5 Human Resources Best Practices We Learned From GitLab

hr manager

Human resource departments get a bad rap.

While those in leadership roles predominantly feel that HR has strategic value, a majority of on-the-ground employees feel much differently.

HR Manager Concepts: Value of HR
(Source)

The question is: Why? What can you, as your company’s HR manager, do to correct this?

Here at Process Street, we know a thing or two about HR best practices – and have a wealth of pre-made templates to boot. There’s always room for improvement, though, so lately, we’ve been doing some deep dives into GitLab’s handbook (like my post on how GitLab totally rocks their marketing strategy).

GitLab is unique in a number of ways – most significantly, their willingness to share internal tactics. This post is going to look at five essential concepts every HR manager needs to keep in mind based on GitLab’s own tried and tested processes.

Ready to manage some humans?

Why should I care about GitLab?

GitLab is an all-in-one DevOps software platform, and I already hear you saying: I work in HR; I don’t even care what DevOps is. I get it: I work for a tech company and I’m not really sure what our DevOps team even does. They’re really obsessed with collecting insects, though. 🐜

(Hey, you don’t have to be a dad to make dad jokes.)

So why should you care about GitLab’s approach to HR? Simple: they understand their people – both employees and customers. In fact, they’ve built an entire community based on that understanding, shared interests, and passion for building something new. Not only is GitLab’s software improved and updated by staff; they have over 3,000 contributors just voluntarily adding value to their product for the fun of it.

Crazy, right? But listen to how these folks talk about GitLab:

The excitement from its users and employees is palpable; GitLab “gits” its people. And – you know it’s true – HR managers have a people problem.

Let’s talk about that.

Why employees hate HR managers

A central conflict between human resources and employees is a lack of trust, on both sides. Employees feel like HR only has the company’s interests in mind; HR feels like employees behave more like bickering children than professional adults. Over time and bad experiences, resentments build up until even the best employees and HR managers can’t find common ground.

While there are those incompetent HR departments, and those employees who will game the system, the majority won’t fall into either camp. The expression, “once bitten, twice shy,” is incredibly apt in this case, though. It only takes one negative experience to paint every HR manager with the same brush.

HR Manager Lessons: Why employees hate you
(Source)

One solution to this is an HR rebranding. At Process Street, we have a “People and Operations Manager” (and we all totally 💙 her) instead of the more traditional HR manager, and GitLab has gone in a similar direction, naming their human resource department “The People Group.”

Name-changes are all well and good, but they can’t be the end of the road in terms of improvement. After all, if it looks and smells like a rose, regardless of its name, it’s still a rose. The same goes for 💩.

No one wants to be 💩.

5 human resources best practices for better HR management

Human resource management is a complicated job, no question about it. Maintaining a balance between both leadership and employee expectations isn’t always the most intuitive process, and when significant policy changes happen, HR managers are often the ill-fated messengers.

To some extent, that’s unavoidable. There will always be difficult conversations that need to be had, but by utilizing the following tactics, those conversations can happen less frequently and run more smoothly.

HR Management Tip #1: Emphasize the “people” in “people management”

First and foremost, employees are people.

I know, I know: that’s obvious, right?

Step back and think about it a minute, though. Is it really obvious? Sure, you’ve probably had at least one hands-on interaction with most of the employees at your company over the years – possibly even more than that for a small company – but what do you really know about them?

I’m talking non-work-related things, here. Of course you’re going to remember the guy who complains every week about the snacks in the breakroom, or the one who never logs their hours properly, or the highest achiever on the sales team, but what about everyone in between?

Maintaining close personal relationships with everyone in your company is neither possible nor practical, but it is beneficial to remember that employees are individuals, and need to feel like more than an unappreciated cog in the machine.

HR Manager Lessons: Remember the person
(Source)

GitLab puts this at the forefront of their People Group Vision by prioritizing an engaged team. The primary method for doing this is by asking the employees themselves. GitLab constantly monitors its employee net promoter score (eNPS), and, if that score is off, has a procedure to probe further.

Additionally, they also implement a yearly survey using Gallup’s Q12 Index (12 core elements linked to key business outcomes), which includes questions about the employee’s professional role (Do you have the materials to do your work right) as well as their personal development (Does your supervisor seem to care about you as a person).

