Whose Line Is It Anyway: Should HR Answer the Culture Question Alone?
Recently, some folks have started a conversation about why more startups should invest in HR departments. They usually make the case that HR is good for culture.
As someone who has written about HR for 15 years and run a company for eight, I can tell you that most organizations don’t start an HR department until they have to. HR is usually a reactive measure, spurred by ramped-up hiring or some compliance issue or lawsuit that needs handling. However, culture starts day one, and it starts with the founding team and early executives — not with decrees from HR.
That said, HR should not be totally divorced from culture matters. If your HR department carries out talent acquisition duties, it’s a good idea for the team to start integrating culture into the hiring process, perhaps by conveying company values, consciously building a candidate experience, setting out potential career paths, and more.
Additionally, HR should be equipped to impact the culture inside of the company. Culture should be fundamentally collaborative. Leaving it up to one person’s or department’s discretion is both inadvisable and potentially dangerous. If this is true at an established company, a high-growth startup is even more at risk.
Instead of tasking your HR department with culture-keeper duties, invite them to sit with the entire executive team and start building purposeful people and performance strategies.
Still, we can’t forget that there is an entire sector of HR called “core HR” for a reason. Culture is admittedly sexy, but HR is also responsible for more practical matters, like helping employees navigate benefits and dress codes and appropriate workplace conduct. One set of responsibilities should not eclipse the other.
Blitzscaling and Healthy Company Growth
HR can be absolutely crucial when it comes to transmitting company values and managerial processes to new employees. Employees are much more likely to care about company values when those values are aligned with their goals, tied to performance reviews, and referenced clearly in the company’s policies — all things HR can help with.
This is where HR can weave together the practical and the culture piece for startups. “Blitzscaling” — defined as “the science and art of rapidly building out a company to serve a large and usually global market” — is a fun word but can be an absolute nightmare for a company that heads into it ill-prepared.
By building out basic functional systems ahead of time — systems like firing policies, performance management, learning and development, etc. — HR can make blitzscaling much easier on a startup while helping to cultivate the right culture. After all, cultural DNA is embedded in all those functional processes that employees will be following as they come aboard.
Core HR must be firmly in place before a startup goes on a hiring rampage, and all of these core functions are hugely important in forming and cementing a company’s culture.
The Option to Outsource
We’ve established that HR can play a vital role in developing both functional organizational systems and the right cultures for startups. However, the fact remains that a full-fledged HR department is not in every startup’s budget.
Perhaps the solution for some startups is to outsource all core HR while tasking the in-house HR team with more cultural matters. However, this does mean investing in systems that don’t always pay off when you have 20-30 employees but will when you have 40-50.
So while I don’t believe HR is solely responsible for culture — nor do I believe HR can singlehandedly create a good culture where a bad one already exists — I do think it’s a good idea for a startup to hire an initial HR professional who shares the executive team’s mission/vision/values. That way, the HR pro can help create a holistic cultural experience by building the culture into the startup’s core functions from the start. A startup that’s built to last is built on a firm cultural foundation.
A version of this article originally appeared at Red Branch Media.