HR is an unfortunate afterthought when it comes to the tech industry

Would you hire a junior marketer to be CMO, or a CA graduate to be CFO?
By Jeff Waldman
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/10/2019

It’s not 100 per cent true that all growing tech companies view HR as an afterthought, but there’s definitely a high percentage. Where’s the research to support this? I don’t need it. I am the research and I have the experience as an HR leader in the space.

A typical conversation

Let’s start with a typical scenario I’ve encountered countless times when I’ve met with tech companies in Toronto.

Most leaders say they have an “amazing workplace culture” and they’re running like a well-oiled machine. Being the inquisitive type, I ask questions. I compliment them on their great culture and ask them how they achieved this.

Many respond by immediately talking about their physical office space, the perks they offer employees and the various playbooks they’ve designed and implemented. You know what I’m talking about — open-concept office space with exposed beams and floor-to-ceiling windows, beer Fridays, catered lunches, foosball tables, on-site yoga and, of course, a “culture playbook” that talks about how awesome they are because, well, they kick ass. It’s all about the superficial stuff.

As I sit in their space, I nod my head in agreement: “Yeah, you do have a great office environment and I love the constant employee chatter coming from the middle of the office, and the hooting and hollering from the game of foosball, and the smell of the lunch being rolled into the kitchen area.” It’s the kind of place where you’d love to spend all your time.

I then kick into the important part of the conversation: “So, can you tell me what your key drivers of employee engagement are?” Silence. “How do you develop current and future leaders?” Silence. “How do you ensure remote employees around the world are connected and have the most effective collaboration and productivity tools?” Silence. “Do you know what your ideal employee experience looks and feels like?” Silence. 

“Given that you want to grow 500 per cent in the next 12 months, how are you planning to attract and recruit the right people?” Silence. “Do you know what drives your employee turnover?” Silence. “What are your top sources of hire?” Silence. “Is your career site optimized?” Silence. “Are you leveraging the right online tools to promote your employer brand?” Silence.

Building your team

I then get into a conversation about how they plan to build their HR team. They often talk about finding someone newer in her career who has experience in the tech industry. They want someone who visually represents their workforce — younger, energetic, willing to spend all her time physically at the office, who can be that culture catalyst. They want to go lean and use software and the expertise of the leadership group to scale the HR function.

It’s funny because I wonder: Who will help this young and energetic HR practitioner grow into an HR leader? Will it just happen organically? Will the CEO, COO or CFO coach and mentor this person? How in the world does it make sense to have people who have no clue about HR mentoring the “up-and-coming” HR rockstar?

Another perspective is the company wants someone to be a true HR leader who has experience scaling a company from 75 to more than 1,000 employees in a hyper-growth environment. Um, OK. In Canada, how many tech companies have grown rapidly beyond 1,000 employees? Let’s see: Hootsuite, Shopify, PointClickCare, Wattpad and maybe a few more. Good luck finding that needle in the haystack.

It baffles me that many tech organizations view HR as an afterthought. Would they hire a junior marketer to be their CMO? Would you recruit a software developer who finished school in 2016 to be your CTO?

What about finance? Let’s just find a recent chartered accountant grad and slap the CFO title on him. Of course, you wouldn’t, and most growing tech companies don’t cheap out when it comes to these functional areas. So why HR?

It’s a huge — I repeat, huge — risk to not have someone at the HR leadership role, particularly in a rapidly growing company, who knows what she’s doing.

Creating an HR organization in a tech company is highly complex because people are complex. Until the day comes when we can employ robots in every position, we will have to deal with the complexities that come with employing humans.

There’s no sugar-coating this, and you need an HR leader who understands the intricacies of human behaviour, and the psychological aspects of diverse people and their influence on business outcomes. 

Don’t think for one second that you can simply “do it” if you are not an HR leader. Reading about a concept and learning about it is one thing, but doing it — that’s a completely different thing.

At the end of the day, growing tech companies need to invest as much in HR as they do other functions. If you’re looking for an HR leader, then hire one. It needs to be someone who has a deep understanding of every single functional area within the broad spectrum of HR, from talent attraction to engagement to retention — all of it.

It’s someone who can sit with the senior leadership team and help the business flourish, and then roll up his sleeves and get shit done. It’s someone who can mentor and coach a team. It’s someone who can build and deliver an HR strategy that connects people to systems to business outcomes.

It’s someone who understands the employment legislative landscape. The job requires experience, and you can’t underestimate the value of experience in tech. Your investments, venture capital investments, talented employees and customers all deserve this — and no less.


Jeff Waldman is an HR leader and founder of IBelong.work and SocialHR Camp in Toronto. He can be reached at jeff@ibelong.work and www.jeff waldman.ca.

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