The People Group Vision has a total of nine points altogether:

  • Engaged team
  • Industry-leading hiring practices
  • Be a preferred employer
  • Effective onboarding
  • GitLab workflow
  • Compliance
  • Learning & Development
  • Compensation
  • Benefits

Each of these points demonstrates a commitment to maintaining the best standards when it comes to hiring, retention, and development.

GitLab understands that it’s not enough to simply attract the best people; keeping them requires constant commitment, encouragement, and recognition of each employee’s individual strengths and value to the organization.

Doing this is actually a lot easier than it sounds – especially if you work process documentation and automation into the mix (which, if you want to save yourself time and neck strain, you will definitely do). Here are a few easy, actionable steps you can take to create that community vibe:

Employee Development Plans (EDP):
This is invaluable. All of your line managers need to create employee development plans with their teams.. Note: that’s with, not for. EDPs should be updated on a regular basis (every three months during the first year, then annually or bi-annually after that), and consistently reviewed with the employee. Have their career aspirations changed over time? Are they ready to take on a new challenge or more responsibility? An EDP will map out what training and mentoring the employee needs to reach their goals, and specify a timeframe to do it in.

EDPs come in all shapes and sizes, but I strongly recommend keeping a digital version that’s stored in a central database or knowledge library that all the necessary people have access to. This makes it easier and faster to update, and keeps everyone on the same page. You can use something as simple as Google Docs and Notion, or go with a full human resource information system (HRIS) like BambooHR or Oracle. (Oliver Peterson explains how to choose the right software this HRIS post.)

If you’d like to see what a standard EDP might look like, check out this free (customizable) template:

Click here to use the Employee Development Plan Template

Wellbeing checks
Approximately 1 in 7 people will experience anxiety in the workplace on a weekly basis. The global cost of anxiety and depression is around $1 trillion per year. The added stress of COVID-19 (whether your teams are WFH or face-to-face) is only going to intensify those feelings in the long term.

While line managers should be checking in with employees regularly, HR managers need to be prepared to initiate and reinforce strategies to support employees’ mental wellbeing through employee assistance programs (EAP), mental health first aiders (MHFA), or something as simple as hosting activities to combat loneliness.

Keep channels open 🔓
Employees will tell you what they need if you’re willing to listen. Here at Process Street, we have a policy of “working out loud.” This means that, wherever possible, we communicate in public channels (usually via Slack). Each team and department has its own channel, as well as more general ones for the whole company, more social conversations – okay, really we have a Slack channel for everything. I can’t remember the last time I sent an email.

This method accomplishes a few things:

  1. Everyone is accessible, from colleagues to line managers to our CEO.
  2. Solutions are open source; the best answers sometimes come from surprising places.
  3. Transparency: everyone knows what everyone else is working on, resources are shared, and strengths are utilized.

This actually segues quite nicely into my next tip:

HR Management Tip #2: Teamwork makes the dream work

Every one of my past writing teachers is collectively screaming in my subconscious right now, but cliché as it may be, teamwork really does make the dream work.

Fostering a positive team dynamic – particularly for a remote company – is not always the easiest task. There will be those teams that click from day one, and there will be those who never manage to get along. Most, however, will find a way to productively collaborate after an initial adjustment period.

As a remote company, GitLab’s People Group approaches the necessity of building remote relationships in a few very innovative ways.

Onboarding buddies 👯‍♂️
From the very beginning, new employees are matched with a “buddy.” This person is separate from the main onboarding process; their role is to integrate the new employee into the company’s culture and help them establish connections with their new colleagues.

At Process Street, we don’t get a specific “buddy,” but we do have one-on-one calls with everyone in our department when we first start. Honestly, when I was given that task, my first thought was 🤬. Half hour conversations with people I’d never met seemed like a particularly tortuous form of speed-dating (which I also feel is too long to talk to a stranger). Now, though? I am 100% behind the concept.

The introductions to my colleagues were more in-depth than the usual This is Jerry from accounting, clued me in on their personal as well as professional interests, and made settling into the team dynamic a breeze. I’m now getting to experience it from the other side, with some new members coming in, and I’m actually looking forward to having those intro chats.

Those first few days at a new company can be overwhelming, confusing, and – let’s face it – lonely. No one really likes being the new kid. Having a buddy to show you the ropes – especially if you’re new to remote work – can definitely alleviate some of that “New Hire Panic”.

