How does one define a word that has been around for ages, and yet has no distinct meaning? Having just come out of an interview, where someone said “I want to be a part of HackerEarth because of your culture”, I found myself thinking, how oft-used (to the point of becoming banal) yet indecipherable the word culture really is. Contradictory, don’t you think?
Peter Drucker said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. I totally believe that it eats strategy for lunch and dinner too (someone said that as well I think).
The reason why culture is so hard to pin down, in my opinion, is because it’s not a specific set of processes that everyone agrees upon. Wall Street swears by its black-tie culture. Startups think it’s cool that you can use four-letter words in a conversation with your CEO and not get flak for it. Perhaps it’s not as much as what we do as what we don’t, which is the real measure of an organization’s culture.
When writing your culture handbook, the must-nots are probably more important than the must-haves. As HR professionals, it is our job to help define what the must-nots really are.
At HackerEarth, our work culture revolves around a central DON’T.
Don’t Be An Asshole.
When I first walked into HackerEarth, I was awestruck by a poster screaming “Don’t Be An Asshole”. Which, if you look closely, should be the basic tenet of every company’s culture handbook. The poster was a big part of the reason I signed up for the job.
The tenet is self-explanatory, but if asked to explain I would say it translates to don’t be that manager, that colleague, that employee, and that person who makes life hell for others at work. Period. Everything at HackerEarth stems from this basic idea of respect – for self, and for others.
Keeping respect as the central sun of HackerEarth’s galaxy helps us do a few things well:
- It helps us keep our employees at the forefront of our organization.
- It helps us underline what is NOT OKAY – behaviors, patterns, conflicts get called out much more easily and resolved faster.
- It helps us trust our teammates and give them the freedom they need.
- It helps us understand differences and find common ground.
- It helps us put the team above individual egos.
Let me elaborate.
1. Keeping employees at the forefront of the organization.
Our approach is ‘inside-out’ when it comes to our people. For anything and everything we do, we start the conversation by asking what it means for our people and then move outward to answer what it means for the company. Yes, it does mean there’s a lot of care and mutual trust for our people. No, it does not mean that we don’t make difficult decisions. We make those decisions too; only we do so with care.
For my peers in HR, you need to move away from the crutches of policies, processes, and practice, and start placing that lens more on individuals. Your policies are just a guidebook. They aren’t written in stone. If you must break the rules to do the right thing, then just do it.
2. Underlining what is NOT OKAY.
We like to keep it straightforward and simple. If someone is disrespectful in their tone, or their action, we boldly call it out and tell them it’s NOT OK. In some of these conversations people stay; in others we politely, but firmly, take corrective action.
As an HR professional, you need to be proactive in constantly calling out what’s NOT OK. And that’s how the company learns to do it, too. You also need to ensure that what’s NOT OK does not change for a company’s CEO, the top leaders, your boss, your employees, or yourself.
3. Trusting our people and giving them complete freedom.
Before HackerEarth, I had never worked in a company that trusts so unconditionally. It’s commendable how we do it. We do not hide any information. We always give our people an understanding of the why behind a decision. Even if it is the decision about a pandemic-induced pay-cut or about letting someone go. If we have made a mistake, we own it. We provide every opportunity for our people to ask difficult questions. In fact, we get worried when they don’t. We are never afraid to be vulnerable in front or to show emotions, and that takes a lot of trust.
We want our people to feel as confident to say ‘NO’, as they would feel saying a ‘YES’. We’re not afraid to make mistakes. We’re famously anal about learning from those mistakes. This is part of trusting them.
Dear HR peeps, please don’t kill the human side of the job. Rather, deal with the ‘people’ side of things to make your job, and the company, better. You have plenty of time to go back to those 2 Ps (Policies, Processes) later. This also means that you need to openly show your human side, too. It’s unfortunate that the strong conditioning of the HR industry has always asked us to portray a ‘rock-solid HR’ figure. Spend time thinking about how comfortable you feel about owning your emotions, and creating a safe space for others to do so, too.
4. Understanding differences. Finding common grounds.
We let our people bring their whole selves to work. We don’t expect anyone to be under any pressure to outperform the other person. We understand that each one of us is different. Yes, we expect them to be the best version of themselves, and give their best, while respecting their innate differences.
As a startup, velocity is extremely important for us. So is listening to everyone at the table and finding what works best for an individual, the team, and the company at large. In that order. You cannot dream of the best ideas without critique. Everyone loves doers. We love and respect naysayers as well, and trust them to be our conscience keepers.
A word of caution here. Differences and diversity are beautiful, only when practiced with intent. Dear HR people, please don’t overuse the word diversity and inclusion at the drop of your hat. ‘Inclusion’ is really not for everyone. You need to be bold to allow for it. Be honest if you want similar people. That’s OK too. Be honest if you want people to say ‘yes’ all the time. But if you really want your people to say ‘NO’, then bloody well coach yourself and your leaders to listen to the ‘NO’, embrace the diverse thoughts, encourage it. I’m not championing ‘Inclusion’ for the sake of it. I’m fiercely advocating it for the merit of it – for any business and its people.
5. Putting the team above individual egos.
At HackerEarth, we pride ourselves on being the stone that cuts brilliant individuals, but it cannot stop there. They need to contribute to creating brilliant teams. We do not tolerate cut-throat behavior between individuals, ever.
Putting the team above individual egos also means allowing for and respecting divergence. Our people challenge us, all the time. And we absolutely adore the fact! We strongly believe in Team > Me and do not compromise on it, at any cost.
Dear HR people, creating a brilliant or high-performing team does not mean individuals need to be in constant competition. It means supporting them in becoming the best version of themselves. Don’t create stress in the guise of gunning for performance.
Coach your leaders to intuitively understand strengths and weaknesses. Not everyone performs at the same level.
Some parting advice from Anti-AssholeVille.
I have always believed that the role of an HR professional is to be the sole custodian of a company’s culture. In the span of my career, I have seen the conversation around work culture morph from ‘what time does an employee punch in’ to ‘what can we do to make our employees happier?’. Topics of diversity, equality, and the creation of a fair and hospitable workplace are our water-cooler gossip now.
To me, it all stems from respecting the Other. In literature and philosophy, the ‘Other’ is anyone who is not you or doesn’t follow the norms laid down by you. ‘Otherization’ is an actual verb, and something I see happening in many HR teams. We are trained to believe a good employee is one who is always hungry, acing their projects; a rabbit on a constant dopamine hunt.
For instance, when someone says “what do I need to do if I need to stay in the same job role and level for the next 3 years?”, our first instinct is to brand them as ‘unambitious’. That’s Otherization. And that’s being an Asshole.
In situations like this, I remind myself to approach with respect. The person in front of me may not have the same life goals as I do, or as I was taught that all employees should have, but it is a goal they believe in personally and I do not have the right to judge. Instead of stereotyping, I remind myself that their statement only means that this is what they want NOW. My role: to facilitate this NOW, so that I can retain a hard-working teammate for the future.
It’s NOT OK to judge, or draw people into boxes, or pitch them against each other. Or otherize them in any manner. This is where we as HR professionals need to be aware of our unconscious biases, and the assholes we can be if we let age-old dictums govern the way we create our workplaces.
So, take charge. Be open to learn and unlearn. Lead with respect so that you can create a more fair, equitable, honest, and pleasant workplace.