Burn Your Verbal Policies

The first (and easiest) step to scaling your startup’s culture

Illustration by Laura Callaghan

When I meet founders, almost all of them say the same thing: “we have a really unique culture, and we’re worried about losing it as we grow”. When it comes to communicating that unique culture, things are usually pretty casual- no handbook required. They’ve got open vacation. They’ll pay for that conference if you bring it up. They’re ~cool~ about things. Just ask.

Early stage companies can sometimes resist putting perks and policies in writing, thinking that it will send those “we’re corporate now” alarms ringing. Or, there’s simply not time, or, so they think, demand.

Here’s the truth they’re not telling you: your team really, really wants you to write this stuff down. And it’s urgently important.

You see: A company that’s open, flexible and willing to provide it all for your beloved team.

They see: Nothing. Zilch. When it comes to perks and policies, if it isn’t in writing, employees figure it doesn’t really exist.

That open vacation policy? They’ve got no idea how much to take.

Learning and development? They don’t know what kind of budget is reasonable to ask for, so they don’t ask at all. Newer recruits assume help is nonexistent since they may not have heard (or seen) anything about it.

When it comes to parental leave, many default to a “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” approach. What actually happens: either someone planning a family assumes you’ve got no coverage and finds another job (I’ve seen it happen!), or you’re left in an awkward negotiation with a pregnant employee that suddenly feels much more personal.

If it’s not in writing, your team will assume it’s not a thing.

Though many startups are flatter organizations, there are still power structures at play. Like it or not, you’re the boss, and folks (especially non-leadership folks) will be hesitant to approach you and ask for you to pay for training or discuss a leave. Ever asked for a raise? Negotiating perks with you each time they want to use them feels just as nerve-wracking. Why not save time and level the playing field?

Ready to get writing? Here‘s where to start:

  • Create an employee handbook. These are incredibly useful for new and veteran employees alike. For every perk or policy, include a how-to guide on using or requesting them. For advice on creating a great employee handbook, here are some resources.
  • Create a document with all of your perks and benefits to send along with your offer letters. Interviews can be intense, and candidates won’t always retain every verbal detail you give them.
  • Try to be as clear about stock options and equity as possible. Host a lunch and learn, and get some share management software that allows employees to track their equity. Many people have a very limited understanding of how options work but are afraid of looking dumb.
  • Be clear on your jobs page. Don’t just say you’re family-friendly, put exactly what your parental leave top-up is. If you put aside $1000 per employee for development per year, put down that exact amount as well. Nulogy does a great job of this.

In a nutshell: Writing things down won’t kill your culture, but it will help scale it.

Need more help getting set up HR-wise? Check out our article on how to bootstrap your HR, or give us a shout.

About us:

Bright + Early is a modern HR consultancy on a mission to craft the world’s best workplaces. We partner with early to mid-stage companies who need to scale fast but stay friendly. Nothing in place? Don’t know where to start? No problem.

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