5 HR pitfalls startups CAN avoid

Startup founders have a lot of things on their minds; however, HR is rarely one of them. As talent expert Tim Wenzel puts it, “HR is the kind of thing where most people think they know how to do it.”

“The perception of HR varies depending on the level of experience of the founders,” explains Tim. As a Principal at the boutique recruiting firm The (A)lyst Group, Tim specializes in helping startups acquire and manage talent, drawing on his own experience leading recruiting and human resources teams for companies such as PayPal, Tesla, and Chegg. In an exclusive interview with Slate Advisers, Tim shares five common HR pitfalls for startups and how to avoid them.


1. Pitfall: Unrealistic expectations of employee availability

One common HR mistake startup founders make is having unrealistic expectations of employee availability. “I’ve had founders expect people to be in their chair at a certain time and not leave before a certain time,” says Tim. While it is understandable that everyone will have to go above and beyond in the early days of a startup, that does not mean founders can assume their entire staff can, or should, work the same hours as they do.

The solution: Focus on deliverables

Tim encourages founders to focus more on goals and deliverables instead of treating experienced employees like help hired by the hour. To do this, set clear expectations about workload and when people need to be available during discussions in the hiring process.


2. Pitfall: Employee (mis)treatment

Poor treatment of employees can surface as early as the recruitment process and can have long-lasting effects. No candidate should have to deal with unprepared, uninterested, or rude interviewers, but individuals applying to work at a startup frequently do. A bad candidate experience is usually indicative of more problems to follow as an employee is onboarded, and one day, possibly offboarded.

The solution: Treat others as you would want to be treated

“I always encourage people to treat candidates like they would treat a guest in their home.” Tim says. Tim often prompts founders to focus on creating the most positive candidate experience possible. This means conducting internal training to prep interviewers and following-up post-interview to get feedback on how to improve. Above all else, be respectful, professional, and at the very least, offer the candidate water.

It is also important not to forget that employee exits require just as much consideration. “I think handling separations with professionalism and tact is really important. So just being thoughtful and sensitive to the person with whom you’re separating from.” As startup founders should want potential employees to have a great experience coming into an organization, they should also want former employees to have a similar experience when leaving.


3. Pitfall: Unchecked bias

Another big problem that can arise in recruiting and beyond is bias. Whether it is conscious or unconscious, left unchecked bias can undoubtedly lead to discrimination. For a startup, it is natural to want to hire candidates similar to its founders or early employees. However, this can result in a lack of diversity when it comes to gender, race, age, and more.

The solution: Encourage diversity

Studies have repeatedly proven that diversity is crucial for a company’s continued success. “Long-term as the company grows, you end up not only without a diverse workforce, but without the diversity of thought that you could get if you’re more open-minded about hiring people,” Tim says. As such, part of the work a startup does to craft a stellar candidate experience should include a commitment to fighting bias to attract qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds.


4. Pitfall: Going solo

Put simply, “The wrong way to do HR is to be a dictator,” Tim says. While it is tempting to bulldoze ahead with tasks like defining the company’s values to save time, making a bunch of solo decisions can leave the rest of team feeling left out.

And even if you are not quite an “HR dictator”, it is just as bad to be a “lone ranger.” The HR function can be very isolated. Consequently, this can result in issues that range from a lack of transparency in HR decision-making to those in the role not fully integrating into the rest of the organization.

The solution: Collaborate and communicate

Tim encourages those overseeing HR to find ways to collaborate with others as much as possible. Compensation, for example, can be a topic where HR can solicit feedback from different teams and gain buy-in. Building culture is another area to involve everyone from the top-down through asking for input and listening to what matters most to people across the organization.

Tim also stresses the need for good communication between HR and other leaders in the company. “Try to be very open with your leadership on your challenges and how you’re feeling. Even though you're an HR person, you’re still a human being.” Of course, good communication is likewise needed between HR leaders and employees. Tim advises to be honest with employees about what the organization can or cannot do. For instance, complaints about a lack of snacks might be mitigated by sharing how the company is investing in more robust benefits instead.


5. Pitfall: Not recognizing changing HR needs as a company grows

Another common stumbling block for startups is not realizing how their HR needs change at various stages of growth. For instance, the HR function should be pretty minimal for a team of 5-10 people and companies with fewer than 50 employees might get by without a full-time HR person. However, in times of high growth, the role of HR changes dramatically.

Solution: Adapt and change to grow

“When you’re growing from 50 to 200 people, there’s a lot of heavy lifting that needs to happen.” Tim states. This “heavy lifting” includes everything from building out the recruiting process and applicant tracking system to dealing with a heightened focus on compliance all while trying to maintain the organization’s culture. “There’s a lot of design work in terms of policy creation...and it’s usually a one-man show at that point. In my experience, this time is one of the most stressful and most engaging in a company’s lifecycle.” Thus, it’s critical to have someone in place with the right skills to help lead a company through this challenging and exciting time.


As a startup HR leader, you have a key role in shaping the organization to attract and retain the best talent, driving future success.


Slate Advisers is a career transition services firm that takes a more innovative approach to outplacement, accelerating employee transitions and delivering measurable results. We work with companies amid team reorgs, acquisition integrations, and other employee exits. And, by supporting smoother departures, we help protect the company's employment brand and morale. Our clients range from venture-backed startups to the Fortune 1000.


Add new comment