After over six years advising startups on how to find and recruit the best talent, I recently took the plunge and actually joined one myself, as head of talent.
When, during my interview, I was asked about some challenging employee issues rather than recruitment-focused questions, I simply responded with my best guess.
“They do know I’ve not done HR before, right?” I asked the recruiter after the interview, to which he quipped: “Just focus on what you do know, not what you don’t.”
To cut a long story short, I accepted the role but decided to leave within the first three months.
Employees can wear too many hats
My experience belongs to a wider trend in startup land. Often startups will, for the sake of convenience and cost-cutting, conflate the knowledge, skill sets and experiences of HR and recruitment. As is the case with many startup roles, employees are asked to wear ‘multiple hats’.
The career paths of recruitment and HR do not traditionally overlap, so in a startup when the entire people function is owned by one person, often they join with a lack of prior experience in one or the other.
It’s no secret that startups compete fiercely for talent. To counter this most startups hire in-house recruiters, which not only saves a fortune in agency fees, but also means that their in-house recruiter will have unrivalled product knowledge and greater internal influence on hiring decisions.
But if a recruiter focuses on getting people into the business, who is looking after the needs of those already in it? Attrition kills morale and costs money, so surely it makes sense for your in-house recruiter to take on responsibilities relating to existing employees too?
Yes — and no.
“There’s a lot more mileage in a career with an HR component to recruitment-only roles”
In terms of the career trajectory of recruiters themselves, this is often a good thing. They can positively influence the ‘workplace culture’ they are selling to candidates, widen their skill set to become more strategic and escape the trap of being a recruiter for life. As Kristian James of HR recruitment company Hawkwood sees it, there’s a lot more mileage in a career with an HR component to recruitment-only roles.
The problem with this, however, comes when you look closely at the responsibilities HR entails, which founders (rarely experienced in the discipline themselves) often overlook when hiring this role. (It doesn’t help that HR has somewhat of a bad rep, often not considered ‘disruptive’ enough for startups).
The difference between HR and recruitment
Where a recruiter’s skillset is sales-like (from persuading candidates and writing compelling job descriptions to building a brand that attracts talent) a traditional career in HR is quite the opposite. HR covers employment law, contracts, policies, compensation and benefits, learning and development, performance management, organisational design and, increasingly, coaching. You’ll notice very little overlap in those experiences with someone who’s built their career in recruitment, especially in an agency.
On the flip side, HR professionals will often resent the time-consuming and reactive nature of recruitment — getting back to candidates and sending thousands of messages is difficult to juggle with the ‘deep work’ required to impact workplace culture. Truly effective HR focuses on strategic projects that support employee’s development, productivity and happiness. Startup employees might be working on revolutionary products but they will still be dealing with the same old issues around conflict, sickness, having kids and the rest of it.
In a startup the people function often has a third dimension too. In looking after a team’s happiness, office management responsibilities are inherent. Whether it’s collecting P45s, organising birthday surprises, ordering bean bags or fruit for the team… you name it, in a startup with minimal processes such duties can become the norm.
As one member of DBR, an in-house recruitment community, told me about their head of people role: “Every task you own directly impacts the people in the team, so letting any one thing drop or saying ‘no’ can become a real challenge.”
Supporting ‘people’ people
It’s common for ‘people’ people to feel stretched. I surveyed 56 members of DBR, who are all responsible for HR and recruitment in their startup. Of these, 66% said they cover both on their own, with no team, even in businesses of up to 150 people. 90% receive no official HR support, despite half of them having no prior experience in the area.
When founders choose to hire someone who does bring existing HR experience, then recruitment can become the challenging aspect. According to one HR manager I spoke to: “When we’re hiring, as we did in a big way in 2018, it’s stressful to try to manage all the hiring at the same time as delivering people-focused projects. In these times it feels like I’m always fire-fighting and not able to deliver on HR projects — my work in this time feels less impactful and less satisfying.”
But it’s not all gloomy. Often it’s the very variety of their work that ‘people’ people find engaging, combined with the ability to see a tangible impact of their work across the entire business. So while we can’t change the fact that recruitment and HR are different skill sets, we can change the support we give people who take on both functions.
How to structure your HR and recruitment team effectively
- Acknowledge the difference — provide training, support and allocated time slots for the different tasks
- Provide a generous budget for tools that automate admin-heavy tasks, e.g. HR systems and sourcing tools
- Be realistic about what can be achieved in the way of strategic people projects when there is a lot of hiring
- Hire an office manager for administrative team needs, or ensure the whole team take responsibility for tasks themselves
- Where there is no prior HR experience, use software like CharlieHR for advice on the legislative aspects of recruitment (contracts, performance, policies etc.). By simply hoping your ‘people’ person can ‘figure it out’ you put yourself at risk of malpractice, which can cost you more longer term
- Require that all managers partner with the people function to support recruitment and developing team members — make it part of their own key performance indicators (KPIs)
- Handover financial aspects of HR to a finance expert
Ellen Donnelly helps organisations to hire and work with entrepreneurial talent. She’s worked across headhunting, building accelerator programmes and in-house talent for startups.