HR From Scratch


Kim Rohrer

Kim Rohrer is the Head of People Operations at Disqus. She and her team handle everything relating to the finding, hiring, and retaining of Disqussers -- including but certainly not limited to recruiting, company events, benefits, learning and development programming and operational budgeting.

Kim joined Disqus in 2010, as its first female employee and first business operations hire. Prior to Disqus, she worked at such notable companies as Google, Pixar, Fantasy Recording Studios, and Berkeley Repertory Theatre before finding her niche in the growing startup world.

Kim also co-founded the Organization Organizers, a networking and resource group for business operations folks working in the tech sector (and beyond). OrgOrg currently has over 500 members from companies all over the world.

Webinar Transcript

Woman: Kim started out in theater focusing on literary management and dramaturgy, analysis, research, criticism, and eventually worked her way into the tech world. She really enjoys taking the research she has collected and finding ways to present it so that it is easily accessible, understandable, and useful to a wide variety of audiences. She has experience in collaborating and working with groups of all sizes, from a two-person literary department staff to a team of 200 engineers, and she's worked with diverse personality types from librarians to students, engineers, actors to rock stars, to children.

Currently, she heads up people operations at Disqus, where she focuses on developing the people and culture of the growing company. She also co-founded the Organization Organizers, a resource group for office managers and other such folks at startups and she loves connecting people to each other professional, gentle style. And now please welcome to Elevate 2015, Kim Rohrer.

Kim: Hello. I'm Kim and we are going to be talking about HR From Scratch, Creating People Programs. So what we're going to cover today is startups and HR in 2015, getting started when your company has nothing at all, and leveling up your HR practices. There's going to be a lot of memes, bad clip arts, deal with it. So, startups and HR in 2015, A.K.A., why does everyone hate us so much? People think that HR is about ruining the fun and that you don't need rules when you have a really small team and that it's really easy to outsource your benefits and your pay roll, and that's basically all that HR does.

So why would we hire an HR team or a person for our startup when all you need is really simple stuff that you can outsource? Sweetie, no. Startups have a lot to learn about HR. HR has a kind of a bad rep and employees and companies alike are hesitant to bring us in to their companies. Why? Because HR does lame anti-harassment training and makes your benefits worse and looks at you like you're a number and cuts costs and it's too squishy and people-focused and they're the people who tell you you're fired.

So that's not fun, that's not sexy, that's not cool. People don't want that at their startup. It's kind of ridiculous. But, as you know, we can do so much more. HR really is about creating safe, friendly workplaces, empowering employees, developing teams and leaders, shepherding the company culture, and building scalable programs to support the company as it grows, in addition to ensuring compliance with laws to protect the company from potential lawsuits.

As you know, HR is a lot more than people think it is. Luckily, here we are in 2015, people-focused programs are becoming really important to companies, cultures, what differentiates you from other companies in the industry. And a lot of companies are starting to see the light, creating teams or making single hires who our responsible for taking care of the people who work at the companies. These teams have all kinds of wacky, crazy names. You've got everything from HR and people apps to employee experience to vibe and culture.

I've seen team uniform sparkle, the pimple team, the operations team, whatever you call it, there is a team of people or a person singular responsible for taking care of the people who work at a company, which is great. Sorry, slides are crazy. Here we go. My personal philosophy is that I think that the best teams are ones that encapsulate the entire picture of the employee experience. So that's putting recruiting with HR and operations all under the same umbrella.

That way you have a consistent employee experience from the time of the interview to their long, fruitful career or eventual departure from the company. You have more control over that experience if the teams are all working together. You can support the company holistically rather than having really separate, disparate focuses. But how do you do that? We're going to tell you right now. So, getting started. When you work for a small startup that has nothing, it is an uphill battle. Most likely if you're here in this session, nobody knows what you do or why you do it.

You may have been hired because your investors told your CEO that you needed an operations person or an HR person. But likely nobody at your company really knows what you're supposed to do. It's possible they don't even really want you to do it. You might not even know exactly what you're supposed to do as an HR person at a startup. So yehey, fun, that's a team-up for success. Not at all. But if you are a person who is inspired by creating wonderful environments and that you're passionate about helping people and you love to create order where there's chaos, this might just be your dream job.

And we need more slides to load, there we go. So what do you need to do first? Full disclosure, I'm going to tell you what I did. My path is not every path. My path is not necessarily the best path, but I've really enjoyed my path and found great success here, so take what you like, leave the rest. So, we're really going to focus on the early stage, 10 to 25, maybe up to about 50 employees or so. So let's say your company is around that stage and you've been hired to take care of everything that the engineers, designers, founders, maybe if you're lucky, support and sales, anything that don't want to deal with.

