I began my career in a global professional services firm that employed tens of thousands of people. By the end of my first promotion conversation, my manager had already set my new target promotion date. This surprised me, and I asked why. He explained that it was important to know what I was aiming for. 

The result: I left the conversation determined to reach the target and even outperform. So, I logged onto the intranet, found the career path framework, and started setting goals to demonstrate the skills and experiences required for promotion. I had purpose and focus, and thanks to the clear process, I had a track to run on. Eighteen months later, I achieved an early promotion. 

Ultimately, the global corporate life wasn’t for me, and I took the opportunity to join a Silicon Valley startup in 2013 with a global headcount of 250. It was a life-changing move, not least because it cemented my desire to move into HR. I’ll never forget my first few months at the new company. 

There was a refreshing lack of bureaucracy compared to the global corporate I’d come from. They emphasised that to massively scale up, each one of us had to bring our whole selves to work, be authentic, and challenge ourselves.

Performance cycles and employee satisfaction

A few months into my new role, a colleague was promoted. A few months later, another colleague changed teams into a new position. I wasn’t aware that the roles were open or what steps were needed to express interest. This became a theme. 

When I discussed this with colleagues, they explained that startups didn’t need such processes. I soon discovered that many startups have an aversion to process–capital “P”–and associate process with corporatocracy and a lack of creativity. But, this sentiment didn’t resonate with me when it came to career progression. Here, I found that process gave people focus and motivation, introducing fairness across an organisation.

A lack of process can create an environment where unconscious bias can flourish, leaving deserving colleagues overlooked. Ultimately, as the company grew to over 1,000 people, it adopted a more structured approach to performance management and talent development.

Introducing process at the outset of a company’s journey

My next move was to go to a seed-round startup as director of people and culture, where we grew from five to 20 people in a few months. Having HR in such a small company is rare–there’s no rule book for what an HR director role looks like in a company so small. Together with my CEO, we decided to do things differently. 

Drawing from my past experiences, we embraced process selectively. In doing so, we learned why well-chosen processes really matter, even for smaller businesses.

  1. Your team will want it. There is a difference between bureaucracy and process. Don’t confuse the two. You will respect your people, cut out the noise, and allow them to engage in what matters. A great example of this is internal mobility. It’s common for new roles and departments to open in growing companies. can create environments where unconscious bias creeps in.

    As new roles opened in our company, we avoided the temptation to tap someone on the shoulder and offer them a role. Instead, we created a simple internal mobility process to ensure all relevant colleagues knew about the opportunity. This helped us equally consider all qualified internal candidates, even when they weren’t initially top of mind.

  1. HR processes are necessary for scale. Startups want to grow, and a good process is an enabler rather than a blocker to scale. For example, consider creating a merit cycle process where salaries are reviewed regularly by all managers in the business and restricting any pay rises to this window. The scalability of such a process is dependent on the right technology. For example, HiBob’s compensation module allows HR teams to empower managers to manage all key steps in the process comfortably and easily make decisions in line with the core philosophies of compensation management. Tools like this allow you to decentralise and automate processes. On the other hand, they also require HR to invest in the process up front and think through the detailed criteria and steps needed to optimise them for your specific organisation. 
  1. Process helps keep people aligned and connected. As your business grows from everyone sitting around one table to several teams in multiple offices, it can be hard to keep people feeling connected. Don’t underestimate the value of transparent and clear time off and leave processes, where there are fair and consistent criteria, and everyone can easily see who is on leave when. 
  1. Process helps weed out the unfavorable people consequences of making fast, ad-hoc decisions. Studies on combating unconscious bias show that scrutinising decisions (often via a well-thought-through process) helps prevent situations where unconscious bias can thrive. Similarly, research into the Meritocracy Paradox tells us that relying on statements like “we don’t need process here, we make decisions based on merit” can create environments where unconscious bias creeps in.

    Hiring decisions, career progression, and internal mobility are all areas where allowing unconscious bias to thrive will have significant adverse effects on attraction, retention, and employee satisfaction. It might feel great in the moment to approach a colleague and offer them an exciting opportunity. However, taking a little longer and letting others know that an opportunity exists allows them to put themselves forward, leading to enhanced employee engagement. Running transparent and fairer processes helps the company consider all potential candidates and make a decision that is better for the business. 

  1. Investing in processes doesn’t stop you from being nimble and making exceptions. For example, set your promotion and growth processes for specific times during the year. But, what happens if a person holding a strategically important role leaves the business? Do you have to wait until the next performance cycle before you can fill the role? No–you can explain to the team that you are conducting an off-cycle promotion and spell out why. When adequately explained, teams often respond positively to transparency. According to Patrick Lencioni, such transparency can help foster trust, building the foundational layer of team effectiveness.

Process promotes employee engagement, advancement opportunities, and boosts retention

Developing HR processes frees up time for more interesting things, even in small businesses. When businesses of any size invest time in carefully creating robust, new starter processes, they can repeat the methods. Ultimately, they can cover processes for anything, from IT setup, to systems access, team introductions, business background, and team-specific components. 

Once you’ve created a starter process that works, you can apply it to a range of HR processes, including time-off requests, requesting training and development budgets, arranging business travel, career development, disputes and grievances, offboarding, etc. When HR leaders take the time to create scalable and (where possible) automated processes, we can find more time to focus on the more exciting components of our role. Processes give us the time to engage with individual team members, understand how we can best support the business in achieving strategic goals, and constantly innovate to make our place of work an amazing environment in which our teams can thrive.

Toby Hough

From Toby Hough

Toby is the Sr. Director of People and Culture for Europe at HiBob, and has spent the last 10+ years in high-growth organisations from the London Olympics and Paralympics to Silicon Valley and London-based startups. When he’s not geeking up on the latest HR practices, you can either find him with his singing group or in the outdoors, sailing, cycling, and hiking!