Q&A: First HR in House with Shantanu Karnik

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This week we’re in conversation with Shantanu Karnik, Human Resources Manager, Questt. We talk about being First HR in House - Creating a Unique Organizational Culture.

The interview is edited for length and clarity.

Q- As you set up HR at Quest, what were the difficulties you faced? How did you prioritize tasks and determine what needed to be done first?

Setting up HR at Quest involved identifying the company's needs, streamlining processes, and aligning HR policies with the company's vision and goals. Prioritizing tasks, such as establishing a leaves and attendance policy and creating a 30-60-90 day plan, was crucial in ensuring a successful HR setup.

Identifying the Need of the Hour

The first step in setting up HR at Quest was to identify what was crucial for the company's growth and the current team size. This was done through three approaches:

Legal Requirements and Compliance: Ensuring that all necessary legal requirements and compliance, such as PF registrations, were checked and fulfilled.

Management and Co-founders Input: Gathering input from management and co-founders about their expectations and capabilities in handling HR functions.

Employee Feedback: Seeking feedback from employees about their preferences and suggestions for HR policies and practices.

Setting up Leaves and Attendance Policy

One of the critical priorities in the initial phase of setting up HR was to establish a leaves and attendance policy. While employees were aware of their leave entitlements, streamlining the process for applying and implementing the policy was crucial. This involved setting up a standard and user-friendly process aligned with the company's vision and goals, rather than just having a generic policy in place.

Creating a 30-60-90-Day Plan

To ensure a smooth transition and an effective HR setup, we created a 30-60-90-day plan. This plan outlined the key tasks and priorities to be accomplished within the first 30, 60, and 90 days of setting up the HR function at Quest. This helped in setting clear expectations, prioritizing tasks, and ensuring that the most critical areas were addressed first.

Feedback from the management, as well as the employees, gives you the opportunity to identify exactly what is required at that point.

Q- As the first HR person in a company, building trust with both employees and management can be challenging. How do we navigate this change?

There are a few things we worked on ~

Building Trust through One-on-One Conversations as an HR

One of the key strategies I personally identify and encourage others to do is having one-on-one conversations with my team to build trust and credibility. I believe that understanding the roles and responsibilities of team members is crucial to aligning HR initiatives with the company's overall goals. By getting to know team members individually, I aim to create a comfortable environment where employees can confide in me and provide feedback and suggestions.

Advocating for Employees and Balancing Perspectives

As an HR professional, I strongly advocate for my team, fighting for their rights and considering both the employer's and employee's perspectives when making policies. I challenge the misconception that HR always sides with management, stating that I always look at policies from both perspectives - as an employee and as a manager - to ensure their effectiveness and fairness.

This approach allowed me to understand the business, align HR initiatives with company goals, and create a supportive and inclusive work environment where employees feel comfortable confiding in me and providing feedback.

Q- How do you determine the appropriate policies, such as 360 evaluations, peer-to-peer evaluations, grievance mechanisms, and performance reviews, based on the organization type and employee needs when setting up HR initiatives? What key lessons have you learned from this process?

The key lesson I've learned is that it's impossible to make everyone happy when setting up HR policies. It's important to consider what works for the majority of employees and align it with the company's needs. Communicating the agenda and the reasons behind the policies is crucial, even though some employees may be disappointed.

For example, we didn't implement a 360 feedback mechanism because our team of 65 employees in-house knows each other well and we developed an appraisal and feedback mechanism that works for us at this stage. Constant surveys, one-on-one conversations, and tracking employee needs have helped us identify and implement effective HR initiatives for our team.

Q- How do you manage change and transition employees into new roles and responsibilities in a flat organization with no HR structure as you join in and where do you need to introduce structure with the implementation of HR practices?

In a flat organization with no HR structure in place, transitioning employees into new roles and responsibilities requires change management. To facilitate learning and development, we have a "Learn and Grow" policy where employees can seek reimbursement for courses or studies that are beneficial for them and the organization.

For example, we had employees take Product Management courses, and upon successful completion, we moved them to the product team. We also encourage employees to express their interests and aspirations, and if feasible, we support their transition internally rather than hiring externally. Being flexible and supportive in helping employees grow and transition is essential in managing change in an unstructured organization. Like someone from the Operations team mentioned that they want to try HR, so I told them to involve themselves, take initiative and when a role comes up, I will look internally instead of hiring from outside.

Q- How do you effectively communicate and navigate the challenges of transitioning from an old, unstructured organization to a structured one, such as changes in the hierarchy or bringing in new hires for senior positions, while ensuring that the intent and purpose behind the changes are clearly conveyed to employees?

I have faced challenges when transitioning from an old structure to a new structured platform. For example, when changing reporting lines, I had to effectively convey the intent and purpose behind the changes to employees, such as explaining that it is not a demotion but a way to facilitate better communication and visibility of targets.

Understanding the need behind the changes and relaying that information in the best way possible is key to addressing this challenge.

Another challenge I faced was when hiring for new senior positions, particularly when bringing in external candidates. Some team members expressed concerns about hiring managers externally without prior experience with the company. To address this, I emphasized that everyone's experience and education are different, and we need to mix and match to find what works best for us. I provided examples of successful hires from external sources and explained the rationale behind bringing in experienced candidates to handle specific roles.

Building an agile culture from the ground up is also an exciting aspect of organizational development. It involves setting up the culture and values of the company, which shape the way we work and interact with each other. Creating a culture that promotes innovation, collaboration, and adaptability can lead to a more dynamic and effective organization.

Q- As the first HR, what are some exciting aspects and challenges you have encountered in setting up the culture of the company or organization?

Exciting Initiatives:

Building principles and values from scratch: The HR team, along with co-founders, is in the process of creating unique principles and values for the company, which involves identifying keywords and mapping them to employees. This is an exciting endeavour that sets the culture for the organization and distinguishes it from others.

Employee engagement: The HR team is focused on fostering a culture of open communication and engagement among employees. Initiatives such as getting a panipuri stall to the office, celebrating World Health Day, learning the local language on whiteboards, and organizing a Harry Potter-themed team competition have been successful in creating a positive and engaging work environment. Everybody loved it.

Challenges Faced:

Accommodating participation from all teams: One of the challenges faced by the HR team is to ensure that employees from all teams, especially the tech team, who require their own space, are able to participate in the initiatives. Finding ways to include and engage all teams has been a constant effort.

Innovating constantly: Another challenge is to come up with new and creative ideas to keep employee engagement fresh and exciting. The HR team has introduced initiatives like spin the wheel for birthdays and anniversaries, coffee with rapid-fire sessions, and other innovative ideas to keep employees engaged and motivated.

However, challenges can arise in aligning the entire organization with the desired culture. Resistance to change, lack of buy-in from employees, and conflicting values or beliefs can pose obstacles. Overcoming these challenges requires effective communication, leadership, and continuous reinforcement of the desired culture through actions, policies, and practices.

Do you work in HR or Want us to cover how something in an organization is working? Email janhavi.jain@springworks.in or DM @janwhyy on Twitter.