But what does that even include and where do you start? And what if you're also the person who's ordering the snacks and answering the phones? We'll get to all of that later. So step one, getting your shit together. First thing you need to do is tackle your bare bones HR crap. There's the very, very basics of knowing who works for your company and how they're taken care of. So, where do you keep employee information? Is it secure? Do you have the required legal documents in place for every single employee who works for you? This is really important.

When I first started at Disqus, we didn't have the paperwork in place and it took quite a while to get our shit together. It's a really good thing to do. So secondly, what about your payroll? Who is your payroll provider? Do you know that? Are all employees being paid on time and in the correct amounts? How are changes to compensation submitted and tracked in payroll? Are they getting updated when people are getting raises? What types of benefits do you offer to your employees? Do you offer them to everyone equally?

Is your plan compliant with the Affordable Care Act, which is something new that we have to think about now? And quick, when is your next open enrollment? When are you going to be making changes? Do you have an employee handbook? If not, do you have any policies or practices that are written down anywhere? Do you have standards of conduct or behavior or operations or anything written down anywhere that says, "This is how we operate. This is how we cover our grounds legally"? Maybe you should do that.

So step two, hiring. Once you've gotten your baseline established, you're probably hiring people. Haphazard hiring is inefficient at best and it's detrimental to your company's reputation at worst. If you're hiring a sloppy, it makes you look really bad. So with hiring, where do you post your open jobs? How do you track applicants if they move through your application process? Who schedules interviews? Who conducts the interviews? And finally, who writes the offer letters? These are all really important things for you to know as the person who's taking on the HR.

Once you've hired people, what do you do with them? How do you bring them on board? How do they get set up to start working and feel productive? How do you make them feel like a part of the team, like this beautiful clip art stick figure team? It's really important. And lastly with this kind of getting your shit together category, a piece that I'm really passionate about is setting your vision and your mission and your values. So identifying your company's purpose, how you're going to get there, what kind of people you are as a team.

Does your company have these written down everywhere? I'm sure that they exist in someone's mind, but are they written down? Who are you as a company? What do you stand for? How do you make sure all of your employees and people in the outside world know about it? The earlier you figure this out the better. It's a lot harder to do this when you're a bigger team, when you're 30, 40, 50 people. It's a lot easier to establish this when you're a small group.

So I going to have one more slide here about the vision, mission, and values because I feel really strongly about it, and it's really important to get it done as part of your getting shit together, getting yourself set up for success early stage HR work. So, leadership, your founders should set the company's vision. Your founders created this company for a reason and they should identify in writing in a very clear way what is their vision for how the world would be different because you exist? Why is this company here?

Leadership should also set your company's mission, which is how you're going to get to that pie in the sky vision of a different world because you exist. What kind of missions are you going to be setting up on to make that happen? And if you have a small team, I'd say that your values need to be a team effort, a reflection of the way that you operate now as a company with maybe some aspirational stuff thrown in there about how you want to be in the future.

As long as everyone believes in them and as committed to working to become the embodiment of those values. Everyone has to be on board. We are what we do and you have to say what you're going to do and then do those things. Let's talk a little bit about nice to haves. Beyond the basics, you've gotten everything going, you've hit the ground running, you've built the ground, let's formalize some stuff. So firstly, we're going to talk a little bit about how to figure that out.

You have to assess what your organization needs and how you are the person to help address those needs. Some examples, do you have around 25 employees? You might want to start thinking about formalizing performance reviews and competition reviews. Are you doing a bunch of hiring right now? You might want to standardize your recruiting processes and your on-boarding practice. If you're opening offices around the country or around the world you should probably brush up on your Labor Law, payroll, benefits compliance to understand what it means to operate a lot of different offices in different parts of the world. Once you're around I would say about 25 employees, it gets a little bit tough for HR to get by on just being scrappy.

So I like to start around them with systems and tools to help manage all of the different things that are on your plate. You have a lot to remember and it's a lot better if you're not managing spreadsheets. So you'll want to get a human resource information system to get you out of managing employee information and spreadsheets manually. You'll want an applicant tracking system to help manage all of these candidates that are coming your way. You'll want a reputable standard for on boarding those employees, something that every new employee goes to the same experience. You'll want some sort of a standard way of doing performance reviews with all those people you can't just do it ad hoc.

And while you're at it, you want to standardize your goal setting, your communication, all of the things, which, you know, no big deal, hilarious. Anyone can do it. But really it's not that hard. You can get started. You start one piece at a time. This is the tool stack that my team uses. We have different tools for different purposes. We use a lot of different tools for a lot of different reasons. There's a little bit of overlap between the tools we use, but we found that certain tools are really good at certain things and certain tools are really good at other things.

