HR for Startups

Nick Staley
It’s a common debate among founders. When do I need to hire an HR team or do I even need one? When does HR become essential in a startup? In this article we will address these questions and discuss the roles that an HR professional will undertake in a startup. We will also address startup founders and show the benefits that an early HR hire can have on your organization.

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What Is the Role of HR in Startups?

Startups are simultaneously exciting and stressful. It can be extremely exciting to build something from the ground up, but it’s important not to overlook the people component and HR aspect of the startup.

For the startup founder. You want to ensure that you get solid processes in place from the beginning in order to save a lot of headache down the road. If you don’t take the time to really develop policies and procedures with your HR team, they most likely won’t be able to catch up when you have a headcount of 100+ employees.

For the HR professional. Your role is to act as a partner with the founder to ensure that you are aligned and that policies and procedures are pointed in the direction that the founder sees them going. It is your role to ensure that the company stays compliant with employment laws while also being an advocate for the employees of the company.

Role 1: Put Policies and Procedures in Place When the Company is Small

It’s always easier to scale policies and procedures than to attempt to implement them when the company has grown. A policy that is developed when the company is small can be built to grow and encompass more employees as time goes on. It also is a great way to provide foresight into things that may be coming down the road, such as an FMLA (family medical leave act) offering when the company hits 50 employees. If you get certain things out of the way early on, you won’t be bogged down trying to implement them later when the company is bigger and you have other priorities.

Role 2: Focus on the People

Yes, the bottom line is going to be important to the founder. But people are the lifeblood of the business. Put the emphasis on getting good people in the door and create a culture that enables them to grow and develop. People want to feel empowered when they come to work. They want to feel like their work is making a difference. As the startup continues to grow, focuses can shift. As an HR professional, it is your primary responsibility to ensure that the people that you represent (the employees) are taken care of and that they know someone has their best interests in mind.

However, you also have another hat to wear. Generally speaking, you will also be representing management to the employees. Make sure that you are living your company’s values. At times, you will have to enforce policies and take disciplinary action against employees. Do so the exact way that you would want someone to discipline you in the workplace. Come from a place of humility and empathy and convey that to the employees that you represent.

Role 3: Provide Guidance on Navigating the Employment Laws

As the company gets started, there will be numerous questions regarding which laws become applicable to the company at what point. It can be difficult to stay up to date on all of the laws and changes that occur, especially if you are operating in multiple states. It would be best practice to create a list of laws that will apply at different employee counts and as time allows (obviously, before reaching that employee count) start writing out policies to cover those tiers.

For example, FMLA kicks in when an organization reaches 50 employees regardless of full-time or part-time. For at least 20 weeks of the year the company is required to comply with the federal FMLA regulations. However, in California, you also have CFRA (California Family Rights Act) which is basically the same thing as FMLA, but covers employers with 15 or more employees. Your job is to act as a coach and ensure that you know the laws that apply at different stages. Do your research and reach out for help when needed.

Benefits of a Startup Having an HR team

There are many benefits to having an HR team as part of a startup. In fact, there are too many benefits to list them all here, but we’ll cover a few of the primary benefits below.

Benefit 1: Having a People-Centered Business

We touched on this above, but it’s incredibly important to have the focus on the people in any company, not just in a startup. We have all worked at companies where the culture is too focused on the product and the people are simply a means to produce the product. That culture is toxic and ultimately creates turnover and attrition. By developing a culture where the employees are treated like people first, you develop a culture that is a cut above the rest and your employees are more likely to be more productive. If your employees are more productive, then you automatically have a great impact on the product and the profitability of the company. This principle applies to the founder and the HR team. By creating this culture from the beginning, you have an incredible opportunity to continue to develop that and position your company as a premier employer.

Benefit 2: Developing Best Practices

It’s never too early to start building out your best practices and your operating procedures. These are all things that you as an HR professional in your startup can handle for the founder and CEO. As an HR professional, you have an incredibly important role to play in assisting the founder develop policies and procedures that are focused on the people. Just as stated above, the people are truly the lifeblood to any company.

