Three experts share insights on a range of common HR challenges. They discuss what HR actually is and share advice for handling performance issues, conflicts, employee terminations, and more.
What is HR?
Manda Cuthbertson; Manager, Talent Services; MaRS Discovery District [00:04]
HR doesn’t happen in a silo. It’s not an office down at the end of the hall where we do the hiring and the firing. Effective HR is integrated throughout the entire business and it’s a true partner to all of your leaders and also acts as an employee advocate. And you’re really balancing all of those needs, every day.
Megan Woerlein; VP, People; CrowdRiff [00:25]
Consistency doesn’t mean a lack of compassion as an HR leader. I think consistency just means that everybody is going to be treated in a way that’s fair. And everybody’s going to have the same opportunities and access to the same training and development, the same treatment, the same growth opportunities, the same promotion opportunities, the same salary opportunities.
I don’t think that there’s a way to be a good HR leader unless you’ve built in consistency. In the long run, it doesn’t serve anybody well, like, if the ad hoc arrangement is around working from home, or if it’s around a promise around a promotion, or if it’s around anything that isn’t consistent for everybody else. You’ll end up a setting a precedent that other people are going to be interested in having. Now that’s going to put you in a tough spot as a leader as the organization scales and grows and other people either want that thing and they can’t have it or when the organization then tries to take it away from you.
I think in that vein, ad hoc never plays out well for anybody. And it doesn’t set up any sort of consistency or anything that can be built upon, because now you’re dealing with, you know, several bespoke situations and you cannot apply any sort of foundational thinking or policies or programs to that.
Manda Cuthbertson [01:30]
People leaders are the ones who have their feet on the ground. They’re interacting with employees every day. And it’s one of the most critical relationships that takes place in your organization. And those relationships with people managers and their team can make or break an organization, really impact your ability to grow.
If leaders are very disconnected with, you know, your culture and your people practices that you’re trying to grow in this environment, you’re not going to be very effective. So it’s really critical that people leaders and C-suite leaders and your HR team are all on the same page and really aligned in what you’re trying to do together and you’re all behaving in the same way.
Megan Woerlein [02:10]
Being able to say no to somebody is a skill and I think it’s an underused skill. And I think it’s a muscle that leaders have to build. But I think it’s the one that will keep them out of trouble in the long run. And I think it’s one actually that will build relationships and positive relationships for them.
Manda Cuthbertson [02:25]
When things aren’t going well with an employee there can be you know, a million reasons why. And one of the first questions I think you need to ask yourself and that employee is, “are you happy?” Find out how things are going from their perspective and figure out if they also see that there’s an issue, and you’re on the same page there. Or do you have a gap in expectations? And those are the trickier situations. We need to make sure that we are leading our decisions around what the business needs. Sitting around and waiting for an underperforming employee to make that decision for us is not a very effective strategy.
Megan Woerlein [03:02]
An HR leader’s role in operational efficiency and headcount is, I think, it’s one of the most important things they can do. I think it’s one of the most difficult things they can do as well. Because I find what you’ll often have is leaders saying I need more people. Or saying the opposite of —”my team is fine.” I think an HR leaders role is to look for markers, where both of those things are not true.
If we start with the one where we’re saying “my team is fine, we don’t need more people,” what you’re really looking for is a demonstration around burnout. You’re looking from feedback from the team that they are over capacity, you’re looking at the retention numbers on the team and the turnover, you’re looking around for, like, feedback for that leader. You’re basically looking for markers that the team actually needs more people or that their structure isn’t right as well — like maybe they actually need another layer of management and that would actually help alleviate some of the burden.
Megan Woerlein [03:46]
I find oftentimes that founders and leaders who build this version of a work family end up getting very disappointed by the way an employee will act when they don’t get what they want. And vice versa, I find that employees will get very upset when they ask for something, and then the family doesn’t give it to them. Then oftentimes you have a breakdown in relationships. You could end up in some sort of legal situation as well when promises are made in the vein of family. And so I generally advise founders to avoid not only the term, but also treating people like anything other than cared-for employees.
Manda Cuthbertson [04:18]
We always have to keep in mind, you know, “who do we want to be?” And start to set the tone for that in all of the little ways that we can throughout the journey. So, who you wanted to be in the early days has probably shifted pretty significantly to who you want to be when you’re a truly scaling organization. So, think about those behaviours, the habits, the things that you really want to bring with you, because those are part of the fabric of who you are.
But what are the things that are no longer serving you? What are those things that you really need to put a stake in the ground and say, “you know what, we’re not going to do that anymore, and here’s why.” But you do have to be very clear about what that is, why you’re making that choice and communicate that out to people. Otherwise, you’re going to create disengagement, really, amongst people who have who have one set of expectations around who you are, and you’re not bringing them along with your aspirations for what you want to be in the future.
