Sunday, June 28, 2009

Employee Handbook for a Startup? - uuugh!

I read a posting on the North Carolina start up blog, posted by Marc Dewalle. Marc was discussing if startups need an employee handbook. He also, with this topic, naturally started talking about "HR weenies," which you have to love - further proof that just about Everyone Hates HR.

Anyways, read the post and comments - it's a great intro to this topic. I think it's fair to say most startups dislike and put off handbooks and policies as long as possible. I tried to leave a comment on Marc's blog, but alas, I couldn't for a number of technical reasons ('javascript' this and 'server' that). Instead of tossing my thoughts, I decided to post it myself. It feels like I am stealing my own work a bit.
Hey Marc, Good post and discussion. A handbook is an inevitable and necessary evil of business growth. However, as Lee mentioned (and as you pointed out with the need for vacation policy) there is value to some properly designed guidelines. Yes 'HR weenies' can mess up the party. Those schooled in the traditional HR functions are too often tied up in routine and standard or "best practice". If suddenly your cool startup has a policy for a start time, a progressive discipline policy or a detailed cell phone policy - then someone messed up the party.

But I think its needlessly negligent to have nothing in place. You want your startup to have the right foundation and to have some structure to refer to (to encourage vacation in some cases like yours Marc, or to set 'general' expectations that you can point to when an employee is abusing them). Employees have questions (Holidays, vacation time, even if reviews will happen) - give them some help.

Perhaps most importantly, employee guidelines reduce your legal liabilities. You don't have to do a 3 hour orientation yawn-fest or have a heavy bound book for employees to shove to the back of their file cabinet. But, depending on your culture, you can address some key practices (or typical concerns), you can list the federal laws your company stands behind (like non-discrimination and harassment), and you can demonstrate that employees are expected to adhere to federal and local laws. This addresses concerns Lee brought up in his comments, and it doesn't have to move you into the 'small business category' or into inflexible and stifling workplace. Boom... a LOT more protection than you had and a tool to lean on if you need to deal with an employee gone bad.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Early Stage Start-Ups Hate HR

Who hates HR more than start-ups? I think people are drawn to start-ups for the opportunity to work on and 'own' something cool, the fun atmosphere, free food and drink in the office, and flexibility. They are drawn by the lack of HR - perhaps unconsciously (but usually consciously).

It's very nice not having a big handbook, a predetermined and specific list of boring tasks, and processes and forms, process and forms, and process and forms .... for taking vacation, logging work hours, completing a project, and getting an email account. You get the idea.

Entrepreneurs acknowledge the need for balance. They want to be fun and flexible but organized and effective. They realize often a delicate and organic process has grown to handle the selection of a new staff member, or the monitoring of vacation days. A misstep (like the wrong hire or someone taking advantage of vacation) and it's like a house of cards falling to the ground.

I've been talking to more and more local start-ups and look forward to digging in deeper. I want to learn more specifically where they are with HR - what they have in place, what they want, what they need, and what they see as challenges. You wanna talk?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Overheard #1: Setting Precedent

Last week, I overheard two ladies chatting on the subway. They were talking about a manager who didn't allow someone to leave a bit early from work to care for their kid, or something like that. One of the ladies said, "Managers have to do that .... they can't let people get away with anything. Then they will just be taken advantage of."

My first thought was 'Wow, these employees really think that? They don't find it unreasonable a co-worker couldn't leave early?' My second thought was 'Really? Can't managers exercise discretion from time to time? Can't they have some wiggle room to make exceptions without selling the farm? If a co-worker leaves early, do you really feel it's only fair if everyone gets to?'

I think the answer lies in holding people accountable for results. If they don't deliver results then it might mean leaving early is a problem (even 'on time' for that matter). The answer also lies in having flexibility across the board. On occasion this might be to take care of a child, or it might be to beat the traffic out of town for a vacation.

Setting a precedent should be for kindness, respect, flexibility and treating people like mature adults. Setting a precedent for a rule seems like you are focusing on the wrong area. The workplace shouldn't be like a nursery school - everyone shouldn't get the same snack or read the same book.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Proposed Performance Review

So it's just about that time ... I'd say most companies should have 'reviews' in June and in December-ish. How can you hate HR if there is no performance reviews? For real here, I know we don't like them and it's more and more trendy to prove how they don't offer any value. But I know you don't mean it (read sarcastically). And, I recently posted some reasons why we should have them so I thought it would be responsible to follow up with a thought about actually pulling it off.

When I was growing up, I'd had what I think are some strong and fairly unique thoughts for a young guy about how I'd like to raise my kids. I didn't particularly value being dragged to church (ok ... 'disliked'), but did think there was some value in the regular time set aside to be ... spiritual and part of something bigger. I schemed to take my kids to church every couple weeks, but also to meditation sessions, to serve at the soup kitchen, Synagogue, Lutheran mass, piano recitals, anything I could think of - just a regular time with yourself, family, a larger community, and a good message.

Why can't we do something like this with reviews as well? Maybe they won't be as dreaded and we can actually get something from them? Why don't we change the format every other year (or twice a year or whatever)?

I mentioned Rypple in a previous post, an online way to get anonymous feedback from all those around you. How about a self-evaluation, 360 degree feedback, Manager report, a 5 point rating based on company goals, manager and employer essay, etc....

Certainly, explaining each of these processes to employees is a big downside, and probably impracticable at a large company. But, certainly with a small and agile group, I think this could be made to be really fun. And isn't the same old boring process, that isn't able to capture all the aspects of unique individuals and their contributions, one reason for the criticism?

For a small start-up that hasn't done reviews before, or for a group that has a particular resistance to the forms and formality of traditional systems, why not start with a simple Intro to reviews:

STEP ONE: By X date, write your own "highlights" and present it to your Lead.

This review should be no longer than one page and should include the following:

  • Some bullets of how you have been spending your time
  • Accomplishment/s you are proud of
  • Challenges
  • What you want to do short term / long term
  • What you have enjoyed and not enjoyed about your position or the company
  • Other (pay, projects, leadership, work environment, whatevers...)

STEP TWO: Your Lead will look at your review, will agree and/or disagree with you and add some notes.

STEP THREE: Your Lead will share the review with the All Seeing Sage (this A.S.S. might be the CEO, Site Lead, HR, or other appropriate person) for input, and then will schedule a follow up 1:1 sit down meeting.

* Among other things, you will look at your highlights, your Lead's notes - You might discuss how you can best perform on the job, how you will be going about it, and what help you need from your Lead?

STEP FOUR: Trends across departments and key points shared with CEO and Leads where appropriate. (i.e. everyone hates working with Margo).

See, that wasn't so hard.

A goal should be to have these reviews and meetings twice a year. Move to having them quarterly. Work at making them more frequent and less weird. Make them normal and productive communication vehicles - an edge you have over your competitor. Find ways to use them as a tool to actually improve performance.