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Startup Scandal? HR is Not the Answer

There’s been a string of startup scandals involving people practices in the news recently, and I’m getting really tired of reading variations on the phrase: “If only they’d had HR….” Every time I come across a headline or a quote that advances this notion, my eyelid starts twitching.

I see. So, what you’re telling us is that the business superstars running some fast-growing, incredibly promising start-up are incapable of basic cause-effect analysis and decision making as soon as the people involved are their employees instead of their customers?

Right, okay.

My twitching left eyelid is having none of it. Leaders in these organizations are smart, educated people; they weren’t raised by wolves and suddenly parachuted into roles that required them to work with others. They have made deliberate choices about what to prioritize, tolerate, and ignore, all while surrounded by others in leadership or advisory roles who have either enabled them, or stayed silent. To be clear, this is willful ignorance, not naiveté. Basic labour laws aren’t an arcane secret – they’re on the freaking internet! And yet, we’re meant to believe that simply having HR there (or in Uber’s case, a stronger HR function) would have brought about a radical character transformation and reordering of values?

I absolutely believe that effective HR is an essential part of great companies of all sizes. But the problems in startups like those in the media lately  are not “lack of HR” problems. They are “your leader is an asshole” problems. When are we going to stop drawing a false distinction between strategic business practices and strategic people practices? Treating employees like humans isn’t a ‘nice to have’ for when you have time to turn your mind to it, it’s critical to the success of your business no matter what business you’re in.

When we accept the narrative that startup leaders land their organizations in hot water because they were too busy running the business to think about “HR stuff” like preventing abuse or harassment, we’re overlooking the fact that basic practices like creating a safe work environment are critical accountabilities in building a sustainably profitable company. Put another way, this is not equivalent to lamenting that a surgeon lacks a sufficiently empathetic bedside manner, despite having stellar patient survival rates. It’s much more akin to nodding along as a surgeon explains that she’s performed hundreds of flawless surgeries, but that she doesn’t have time to wash her hands so all her patients contract gangrene and die slowly in the weeks afterwards.

You can’t delegate being a decent human being. And if you need to in order not to treat people badly, then you don’t have an HR problem. Your problem is you.

As for the HR folks jumping on these stories as proof that organizations need us. Please stop. I realize the HR as a profession is in near-constant existential crisis, but marketing ourselves as the sociopath-police is unlikely to help our cause. If HR is the only thing preventing an organization’s leaders treating people like garbage, there are no policies or processes that are going to fix that. (And telling people they can’t have sex in the stairwells anymore is like putting lipstick on a pig, while the pig is on fire.)

Might we be able to talk leaders into following enough laws to avoid fines or criminal charges? Maybe. But doesn’t that sound more like enabling a tyrant, rather than supporting the members of an organization?

Passionately agree with me? Think I’m totally wrong? Want your sociopath police badge? Give me your take in the comments!


Image credit: Jilbert Ebrahimi via Unsplash

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jane, great to see you’re writing again. Looks like I have some catching up to do.

    Fantastic post. I couldn’t agree more. This is not the way to frame or advocate the importance of HR leadership in any organization, large or small. If things like these don’t fall into someone’s range of common sense, there are other, more fundamental issues present. And a lack of “HR leadership or expertise is not one of them.

    March 23, 2017
  2. Completely agree with you – in a start up or small business, much of the culture is derived from the values and ethos of the owner/founder. The approach that he or she takes towards the people in the business will set the tone, and HR will either be an active partner (if a positive people approach is taken) or an admin/compliance function – if it exists at all – if the business simply sees its people as economic units. You might find this article interesting on the ‘people’ approach taken by what was once a start up but is now a highly successful UK business:

    March 23, 2017
  3. I think you have it right-even very talented HR Professionals, are not going to fix the problem until the source of the problem wants to make the changes needed.

    How many of the people responsible are ready to be accountable and focus on what makes companies great? The exodus of managers from Uber (and other companies) claiming that what was happening didn’t fit their values is odd-since they happened not when employees were bringing forward the problems but when the problems became public knowledge. This leaves me with a question about both willingness and readiness to step up and create change.

    And just saying, ” let’s get HR”, won’t make a difference if the Uber mess is any example-they had someone they referred to as HR that appeared to maintain the unacceptable status quo.

    How able are the founders and other executives to get this right?

    March 23, 2017
  4. I LOVE THIS ARTICLE!!! You are BANG ON. As someone who coaches leaders, it drives me crazy when HR coddles them an doesn’t hold them accountable for their ‘assholish’ behaviours. Great post.

    March 23, 2017
  5. Thanks Tim! I’m so happy to be back to blogging. Glad you and I are on the same page on this one; common sense not being so common, and all that…

    March 25, 2017
  6. Thanks Simon. This is a lovely article! What an incredible tribute to his wife and the influence she had on the business.

    March 25, 2017
  7. Hi Karin, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I think your question is exactly the right one: “How many of the people responsible are ready to be accountable…?” The willingness to go along with the crowd until someone brings attention to this stuff suggests this was a systemic culture issue (although Ms Huffington has already publicly shared her conclusion that it is not). ANd just shoving it onto HR’s desk guarantees it won’t change.

    March 25, 2017
  8. Thanks for reading and commenting Glain. Ideally I’d hope that leaders hold themselves accountable for this behaviour. HR can’t monitor and enforce standards of behaviour all the time, even if we wanted to (speaking for myself, we don’t). I think in a healthy organization leaders know how and why to behave like decent people, and when they see a peer who doesn’t, they call her or him out for it.

    March 25, 2017
  9. payalmitra #

    Brilliant article! So quotable throughout. Loved the comment about HR being in constant existential crisis

    April 27, 2017

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Weekly Musings – March 26, 2017 | Talent Vanguard
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