Politics come into play when we have a lack of transparency, when people have to draw their own conclusions around what’s happening behind closed doors, or making assumptions based on limited information. So one of the best things you can do is have an effective internal communication strategy. This is a real challenge in organizations, regardless of size. And I’ve seen it time and time again, every time you do some research with employees, they’re going to tell you that communication is broken.
So knowing that and knowing that it’s a problem across the board, and it’s one of those things that you are never really done with and that you constantly need to think about how you can do better, what are you doing to make sure that people have the information that they need, so that they’re not guessing and making up their own source of truth?
Manda Cuthbertson [6:10]
In a resource-constrained environment, we will often find people vying for power. And that can come across in a lot of different ways, depending on the individual, and the degree of which you’re dealing with. So I think it’s really important in a startup and high-growth environment for leaders to really consider what that ripple effect again is going to be when they take a certain course of action.
Stephanie Kessler; Director, Human Resources; ecobee [06:38]
Being brave and courageous in the face of conflict is certainly a learned skill. We as humans want to avoid conflict, it’s in our human nature to shy away from it. In high-growth startups and organizations, we absolutely need conflict to move forward — there’s the concept of healthy tension. And a lot of healthy tension helps us to innovate and problem-solve differently. In HR, if we’re meeting with leaders, we understand what is happening in the organization. We can often see where conflict might arise, see where there’s collaboration that we can encourage more and dig in deeper and coach employees or teams or leaders on how to collaborate better.
Manda Cuthbertson [07:14]
HR is not the complaints departments. The centre role here, our role is to coach employees to manage through these situations as best they can. And of course, if something needs to be escalated, we will step in. But the first course of action is always to speak directly with the people involved.
As an HR professional, I’m not going to insert myself in the middle of a conflict between two individuals. And the most effective way to work through that at stage one is to get those two people talking to each other.
Stephanie Kessler [07:45]
Everyone wants to come to work and feel like they’re valued and they’re respected for the work they do. And if we feel like we disagree with someone in the workplace, if we value and respect them and their position and their work, then we get through a conflict in a more healthy way.
So at an early-stage and high-growth company, there are a lot of friction points. And I think that what we see early on is a lot of people who are interested in getting to the same goal, but are looking at it from a different angle. And so what’s really important is to ensure that the business shares a common goal with the organization so that people are on the same path marching to the same goal.
Manda Cuthbertson [08:21]
If we’ve got conflict amongst the executive team themselves, that represents, you know, sort of a different set of challenges. But I think the response is also quite similar. They have to talk to each other. And I think by by avoiding those tough issues and not talking through them, they’re only either delaying something that’s going to happen anyway, or they’re making matters worse.
So oftentimes, HR leaders do act as coaches and kind of help smooth communications in an effective way, and get everybody, you know, at least talking about the same thing at the right time.
Manda Cuthbertson [09:03]
Planning for termination involves the whole leadership team, ultimately. It’s not a decision that is made by HR. It’s not a decision that is made by the people leader or by the founder or CEO. These are conversations that we need to have together and they’re very contextual. We need to make a decision based on facts and not on emotion or on relationships or friendships, and make sure that the decision is in the best interest of the business.
The role of HR is to is to help facilitate the conversation, help facilitate the fact-finding, and then advising on all of the details around the legal aspects and also how to manage that people component and, again, humanizing that experience as much as possible. Even if they know it’s coming, even if they see the signs and are probably feeling the same way, we’re all people. And I think it’s really important to approach these things in a way that respects those individuals. And the fact that this is not an easy thing.
Having said that, we don’t want to let ourselves get pulled down into the emotion of the situation. And we want to be professional, clear in our communications and move things along quickly. These conversations can easily get derailed by emotion and I think it’s really important to move through the information and kind-of get on with it.
When you’re dealing with sort of a mass termination scenario, which no one ever wants to think about happening, but unfortunately, sometimes in high-growth companies, things don’t go as planned. And we have to regroup and that can sometimes mean that a group of employees will be departing at the same time.
So these are things that we want to be very thoughtful about. There’s so many details, not only in the planning, of deciding which roles are going to be eliminated, and which people in those roles, and all of the workforce planning that goes in around that. But the change management and the execution of all of these things and how it ripples out into the rest of the organization is really critical. And I think that’s so important that leaders, whether they have formal HR or not, that they’re working together to make sure that that they understand that impact on their people, and they’re actively working to mitigate those emotional responses and keeping everybody’s eye on the ball in terms of growing the business and what the business needs.