HR Antipatterns at Startups

The toxic devaluation of HR at tech companies.

by Shanley Kane on June 9th, 2014

In the ceremonious dismissal of formal organizational structure — which many startups claim as their defining cultural value — HR at startups has long been categorically broken.

HR is often effectively absent from tech companies even as they balloon into hundreds of employees, banished perfunctorily by Silicon Valley’s ruling class of white man-children who were handed millions of dollars far before showing the faintest sign of managerial skill.

Sometimes HR is running as a thin, cosmetic shadow of a bureaucracy, even as departments dedicated to lavish employee perks are fully furnished with staff, bank accounts and executive support. And where HR does exist, its presence is too often defined by egregious negligence, summary incompetence or outright corruption, used alternately as a foil, weapon, and clean-up crew by a floundering, bullying management.

Indeed, HR which does not fulfill its legal duties to anti-discrimination and employment law, its business responsibilities to shareholders, and its ethical duties to employees is part-and-parcel of tech’s system of privilege… a system in which straight, white men must be assured access to wealth and power while other groups must be exploited, discriminated against and denied opportunity at every step of the corporate ladder.

In examining HR within startups, we find a series of antipatterns in their creation and implementation. Maybe these come from ignorance more than malice, but they nonetheless result in negative outcomes for the business and its employees ranging from mild to severe and even criminal consequences. While the endemic brokenness of HR is inseparable from the larger brokenness of tech culture and management itself, these anti-patterns perhaps offer a starting point for intervention and reform of human resources in tech.

Antipattern: HR is led by an employee with no HR experience whatsoever.

It is incredibly common for HR departments at startups to be created by promoting early operational employees with absolutely no background, experience or training in HR to the role. The ill-fated recipients of these “promotions” are often business generalists who have filled a variety of roles in the initial build out of the company, assuming the roles and responsibilities of HR either formally or as a “natural” extension of their existing operational role as the company scales.

A bleak row of cubicles with assorted office supplies and decorations.

CC-BY Katy Warner, filtered

The rationale here is that these employees possess deep understanding of the culture and the company infrastructure and processes because of their early start-date, and that they have (at least one hopes) demonstrated their ability to effectively learn and perform a multitude of roles that fall on the nebulous and poorly understood “business” side of the house. In an industry where non-technical roles are often devalued, viewed as interchangeable, and thought to be relatively straightforward to pick up, it is easily concluded that an early operations employee will just be able to “get the hang of” HR, and all will be fine.

Of course, this typically ends in unmitigated disaster. First, having had no experience or formal training in HR, the newly-appointed HR lead lacks the requisite training, background, professional support system and body of experience to effectively perform the job. Having novice, pseudo-HR professionals with NO training or experience in sexual harassment, discrimination and employment law is obviously dangerous not only to the company but to marginalized employees who are not offered a competent human relations arm in which to seek recourse.

Not to mention the many other roles and responsibilities of HR workers for whom the hapless individual thus appointed will be woefully unprepared.

Ultimately, the unfortunate result of this antipattern is that the HR department cannot be relied upon to protect either the interests of employees OR the company – they simply lack the tools to do so.

Antipattern: HR is TOO close with early employees and executives at the company.

It’s not uncommon to see HR professionals in startups become extremely close with early employees and executives at the company.

This is especially common when the individual performing HR for the company was merely “promoted” to HR from a different role in the early stages of company development. While some increased familiarity with the executive team and employees with more seniority is natural, when this familiarity extends from a professionally appropriate camaraderie into inappropriate bias and favoritism, problems arise. In many cases, displays of excessive camaraderie and closeness between HR and certain employees lead to circumstances where other employees don’t feel safe and comfortable going to HR. For example, what happens when a new employee has an issue with a more senior employee that the HR professional is clearly “buddy buddy” with?

New employees will naturally feel they have no chance of gaining an objective hearing.

In more extreme cases, it’s not unheard of to see HR positions played by immediate family members or close, personal friends of an executive, which can severely compromise the ability of HR to act without bias or to nurture an environment where reporting feels safe. In these cases there is very little chance of employees feeling able to approach HR about a multitude of problems that may be seen as criticizing the leadership in general, or a particular individual. What if you are assaulted by an executive and HR is literally that executive’s aunt, childhood friend or college buddy?

