The recent revelations of sexual harassment in tech and venture capital are shocking. There’s rightly been a lot of discussion in our industry about how to react to these stories and how to deal with the perpetrators.
However, there’s also a broader issue that seems to have received less attention — the fact that many of these situations are the result of years of chronic under-investment in people and culture both in startups and in VC funds.
I call this under-investment ‘people debt’. This is very similar to technical debt, which is a concept that founders and VCs are familiar with. And like technical debt, this is something that founders need to pay attention to as they build their startups.
Six months ago, I joined AirTree Ventures as our first head of talent. In this role I get to exclusively support our portfolio companies by helping them attract, hire, and retain exceptional talent. We created the position to help founders because they know that people are at the core of their startup’s success.
Through this role I’ve had the chance to work with a lot of outstanding startups at different stages of their growth, and noticed a common thread between the most successful ones — they all create environments that put their people first.
These companies see huge returns in productivity and performance as a result.
But unfortunately in the startup world these are often the exceptions to the rule. Many startups don’t start to think about investing in people strategies until it’s too late.
Most focus on perks like cool work spaces, daily catered lunches and ping pong tables. But they are often missing the basics needed to build an inclusive and respectful environment.
In tech, we spend a lot of time talking about technical debt – taking shortcuts with code in order to move quickly. We know that the debt will need to be repaid (ie re-written) later on. The same is true for people debt.
Just like technical debt, some people debt is necessary (even desirable) when you’re starting out. There’s no sense in having a full-blown human resources team for a ten-person startup. However, if founders want their teams to be effective and successful as they scale, it’s important that they be mindful of what people debt they’re taking on, and what things they might need to invest in right from the start.
In its worst forms, too much people debt can create environments where abuses of power and the harassment of women and minorities can take place. It can lead to jerks slipping through the net when recruiting. It can mean that technically brilliant jerks are put on a pedestal instead of being kicked to the curb.
Worst of all, it can create fear and silence that is only broken when people find the courage to speak up.
Being small and nimble is vital for growing startups. But sometimes the “we’re too small to need to worry about this” mindset in our community harms startups.
As a founder there are some basic, common sense things you can do to help you minimise your people debt:
- Think of your recruitment process the same way you do your sales model — aim to make it consistent, repeatable and scalable. Reinventing the wheel every time you need to hire will not only waste time, but will also dilute the quality of people you bring on and create an inconsistent process for candidates (who might also be your customers). There are great tools for small companies like Workable (an applicant tracking system) that help you stay on top of the candidates you’re meeting with.
- If you’re advertising your open roles, avoid the temptation of valuing skills over traits. Skills can be taught and developed — behaviours, attitudes, and drivers can’t. Focus on describing what the ideal candidate looks like in the job description. There are some good posts here and here from Planted and StackOverflow that can guide you on how best to write your job ads.
- Be clear about what you stand for as a company during the interview process. Tell candidates about the standards your team lives by when working together and with customers. Challenge them with questions to understand whether they have the same values as you. Workable has a handy guide with examples of values based questions and tips to assess candidate answers that you can use as a starting point. If you want a simple hack for this — check out tools like Traitify or Atman that provide psychometric and personality testing to support your recruitment efforts.
Reward and recognition
Rewarding and recognising employees for exceptional performance is excellent. But, if the person you’re thinking of rewarding is someone who harasses, intimidates, or bullies others, don’t — get rid of them.
You might be tempted to keep them if they’re a good performer, but we’ve recently seen how badly this plays out with the likes of Uber, 500 Startups and Binary Capital. Also, putting brilliant jerks on a pedestal might encourage others to take their lead. Take a leaf out of our book and don’t tolerate this behaviour under any circumstances.
All founders should care about employee engagement. If you’re only 10 people – you should be able to keep on top of this by having regular check-ins with everyone. Once you scale beyond 15-20 people you might want to check out tools that can help you with this – Culture Amp has a great pulse survey tool, for example.
Knowing your obligations
Even if you hate policies you need to know your obligations as an employer, and make sure that your employees know theirs too. As an employer, you can be held vicariously liable for your employee’s behaviour, so it’s important that you clearly outline what’s expected in the workplace.
Make sure that you take the time to get new hires up to speed on what is okay and not okay behaviour. There are also some basic policies such as anti-discrimination, bullying and harassment policies that you need to have in place (by law). However, you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on lawyers to create these — there are a lot of HR tech platforms that have these policies built in (like Employment Hero or HR Advance).
There’s no denying that too much bureaucracy and too much rigour will kill a startup. You want to keep the agility that will allow you to remain competitive in your early stages. But be conscious of where you’re taking people debt on, and where it might be affecting the creation of a high performing team.
It’s a small price to pay to curb the ticking time-bomb that too much people debt can create.
Sara Ramirez Morales is head of talent at AirTree.
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