And rather than have one multi-purpose tool that's only okay, we'd rather have a lot of smaller tools that really, really work well. That's our philosophy around our employee experience, that's not going to be the same for everyone, but these are the tools that I use. Next up, this is a lot of information. You're doing a lot. Startup HR folks are often also responsible for operations and administrative assistance and event planning and customer support and accounting and collections and all kinds of crazy things, right?

That's probably why you're here in this session. So, how do you even possibly begin to do it? Even just that basic stuff, we have not even having gone to the leveling up section of the presentation yet. So it is a lot, especially if you're a one or a two-person team, which you probably are. You're going to need some help to support your growing company. And if you're around 25 employees or more, you should really not be a one-person team anymore. You're going to have to learn to advocate for yourself and get some help.

But depending on the needs of your company, that might look like an office manager, that might look like a recruiter, that might look like a benefit specialist, you never know. But this is the time when you need to start thinking about hiring your team. So, how do you make the case for growing your team? It can be tricky but I have a little approach, that is a three lists approach. I'm a big fan of lists, so here we go. Your three lists. First list is what you are doing today, all of the things that you do today. You will be surprised at how long this list is. It's going to be a lot of stuff.

Every single thing that you do, write it down. You don't have to say like, "And I emptied the trash and I emptied the dishwasher," but office upkeep and maintenance. Keep really tracking all of the things you're doing is going to be important to making that case for why it's too much work for one person. The second list is what you should be doing. This list is all of the things that you don't really have time to do, but you should really be doing. This is the place where you feel a little bit bad about yourself because you're writing down a bunch of stuff that you know you should do but you're not getting to, that's okay.

The third list is the "what you could be doing" list. This is the pie in the sky. If you had everything you needed to be successful, what would you be doing? What kinds of things could you be doing for the company? This is where you get to be a visionary and show off for your boss what kind of impact you could have on the company. Once you've made those lists, but before you propose changes to your boss, take some time to map things out in your head. We're going to make a couple more lists.

So now we're going to take those three lists that you did and take the first list of all the things that you're currently doing and think about what kinds of themes you're seeing in that list and kind of bucket them out into the things you want to do and the things you want someone else to do. If you're having a hard time with that, you could create a blank spreadsheet with what I call like a happy column and a sad column. And for two weeks, write down everything that makes you happy at work and everything that makes you sad.

It's very simple and it's kind of silly but at the end of two weeks you'll start to see some themes around the kinds of things that you enjoy and the kinds of things that you really don't enjoy, and that's going to be the foundation for proposing the next hire on your team. So, I think this part is really fun. This is where you get to look at the list of things that you like to do and the list of things that you really, really don't want to do. Look for those themes and turn them into job descriptions. Everything that's in that someone else's job, "Please, dear god, don't make me do it" category is someone else's job now and you're going to write that job description.

Give it a title, do a little research on market compensation so you can get a full picture. Now you have something to show your boss. Share with your boss the three-list spreadsheet of what you're doing, what you could do, and what you should do, all those things, and then show your proposed hiring solutions, and say, "Hey, look, if we hire this person, not only am I going to have more time to do the things that I should be doing, but I can focus on this really great world of making a huge impact on the company and here's how."

If you're met with a resistance, you might have to take a little more time but go back to that three-list thing and say, "Okay, if we're not going to hire someone, let's look at this list of all the things that I'm doing and all the things I should be doing and you, boss, tell me what's going to drop. You tell me what I'm not going to do." You might have to include your burnout as a possibility of you dropping the ball on some projects as a risk if not hiring someone, and say like, "Look, I might drop the ball or these things are just not going to get done."

And sometimes things have to break before you're able to fix them. It sucks. If you're an overachiever and you're a people-pleaser, which many of you are if you work in HR at a startup, it sucks to just have to say, "This is going to break if we don't get help." But sometimes breaking is the key to a whole new world of trust in hiring. So let's talk a little quickly about self-education because you probably don't know how to do all of the things yet and that's okay. I didn't either. Nobody really knows what they're doing all of the time.

And in a small startup world, it's very possible to learn much of what you need to do on the job. If your company is hiring and scaling hugely fast, you may need to hire someone who's done this before as a senior level leader. But if growth is kind of slow and steady and the company is supporting your learning, you don't need to get degrees or certifications. You could just learn as you go and take advantage of resources that are available to you. The important thing is knowing what you know, knowing what you don't know, and then filling those gaps.

So lastly, we're going to talk about leveling up, improving on the basics. Prioritization, as much as you want to do it all, it's not practical. You have to choose a focus. You have to choose a focus every day, every month, every week, always. You're always re-prioritizing. When you're ready to up level your work into some of those nice-to-have categories or "the things that I could be doing" categories, how do you choose? You have to think about things like, "What does the company need right now regardless of what I want to do? Does my boss have opinions on what she'd like to see me working on?