Nepotism – the most formalized promotion structure in Silicon Valley – is hostile to employees in a particularly direct and coercive way in this case. Especially in the excessively deprofessionalized environments of many startups where the IMPLICIT dynamics of unequal camaraderie, intimacy, and friendship are a more reliable indicator of power than an org chart, HR’s ability to be unbiased, create a safe environment, and effectively carry out their duties must be carefully monitored and managed.

Antipattern: HR’s primary charter is “maintaining the culture”:

“Culture” is on the lips of every self-impressed, ego-bound man-child and his cabinet of college buddy executives as his company begins to grow. He begins to feel poetic and nostalgic about the early days, fancying himself as the architect of an innovative and revolutionary approach to managing companies, even if in fact the “good old days” were shaped far more by nepotism, entitlement, privilege and undeserved funding than by some unprecedented insight into company operations.

In this period of nostalgia and self-congratulation, one often can observe numerous efforts launched to “maintain the culture” as new employees enter, operations scale and some undefined fear of “losing the culture” emerges amongst the “old timers.” It’s not uncommon for HR to be tasked with this role, or for HR operations to be suddenly subsumed under, replaced by or neglected for, recently-invented roles like “Culture Officers” or “Employee Happiness” teams.

A sign on a bulletin board that reads 'HR: What's the point of it all?'

CC-BY Quinn Dombrowski, filtered

Sadly, the culture that is set out as the revered object of “maintenance” efforts is an artifact quickly losing relevance to the growing organization, and a romanticization and formalization of it can calcify the ultimate growth and prosperity of the organization. When critical roles like HR are bound to a reactionary mission based around romanticization of the past, rather than a progressive charter of growing and adapting the culture, the company can rapidly become dysfunctional, hostile to new employees, and unable to adapt to the needs of a growing organization.

Antipattern: HR doesn’t have a comprehensive diversity strategy.

In a tech industry that suffers on an epic scale from homogeneity, white and male privilege, and rampant discrimination, it is imperative that HR be knowledgeable and active in workplace diversity efforts. In order to be effective in building diversity within the company, HR needs to be familiar with issues facing underrepresented groups in tech, tools and strategies for recruiting and retaining diverse candidates, and the many ways discrimination and bias manifests in the industry. Too often, HR professionals are entirely out of touch with current diversity best-practices, are not incentivized to take an active role in building diversity, and/or take too narrow of an approach to diversity in the workplace.

When HR is aligned with industry and company-wide efforts to promote diversity as well as aware of the systemic inequalities that impact marginalized candidates and employees, they are much more equipped to help the company and its employees grow. With a comprehensive awareness of diversity issues and their importance, a toolkit of strategies and approaches, and compassion for marginalized groups, HR can better contextualize and identify systemic problems in the workplace like hiring discrimination, implement effective programs to ensure management practices that foster diversity, and intervene successfully in misogynistic, racist, homophobic, transphobic and other abusive behavior in the workplace. They are more able to implement appropriate policies that can help all employees to feel safe and welcome, assist managers in building effective diverse teams, and assist the company in building diversity as a fundamental value.

Sounds nice, right? Except most HR departments do not give a single fuck about any of those things.

Antipattern: HR approaches workplace dysfunctions as isolated problems.

While incidents and problems are often reported to HR in a one-off or seemingly random fashion, we know that these complaints often tie into deeper and more systemic problems. For example, we know from community conversation, the “whisper network” and even studies about repeat offenders that harassers and abusers operating within companies are often SERIAL abusers who will repeatedly target and victimize people or groups within the company.

From managers who consistently fail to foster productivity and growth in their teams to individuals who sexually harass multiple employees over time, it is rarely ever “just that once.” Considering that many targets of workplace harassment or abuse, hostile work environments,or even plain bad management are unlikely to report due to intimidation, fear and stigma, a low number or volume of reports cannot be considered a reliable indicator of the scope of the problem.

HR should not assume that reports are necessarily isolated incidents, and they should be equipped with the insight and support to be able to (safely and responsible) investigate problems in the workplace which are more likely to be systemic than isolated.