Do some research on your particular industry to see where other companies fall short. Start by looking at the reviews of your competitors to see what their people like and dislike about working there. You can then adopt some of those same principles, assuming that they fit into the culture you are attempting to develop. You can also take and tweak things that you have seen work well at other companies.

Benefit 3: Taking the Administrative Work Away from the Founder

The founder’s focus should be on growing the business. There is a lot of administrative work that goes into an HR department, such as new hire paperwork, verification of employment, benefit administration, etc. As an HR professional, you should be the one to take on the majority of this work as you will have direct access to the things that these tasks will be requiring.

There are also legal requirements that may have an impact that you should be aware of. For example, ACA (the Affordable Care Act) applies to companies with 50 or more employees. You will use your expertise and knowledge to ensure that your company remains compliant on the administrative side as well.

How To Start an HR Department in a Startup

Now that we know the roles and the benefits of a startup having an HR team it’s time to actually build one out. Maybe you’re just starting out with a startup and the founder’s given you the responsibility of building an HR team. Where do you begin? We’ll break down the steps below.

Step 1: Determine Your Need

For the founder. First and foremost, while every startup needs HR help eventually, make sure the time is right for your company. Every company is in different stages. Maybe you don’t need full-time help right now, but could use someone part time. Maybe you just need a consultant to get you started (check out New Age HR Consultants).

For the HR professional. Whatever stage the startup is in determines who to bring onto the HR team and how much time you’ll need to dedicate to this step. You may originally be brought into the startup solely to run payroll, but you can start developing other policies and procedures that you can see benefiting the company and then showing those to the founder or CEO. If you are brought in on a part-time or contract basis, work hard to show your worth and give the founder amazing results to position yourself for a full-time and permanent offer of employment.

Step 2: Define the Duties

For the founder. Do you want HR to help write policies and procedures? Administer benefits? Run payroll? Assist with recruiting? There are so many things an HR professional can do. Determine what your business actually needs them to help build out.

For the HR professional. While it is important to remain in your lane and perform the tasks and duties assigned to you by the person you report to, don’t let that limit you. Your potential for growth in a startup is astronomical. As suggested above, if you see a need or something that is out of compliance, don’t be afraid to develop a policy or procedure to correct that. That will set you on a great trajectory for growth and advancement.

Step 3: Hire Your HR Professional or Consultant

For the founder. It’s time to make that jump into the deep end and hire someone. Make sure they fit the culture that the company is trying to build and that they actually have the experience to make it happen. Ask for work examples or speak to their former employers.

For the HR professional. You have just been hired by the startup you have been dreaming about working for. This is an exciting moment! But this is just the beginning. You have a lot of work ahead of you. Get ready to wear multiple hats and handle multiple duties. Don’t be afraid to jump in and make suggestions. Just as we said above, you are on a rocketship at this point, but don’t forget to take in how far you’ve come.

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Questions You’ve Asked Us About HR for Startups

When should a startup hire HR?
The answer isn’t necessarily black and white as there are quite a few variables in this. However, generally a startup should look at hiring at least a part-time person in HR when the company has around 15 employees. They don’t need to be full time, but at least get someone in to address the HR needs. It’s always easier to get policies and procedures implemented when the company is at a smaller scale and then scale those policies as the company grows than it is to try to implement a policy when the company has hundreds of employees.
What are some of the challenges that HR faces with startups?
Manager and/or owner buy-in and budget are some of the biggest challenges HR professionals face at startups. As an HR employee working for a startup, you will often have to work within the constraints set up by the owner and within a tight budget. This probably means creating a lot of things from scratch, but that also means you get to build systems to your liking as well.
Nick Staley

Nick is a certified HR professional holding an SPHR and SHRM-CP. Nick has built HR teams from the ground up as well as worked for big corporations. Nick enjoys consulting and training those who are just getting started in HR. When not working, he enjoys spending time with his family.

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