Visiting & significant life event grants 👰
In a traditional, face-to-face work environment, it’d be natural to develop relationships with your colleagues outside of work hours. You may go out for drinks on a regular basis, or have meals together. It’s not even that unlikely you’d invite them to your wedding or other significant life events.

GitLab not only facilitates this by offering employees grants to visit each other, but also encourages them to share stories in order to highlight how GitLab team members stay connected while working remotely.

Birthdays and anniversaries 🎂
It may seem like a very small thing, but the fact is, when it comes to people management, it is the small things that make a difference.

GitLab utilizes a bot that automatically announces any birthdays or anniversaries each day. Yes, it is an automated message, but if GitLab’s employees are anything like Process Street employees (we have our own Birthday Bot in Slack), everyone jumps in to congratulate people on their special day with endless GIFs, emojis, light-hearted banter, and well-wishes – even if that birthday or anniversary falls on a weekend. It’s a great way for us all to participate in each other’s accomplishments and milestones, even if we aren’t in the same time zone.

In addition to the bot, GitLab encourages team members to send cards for colleagues’ birthdays, and will even organize sending a gift or flowers for a significant life event.

Remote work has a lot of perks, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Taking a moment or two to celebrate with a colleague, or have a team member wish you happy birthday, is part of the groundwork for building a cohesive team.

HR Manager Lessons: Office parties rock
(Source)

As I said, we use Slack for pretty much everything, and not just work. We have the Birthday Bot, but we also have a “matchmaking” bot (matches 2-3 employees for a half-hour social call each week) and a “conversation starter” bot (posts a weekly topic/question for everyone to respond to) that go a little further to facilitate colleague interaction.

Creating a space – whether it’s a Zoom coffee date or a welcoming break room – for your employees to interact and relax during their downtime is just as important for maintaining a productive team as more traditional, task-focused methods.

HR Management Tip #3: You gotta walk the inclusive talk

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) are essential considerations in the contemporary workplace – digital or otherwise. How your company approaches these issues will play a significant role in how your employees feel about leadership and the company as a whole.

While legislation will cover some of these areas, and HR managers are responsible for ensuring that, not every situation is covered by legal regulations. For example, there is no legislation about inclusivity, and while it may seem that employing a diverse workforce ticks that box, this isn’t the case. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility are all very distinct and separate concepts.

As such, HR managers will need to stay up-to-date on any accessibility and inclusivity issues employees face in order to ensure the organization is truly diverse and equitable.

In looking at how GitLab’s People Group handles these concepts, there are the usual points about equal opportunity, health and safety, ethics, privacy, and so on. These are all very good things, and, I suspect, points we’ve all become accustomed to seeing from our employers.

True to form, though, GitLab doesn’t limit itself to what’s considered “standard.”

Among the People Success Performance Indicators are KPIs for the percentage of women at GitLab (31% in 2020), percentage of women in management (32% in 2020), and women in senior leadership (0% in 2020). One of the recruiting KPIs focuses on sourcing for underrepresented groups with an aim of 95% for outreach to diverse candidates. GitLab exceeded this goal from May to August 2020, while outreach fell during the end of 2020.

While GitLab hasn’t succeeded in meeting their goals yet (all are projected to be met by 2022), in addition to the Women in Sales Mentorship Program Pilot, these KPIs show that GitLab doesn’t intend to simply check the diversity box, but create a company culture that truly embraces the DEIA concepts.

HR Manager Lessons: DEIA
(Source)

GitLab’s inclusivity policies aren’t limited to the more obvious or expected differences or modes of accessibility. A large portion of the GitLab protections policies is devoted to mental health awareness and a commitment to both encouraging employees to talk about their own mental health and educating employees about the stigmatization of mental health disorders.

A final note on diversity and inclusivity – which GitLab also addresses in their very respectable Gender and Sexual Orientation Identity FAQ (no lie; the detail made my little rainbow heart flutter) – achieving DEIA is not a static goal. Identifications and terminology changes. Different communities have different nuances. The most important strategy you can take is to listen to your employees. You won’t be able to predict every instance of exclusion or inequity; you will slip into unconscious bias at some point. That’s okay, though – provided you take on board feedback when it’s pointed out.

