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?

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