Maybe I should prioritize those things. Which of those things are a long term projects versus things I can do in an hour or in a week or in a day? And does work on any of those projects impact or help with a potential future project? If I prioritize and do this one first, is that going to open up the way for me to do this other project later?" And lastly, what would you really like to be doing? Regardless of what the company needs, what is your dream? What do you want to do? And is there a way for that to align with any of the really urgent things that need to get done?

Let's talk about making improvements. What even are improvements in HR? So, even if you did it right the first time, it's always good to revisit your work. The company has changed, your work is changing along with it. Examples are if the product has changed, does that mean the mission has changed? Have the values changed? Is the company different now that they're producing a different product? Has your company doubled in size? How do you streamline your communications? How do you keep everyone aligned? If you've opened an office or closed an office, do you need to update your practices or policies in light of that?

If you raised a new round of funding, is that going to affect your morale, your culture, your hiring? What does that going to do to your team? And if you notice industry trends in compensation or benefits and perks, are you still competitive? Do you need to revisit your benefits practices or your compensation philosophy? And another one is if your scores in certain survey areas have declined, which, by the way, if you're not surveying your employees to gauge their happiness and engagement, you definitely should be. It's one of the most valuable ways to find out where you should make improvements.

Lastly, if you happen to have some free time, which I know is hilarious, if you have some free time that's when you can kind of look over the scope of your land, look out at your kingdom of HR and say like, "What haven't I touched in a while? What could use a refresh?" So that was a lot, let's all take a breath, let's take a minute. We're going to do this, it's great. Here we go. Again, we're nearing the end of this epic presentation, full of information. So, hiring. Now that you have made the case for hiring people on your team and you're revisiting all your stuff and you're like feeling all amped, when do you hire generalists versus when do you hire a specialist?

It's a very good question that I get often. HR, as a team, the HR team needs change as the company changes. So it's good to have options at your disposal. Specialists are really good for when you need a lot of help in very specific or very few areas, whereas generalists are better when you need a little bit of help in a lot of different areas. I know that sounds really obvious. Let's go into some examples. Some examples of when specialists are great are when you have a really urgent need to fill, like a hiring spree that's not expected to last a long time. You're hiring three or four people right now and then you're going to stop for a while.

A temporary hiring or recruiting specialist can be a great way to fill that gap on your team without bringing on an additional person that you may need to let go when hiring slows down. If you have a specific project like a program you're building or a policy you need to create, you might want to build in a specialized skill set person for a short period of time to help you do that, to fill the knowledge gaps. And if your company is growing really fast, you might need people who can focus on specific areas, like benefits and payroll, learning and development, global compensation, talent management and leveling.

If your company is growing super, super fast, you're going to need dedicated people focused on those areas. Conversely, if you want to hire a generalist that might be like if you're hiring kind of slowly and you don't need separate recruiters, coordinators, and HR admins. And recruiting generalists can help you with hiring and scheduling and paperwork. If you have a lot of different projects that don't require specialized skill sets, there's just more work than a single person can do, hiring a coordinator or an administrator, kind of a generalist person, can help you out with a lot of different things on a lower level, supporting your work in a lower level capacity.

For example, if you are going to be specializing in a specific area but there's still need for HR help in a lot of different spaces, a generalist is a good way to fill that gap. Lastly, this is the end of my pitch for you in HR, self-improvement. The people who are successful in small companies in the world of HR, people ops, whatever you want to call it, they are the people who can ask for help. It's really important to be able to ask for help. Nobody knows the answers all the time, especially at your company where probably nobody knows the answers to the questions you have.

There's some things that I've done to learn and get the support that I needed. I highly recommend doing these things. We're doing whatever you need to do to get the answers you need to get. So, examples are membership in a site like the California Chamber of Commerce, it's HR California. It gives you access to Labor Laws and examples of policies and forms you can download. It's great. You can attend conferences. And a lot of conferences that are put on by vendors like this one that's co-sponsored by Bamboo HR or the VEDA Benefit Symposium or HR Stars, which has a bunch of corporate sponsors, they'll subsidize your attendance or let you attend for free.

You can attend meetups. I find random ones through my networks, that's the best way to find meetups. I started my own network, shameless self promotion. It's called the Organization Organizers. You can find it at, a global network of people ops professionals, where you can ask people for help, grabbing coffee with a friend you've met, someone in your network, someone you've met at a conference or an event to ask for advice. And then I actually hired a coach for a couple of years to coach me through some really specific HR challenges that I didn't know how to deal with because I never faced them before. Hiring a more experienced coach where the company is paying for their time to help you can be really, really valuable. That's it. That's all I got, that's my final pitch. Thank you for being here and watching this presentation. That is all I got. It's over.