February 27, 2013

Being a small shop isn’t an excuse. It’s a gift.

What do you think of when you think of HR? I ponder on the shoddy experiences I’ve had with large employers. Bad reviews, or none at all.

A human reading a powerpoint presentation as ‘my orientation into this hundred-million dollar complex of a corporation’. Getting paid for the first time 2 months after starting. The experience of quitting a job and only then being encountered by several concerned people. I’ve worked at these swinging-door places before. I’ll bet you have too. Most of the people working for Kin or We Are Mammoth have as well. The crazy thing about these companies is they have dedicated HR teams who are there specifically to help employees navigate their experiences at the company. So no wonder most employees regard HR with disdain. They’re there, but kinda not. HR fails in both design and function.

What the heck does HR mean?

I looked up the definition of “human resources” and got two strangely interrelated meanings.

The first definition reads “The department of a business or organization that deals with the administration, management, and training of personnel.” I take this to mean that HR is a team of people at a company who deal with the operational process of managing humans. It’s getting people to sign non-disclosures, make sure new hires are aware of policies, and get them plugged into the organization.

The second definition reads, befuddlingly, “The personnel of a business or organization, especially when regarded as a significant asset.” I may read a bit more into this one than I should, but this implies the HR team is there to shepherd human resources, aka, the group of people without whom the business would fail.

The cycle of failing to do a good job.

If HR really is meant to service both the soul and the body of a workforce, then most companies fail at their job. They can’t seem to get the administrative minutiae down and then they fail to keep tabs on morale, performance, and productivity in all but protocol.

In the big business world, I get it. Most departments, HR or otherwise, aren’t able to be completely effective in their disciplines. It’s a big company. It’s a lot of people. Jobs are reduced to bulleted lists and dependencies on others too frequently quell the productivity-inclined. I can’t help that though, nor am I interested in doing so. As a side note, Google does seem to have a good thumb on the pulse of their staff.

Being small is an opportunity.

In the small business landscape, though, there’s just as much lost opportunity but it’s a more manageable set of tasks to improve a team’s workplace experience. That is, if the owners give a rat’s tail.

So, what favors can small companies do for the team they can’t succeed without? Start by crafting a real experience for a new hire. The owners should participate and personally keep up with new and tenured folks alike. Personally see to it that everyone is invited to the vision of the company. Check-in frequently, answer questions, give a sh*t. People who choose to work at smaller companies often times are looking for a more familial, diverse experience. Play to that strength by helping them feel at home.

Likewise, small businesses can and should succeed more often in the administrative end of HR management. Often times, working at a small shop feels too similar to working at a big place, albeit for different reasons. The owners are concerned with running their business. HR operations are a small part of that, and as transactional and simple as HR tasks may be, they’re shoved to the bottom of the list, behind new business, production and client services. Getting some simple HR software like Kin into place is a great first step for companies that don’t have a dedicated HR person. It takes care of so much of the minutae which business owners just don’t have time for but that’s so incredibly valuable to employees feeling wanted, appreciated, and wired into the organization.

Do good by your team, be happy being small.

Small businesses keep getting the beat down. We don’t get tax incentives to stay in the city. We don’t have strength in numbers (think health plans). What we do have is the advantage of being small. We’re nimbler and more in control of each of our employee’s experiences. If you can get an employee tapped into the spirit and soul of a small business, then you’ve done the hard part. Now, don’t let the administrative work be an impediment to winning that new team member over. Over time, these simple, small efforts yield a legion of informed, productive people that are more dedicated to your company than they might be at that big agency downtown. And that’s the first step to being a small and mighty workplace. That’s the first step to making HR a good word at your company.

{Craig Bryant is a cofounder of We Are Mammoth, a software services and consulting firm in Chicago, and the founder and product manager of Kin.}

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