Putting employees first – a culture guide for new founders


Work culture forms the very core of new-age workplaces. Transparency, open plans, curiosity, disruption are some of the many, many buzzwords that surround work culture in the new world order. For startups, work culture has been an even more important part of their employer brands. But behind the glitz and glamour of shiny open-plan offices, sleep pods and free meals, there often exists a work culture that is can be insular, sometimes broken. Sexist C-suite, oppressive hours, dude-bro culture and absent HR policies don’t make a sustainable business.

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In my slightly cynical view, there is a fair bit of glamour associated with the “disruptive approach”, casual and open plans of work cultures in startups. So what startups often lack in job security, inclusiveness, sound HR policies, and thriving work-life balance, they make up in the beanbag and free drinks department.

The bigger question here is whether what startups have on offer - in the name of “cool and aspirational culture” - is really enough to sustain the interest of the new workforce. In recent months, anonymous blog posts and Glassdoor reviews, media interviews and viral social media posts have ensured that there is much more to culture and sustainable business practices than what employer branding speaks of. Bringing these subtler nuances of work culture is the founder’s job. It is as much a tool for talent attraction and retention as it is to grow the business sustainably.

What does this mean for founders, then?

To start with, sound work culture needs to be a top priority for startup founders. Beyond the product or service, leaders need to paint a clear picture about what it is going to be like to work for them. Is it going to mean extra hours but revenue sharing? Is decision-making allowed to be combative without being disrespectful? How much hustle is too much before they can hire more resources? And then, the communication around it needs to get more personal, authentic, and most of all - honest. As an employer brand, bells and whistles in the name of culture are all very well. Your potential employees are not about to turn down those free lunches either. But they need to be prepared to partner with you in the pain of being part of a fledgling startup. The expectation is fair for the employer as well as the employee. In essence, it is just about allowing potential employees to make an informed decision about whether or not they are prepared to be part of the hustle.

Sound communication – in the boardroom and formal one-on-ones to the speech at the anniversary party – is also very important. Founders need to find a way to communicate – personally and authentically – the big picture perspective. They also need to practice the essentials of sound leadership and show a no-excuse approach to harassment, disrespect, unprofessionalism and other such issues that are killing the startup culture. Entrepreneurs need to frequently revisit the idea of building from the ground up, not just an app or a service but an actual organization with living, breathing human employees. That takes much more than just long hours and hustling. It takes inspiration, teamwork and fearless, inclusive collaboration. Every day in the office needs to serve as a reminder and the founder needs to lead from the front.

It is all about the people

I can’t say this enough. In India as in many other parts of the world, we build our lives around our jobs. That means stress comes easy, competition thrives and the crab mentality comes into play far too often. It is the founder’s job to see through the layers of insecurities and reward not only good work but also diverse skill sets and individual strengths.

More importantly, organizations and founders need to start viewing people as people and not cogs in the wheel that must keep turning at all costs. A founder’s ability to inspire and relate with employees at an individual, human level is crucial. Even when the stakes are high, as they are for most early-stage startups, the founder's responsibility to be a fair, unbiased, and human leader does not go away. Founders need to display their trust and constantly remind their employees of the larger organizational purpose. But most importantly, they need care for the well-being of the very people who are translating a vision into reality. They need to remember that performance-centricity and employee well-being can go hand-in-hand. There are enough instances out there that prove that employees deliver their best work when they are cared for. They stick through the tough times, work harder, and are much more productive. It is in fact a win-win proposition.

Eventually, building workplaces and businesses of the future means that founders need to see the huge opportunity that exists for them. They have the power to build a business that makes lives and not just careers. Long after a startup’s app has served its purpose and the technology has moved to newer realms, it is this very legacy they will leave behind.

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