Scope of the People Function

The People function (aka People Operations, HR) is and has been evolving rapidly over the past decade, led in large part by progressive tech companies like Google.  This has led to some confusion about what the scope of People should look like, with some companies simply rebranding their back-office HR teams as “the People team”, and others effectively charging People to act as the CEO proxy on all people- and org-related matters of a company (in close consultation with the CEO).  

There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to think about People, but it’s important that the CEO be aligned with the Head of People in the definition, scope, and goals of the function.  I’ve spoken to CEOs who express disappointment in the output of their People teams, but then cannot describe to me what their expectations are for the function. That’s a problem, and can set up a Head of People for failure.  

Here is my high-level view on the scope of my ideal People function, along with some of my beliefs in running a People function.  

  • A new business is an opportunity to build out the culture and community you’d like to work in, which is an incredibly exciting honor and privilege — one that requires careful thought and planning.  It helps to think ahead about what kind of people you want to invite/exclude and the social norms and values you want to embed into the way people interact and work together.
  • The role of the People function is to help shape these underlying tenets with an eye towards 1) bringing in the ‘right’ people who share the core values of the company, and 2) enabling these individuals, teams, and the organization as a whole to work as productively as possible.  This includes both bringing in ‘enablers’ like tools, structure, and training; while also minimizing and removing ‘blockers’ — both physical (e.g., space, tools) and mental (e.g., human social behaviors and dynamics).
  • Hiring well is a huge responsibility, and one that should be shared across the company.  It’s not just the People team’s job to bring in great talent; it’s the role of other leaders, managers, anyone involved in interviewing, sourcing, etc.  We provide the structure, guidance, and administrative support, and expect everyone to do their part in assessing well, fostering the candidate experience, and providing timely and relevant feedback.  As we think about traits to look for in startup candidates regardless of role, I’d advocate for the following: scrappiness/resourcefulness; ownership of work and of culture (i.e., no ‘victim-mindset’); learning agility and curiosity; direct communications; solutions/action-orientation; courage to face the uncomfortable; empathy; humility; intrinsic intelligence; adaptability to continuous change.  
  • With talented employees, the People function should seek to create conditions for ‘flow’, which is a psychological state wherein people are fully engrossed in and intrinsically rewarded by their work.  (To learn more about the research behind ‘flow’, here is a link.)  These conditions include:  clear goals, guidance/direction, real-time feedback, sense of progress, sufficient and progressively more challenge, belief in one’s skills, and freedom from distractions. To support these conditions in a way that feels non-intrusive or bureaucratic, the People function should develop underlying structures and processes in close collaboration with functional leaders and make these transparent to the company.  Examples include written and transparent performance expectations; promotion path and criteria; goal-setting efforts; feedback and review processes; recognition program for great work.
  • With structures in place, I believe in empowering individuals to own their work experience, including their career development, cultural changes they want to see.  This means if they want something, or something isn’t working for them, I encourage them to speak up.  While this can and does lead to some difficult conversations with employees, I’d rather they ask for what they need than to stay silent.  This helps me understand what other training programs, tools, or interventions we might need to develop.
  • When there is values-alignment across the company, there should be more interpersonal trust, and ideally few ‘values infractions’.  Generally, I only advocate for company-wide policies where there are chronic or broadly-applicable issues; I’m loathe to set up policies to address the actions of a ‘few bad apples’.  In those cases, I prefer to have direct conversations with the people involved. This is consistent with putting trust in our employees, and not hitting them over the head with unnecessary bureaucracy.  (Needless to say, for any legally-required policies, I’m all for them.)
  • Managers are a vital linchpin in embedding values, work practices, and developing the skills and capabilities of the organization.  Most of an employee’s development will come from ‘on the job’ training and observing the behaviors of managers and leaders.  With the help of the People team, we can make sure managers know what is expected of them, how to perform their jobs effectively, and — ideally — provide inspiration for future leaders.  Great leadership starts from the top, so the Exec team needs to be willing to learn and develop their capabilities in this regard, too.
  • A significant responsibility of the People function is to manage an open, multi-directional dialogue with people across the company.  Trust and accessibility are key prerequisites for this to be possible, and building trust requires being thoughtful and clear in responding to each and every request.  Elicit feedback, listen to understand the root causes of concerns, and always explain the underlying rationale for decisions made, especially when it’s a ‘no’.
  • Finally, while everyone has a role in ensuring that the work environment is healthy, values-aligned, and as productive as possible, the People function needs to continuously be taking the temperature, look ahead to what we might need to tackle next, and thoughtfully prepare.  This includes regular employee surveys, thinking about the composition of the workforce, gleaning insights from peer companies on potential challenges, and staying abreast of the latest advances in HR (tech, workforce management, leadership development, etc.).

I wrote the above with the context of a startup in mind, but much of this is relevant to existing enterprises as well.  Since this is super high-level, and I’ll delve deeper into some frameworks and such later.

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