Unfortunately, we often hear that even when MULTIPLE people within a workplace report systemic problems (such as a manager who harasses subordinates), that these reports are often not connected or acted on. In these scenarios, serial abusers quickly learn that their abuse will be protected and sheltered by HR, and over time they may even escalate damaging behavior in absence of any consequences or repercussions for their actions. HR needs to be AWARE of the often serial nature of abuse within startups and equipped by management within the company to act on those issues.

Antipattern: HR is defensive, not proactive.

HR in startup is often oriented to react primarily defensively and reactively to developing workplace issues or opportunities. For example, its role in sexual harassment begins at the time of reporting, its role in addressing systemic discrimination comes when a lawsuit occurs or when there’s bad press, or its intervention in culture starts only when serious problems have emerged in the foundation of the company.

The most effective HR is not HR that intervenes only when grievous harm has occurred. Proactive HR can contribute substantially to the development of culture and processes within which problems are identified and addressed earlier, or even where they don’t emerge at all. In this way, HR’s role should be not dissimilar to that of a stellar engineering team: architecting systems that avoid massive security breaches, outages and bugs, rather than systems with fundamental dysfunctions that resign the team to emergency clean-up when mission-critical services break down.

There are a number of ways that HR professionals can be PROACTIVE in their workplaces:

  • Make resources and training available to managers, executives and other people in positions of power within the company
  • Nurture trusting relationships with employees from the early stages
  • Monitor key metrics such as diversity data, employee satisfaction, attrition rate across teams and managers, and other critical indicators for early intervention and improvement
  • Install mentoring and training programs to help new managers be successful and existing managers grow their skills sets and improve in weak areas
  • Promote training for the entire company on diversity and workplace abuse, harassment and discrimination
  • Install and promote employee programs that contribute to health, happiness and retention, such as ongoing career development, leadership and conflict resolution training, etc.

Of course, in order to work in a proactive way, HR needs to have the very same executive backing, access to resources, cultural support, and influence over policy and programs that they often lack in startup environments.

Root problems

A black and white photo of tree roots, large and gnarled.

CC-BY Steve Garry, filtered

Despite being varied in their origin and ultimate impact on companies, each of these patterns shares an underlying root problem: HR is not taken seriously by startup management and its employees.

Many of the problems listed above are a consequence of the devaluing of human resources within the industry. This devaluation is toxic.

Contributing significantly to this, of course, is the fact HR is often gendered as “female” or “women’s work” in a male-dominated industry, branded “non-technical” in an industry that privileges only programming.

The devaluation also stems from the underlying belief that HR is NOT a specialized function requiring domain knowledge and experience, but rather a “supplemental” part or outgrowth of other jobs. That HR serves merely to save the company from extreme situations or intervene when employee relations have broken down in a catastrophic way. That HR is a matter of filling in a checkbox, rather than worthy of the same care and nurturing as the technical areas of the business. That HR is just another “soft skill” largely irrelevant to the founding and building of technology. That “anyone can do it” and that the roles and responsibilities typically taken on by HR – and the problems it addresses – will magically be taken care of by the startup’s “meritocratic” culture.

HR is viewed as, at best, a necessary evil, a tedious bureaucratic duty. At worst, it is treated as the enemy, a symbol of the corporate world that startups so desperately eschew even as they fall into the same patterns of dysfunction and abuse of power.

Yet in eschewing the development of effective, balanced and integrated human relations, startups subject their business and their employees to endemic abuse, deep management dysfunction, employee dissatisfaction, potential lawsuits, calcification of the culture and other entirely avoidable problems.

HR ultimately cannot be relied upon to advocate for employee interests when they come into conflict with those of the company, nor can we expect it to serve as a panacea for structural dysfunctions in startups. It cannot replace or substitute for the political organization of tech workers, for unionization, or for broader and sorely-needed culture change across the industry. However, it can and should have the support and resources to enact its own specific functions within the startup environment.

And in order for us to get better HR at our startups, not only startup founders and management but startup WORKERS need to advocate for better HR. While elaborate perks like laundry, in-office gym facilities and yoga classes, haircuts, and elaborate cafeterias, fancy offsites, and beer on tap are showered on many startup workers, these same employees do not have access to trained, professional, effective HR – a “perk” vastly more important. But until startup employees themselves – and especially those in privileged and dominant groups – start DEMANDING appropriate HR representation from our startups, we will see no progress.