It’s a good idea as an HR manager to institute regular diversity training for leadership as well as employees. DEIA improvements have to be well-integrated into the company culture, and that starts at the top.

Click here to use the Diversity Training Process Checklist

The advantage of a document like this diversity training checklist is that it works as an interactive document between HR and the trainee. The checklist is assigned to the individual and they then work through each step on their own initiative while also guided by relevant information and advice for each task. This way, the trainee is able to proceed at their own pace, go back over tasks if they feel the need, and take a proactive role in their own development.

Once the checklist is complete, then the trainee reviews each tasks with HR, where the manager or employee is given direct feedback and an opportunity to discuss their work.

HR Management Tip #4: Be radical about transparency

“The most important things I want are meaningful work and meaningful relationships. And I believe that the way to get those is through radical truth and radical transparency. In order to be successful, we have to have independent thinkers—so independent that they’ll bet against the consensus. You have to put your honest thoughts on the table.” – Ray Dalio, Principles

GitLab has built their entire company culture around radical transparency (our very own Molly Stovold examined how this actually works in her post found here).

The primary way they accomplish this is, as I said, by keeping their internal documentation publicly available. In addition, all of GitLab’s employees and readers can suggest improvements, additions, and clarifications as well as pose questions that will be answered.

What does this actually accomplish, though?

The answer to that is actually quite simple: engagement and ownership. New policies, procedures, and processes aren’t something that happen to employees; they’re something employees are actively involved with. It opens channels of communication and encourages employees to participate in the decision-making process. The more employees participate, the more ownership they feel.

I can’t even count the number of times when I worked as a manager that my employees would complain about a new policy or restriction passed down from HR. The perception of corporate headquarters was very much an Us and Them scenario; HQ didn’t communicate with employees and employees didn’t have access to HQ. Even when it came to new hires and onboarding, HR only dealt with line managers.

As a result, employees felt taken for granted and that the policies delivered didn’t match up with their day-to-day experiences. If my old company had practiced radical transparency, then my team would have been able to directly approach corporate leadership with their concerns while also allowing those in the head office to get important feedback from those using these processes most.

HR Management Tip #5: Study the data

Every department within your company has KPIs that let them know whether or not what they’re doing is working. HR should be no different.

I mentioned it in Tip #3, but the People Success Performance Indicators page is actually an excellent resource for the state of personnel at GitLab. The executive summary heads up the page with a list of every tracked People Group KPI, as well as the health and status of each individual indicator. Clicking on any of the KPIs jumps down to an explanation of why and how that particular item is measured.

Looking back at the “women at GitLab” KPI, GitLab aims for a target of 40% of team members that identify as women. This is based on the EEOC Survey at the end of every month, and calculated based on the number of women in relation to the total number of employees.

HR Manager: Percentage of Women at GitLab
(Source)

By monitoring this percentage on a monthly basis, People Group managers can gauge how their hiring practices are effective in meeting company goals. Adding data about other indicators – such as offer acceptance rate, team member retention, and pay equality – provides context about employee satisfaction and what changes are needed to meet the company’s People Group KPIs.

In this case: What changes does GitLab need to make so they meet their 40% goal by 2022?

Successful HR management in the digital landscape

It’s no surprise that a remote software company like GitLab would put an emphasis on digital tools for their People Group, or that I, as a remote writer for a tech company would choose to highlight those tools in particular.

Technology has well and truly breached the boundaries of software and tech companies, though. After making the rather abrupt adjustment to remote work settings, many companies are deciding to stick with it, which means employees, leadership, and, yes, HR managers will all need to become comfortable and well-versed in the different software applications available to ease the workload.

Business process automation (BPM) software, HRIS, video apps, time management apps, and so, so many digital tools are increasingly necessary to get through the workday, no matter what industry you’re in. As an HR manager, it will be up to you to understand which tools are right for your teams, convince leadership to make the investments, and teach employees how to use them.

It’s not an easy job, and you’ve got a delicate balancing act in order to meet everyone’s needs, but you can do it. Embracing digital tools and incorporating these strategies will make it that much easier.

What essential lessons have you learned as an HR manager? Share your advice and tips in the comments section!

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Leks Drakos

Leks is a rogue academic with a penchant for future tech and retro cameras. When not writing for Process Street, he's busy researching monsters, posthumanism, post-apocalyptic narratives. Twitter: @leksikality [he/him]


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