   If you’re a 20 person “mom and pop”, you can do a lot yourself, backed up by your accountant and attorney.

If you have bigger ambitions, talk to other founders, mentors.  And don’t forget your own people!

Go online and see what investment pros like Fred Wilson and Mark Suster think.

Once you’ve been sold, build things right.  To be effective, HR has to have teeth.

The right person for the role is your ally, but not your Yes Person.  If you’re fairly new to managing, the right partner is someone with more experience than you have.

Someone who will tell you, “You can’t do that.”   Because it’s not legal.   Or just because it’s not smart.

And then, you’ll listen.  (And like I did, you’ll learn.)

To really give the role some teeth, help your HR lead build relationships with people who influence you and your co-founders — coaches, mentors, or the right kind of board members.   And give them access to them.

Because sometimes, you may be the problem.

* Many fine people work in these roles.  I’m distressed about the devolution of the function itself.  In large firms, it’s too often vendor management and compliance.  It’s hard for me to shut up about this.   Instead, check Peter Cappelli.

And check the sort-of preachy NY Times article on HR, published while I was on the nth revision of this post.  Scooped!

Photo:  Legoland Dragon, by drmama via Flickr, under Creative Commons license.