It would be an understatement to say it’s been a difficult year for startups — with many figuring out how to extend runway, adjust their team sizes and raise funding when investors are tightening their belts.
Founders and operators say that’s why it’s even more important to double down on company culture and give employees the best place to work.
Sifted's Startup Life newsletter spoke to dozens of startup whizzes this year. Here we’ve rounded up the best bits of people advice from them.
Many companies this year have taken the tough decision to let go of some of their staff — and some have handled this better than others. No startups should be following the example of Twitter, for instance, which axed thousands of employees with no notice and little explanation as to why.
We asked European founders who have had to trim down their workforces for the key lessons they learnt throughout the process:
- Make a big enough cut. If you’re going to lay off staff, it’s better to cut as many people as needed in one fell swoop, rather than realising after your first painful round of cuts that you need to cut even more. This will also ensure you avoid multiple rounds of layoffs, which can be worrying and destabilising for staff who stay on.
- Expect people to leave. It’s likely your headcount will reduce further after announcing layoffs as people, who have lost their colleagues and friends, are often keen to leave of their own accord.
- Give as much detail as you can in your announcement. Be transparent with employees and explain your reasoning behind cutting staff in an all-hands meeting. Make the announcement as detailed and personal as possible.
- Offer an open Q&A. This allows employees to ask management all the tough questions directly — something they’ll greatly appreciate.
Negotiating a pay rise
The cost of living crunch has made salaries top of mind for many employees. But asking for a bump in pay isn’t easy for everyone. We asked founders and tech employees for their top tips for asking for a pay rise. Here’s what they said:
- Give evidence of your ability to meet, and exceed, the requirements of your job — for example, on stakeholder engagement you could say: “I have held workshops with entry-level personnel and reported at board/C-level”. List your achievements and the impact they created.
- Don’t ask for a pay rise out of the blue. Set up regular performance meetings — two or three per year — with your manager or the HR department, and ensure pay is on the agenda. Use the conversations to negotiate pay based on your performance. And be sure to send an email or Slack follow-up of any promises made to you so that there’s a written record.
- Treat it as a two-way discussion: don’t go into meetings with your employer with all guns blazing. Empathise with your employer’s priorities and decide together on a set of goals to achieve to help you move up the pay scale.
Implementing people policy
As clichéd as it may sound, employees are a company’s biggest asset; they’re the ones who keep the cogs of a business turning. While companies are battling myriad challenges right now, employee retention must be at the top of the list. Even if you’re slimming down your workforce, you need to engage and reward the employees who stay. Implementing good people policies is a good place to start.
Giving compassionate leave
Offering employees time off to be with their loved ones in the event of a death should seem like a no brainer. But many startups don’t have a dedicated policy for compassionate leave, or know how to manage bereaved employees.
Dan Garrett, cofounder and CEO of Farewill, a company offering will-writing and probate services, gave us his top tips for creating a compassionate leave policy, which we’ve summarised below.
- Give employees 10 days off minimum. But allow for more time off or a phased return to work if necessary.
- Don’t define closeness. There’s no sense in offering more days off for the loss of a relative than the loss of a friend: an employee may have lost a relative but might not be close to them, whereas their losing a colleague or friend could be devastating.
- Train up managers. Talk managers through the policy and use role play to help them get to grips with handling certain scenarios. Put in place an escalation procedure in the event that a manager cannot handle a situation: for example, have your head of people step in to assist in, or take over, a difficult situation.
- Communicate with care. Don’t tiptoe around the subject and tell them dispassionately that "everything is going to be ok". Instead, acknowledge how awful it is that they’ve lost someone close to them.
Yes, this is a thing — and one that is absolutely necessary for creating an inclusive workforce, wrote Marie Krebs, people experience design lead at Learnerbly, in a piece for Sifted.
Here’s a few important tips:
- Get leadership buy-in. This is a topic relevant for everyone in the company, and not just the people team. Ask the top executives to introduce the initiatives you’re facilitating.
- Formalise period leave. This gives the employee the official "ok" to taking a sick day when they’re on their period. You could also offer “duvet days” where people can take time off, no questions asked.
- Get a health insurance or cash back scheme. This gives employees the support they need for identifying where the pain comes from, to affording medical operations and followups
Develop your employees
While business is hard, losing talented employees is not what companies want — especially given that hiring is so expensive.
The conversation about professional development made a comeback this year: in one study, it was found that the number one reason people leave startups is because they’re not being challenged, or because they feel that their professional development is not being prioritised by their employer.
Professional development also doesn’t have to cost much; in some cases, it’s about giving more ownership and empowerment to employees. Here’s a few tips on how to do this.
- “Don’t link personal development conversations to your annual HR performance review cycle. Growth is constant and doesn’t occur twice a year (when we tend to have our performance reviews).” — Dagmara Aldridge, chief people officer at Zumo
- “One approach I’ve seen work wonders in the past are secondments to other teams; or rotation assignments similar to what’s often offered on graduate development programmes. Why not replicate that for others in the company? Late last year, we moved a colleague from customer service to talent acquisition and she’s doing so well, she’ll start running recruitment, including interviews, for customer service vacancies next month.” — Babara Zesick, chief people officer at Omio
- “Encourage an entrepreneurial, creative and autonomous spirit — giving people the opportunity to suggest their own ideas for training and projects, and even create new roles for themselves.” — Peter Cooper, director of people partnering at Personio