Startup HR checklist: Building your HR department


By The Human Interest Team

How should you think about HR for your startup? It’s about creating plans, policies, and processes that meet short-term needs and budgets while taking into account long-term risks and goals for your “human resources.” Startups rarely have dedicated HR staff, and often one person who may or may not have experience in HR handles hiring, payroll, benefits, grievances, promotions, and other employee-related tasks.

It’s also just not very common for startups to prioritize HR as a concept! Human Interest is also a startup itself, so we’ve thrown in some links to articles that we’ve found helpful even while developing our own HR policies.

An HR department is a valuable resource for growing your business, protecting your business, and keeping employees happy and safe. Now is the perfect time to start building policies and investing in robust HR software that will be the foundation of your HR department.

For some context:

Before you get started, consider your startup’s unique needs both now and in the future. If you’re not sure where to start, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has excellent resources for startups, both for general departmental organization and to address specific HR areas. Some or all of the following categories generally fall under the umbrella of human resources:

  • Organizational design: Who will report to whom? How will teams and sub-teams be structured?

  • Recruitment and onboarding: How are we going to find great new employees? How do we make sure they’re set up for success?

  • Compensation and benefits: What’s fair and realistic in terms of compensation? How should we decide what to offer?

  • Employee relations: Are employees happy? Who represents their interests?

  • Compliance, health, and safety: These sound intimidating, and that’s because they’re important! How to make sure you’re all safe, both legally and physically.

  • Training, development, and performance management: As employees stay with the company, are they growing and developing at the right pace, for both their personal goals and the goals of the company?

This HR checklist for startups will look at a few essential HR items that a startup needs to consider in the short-term and how these elements can help set your business up for long-term success. If handling these six objectives immediately is overwhelming, focus on these three first: employee compensation and benefits; addressing other departments’ prioritized concern; and setting realistic HR goals for the future.

Many investors want to see clear HR policies. They indicate that your business has a good organization, a good culture, and is planning for the future. But don’t just create policies to fish for IPOs in the future. They can help you attract top talent, too.

Organizational design for startups

No, you don’t need to have an all-encompassing organizational structure in place when you open your business. However, a simple company structure document will assist you with current and future decisions related to workforce planning, outsourcing, and succession plans. HR for startups can be messy and unorganized, but it doesn’t have to be. Investing some time now in creating a design for your organization will provide a strong, clear organizational foundation upon which your business can grow.

Related articles:

Recruitment and onboarding

You may not be hiring a lot of employees at first, but it’s important to have an idea about how you’ll post open positions, make hiring decisions, and onboard new employees. Even for the first employee you hire, there are critical elements you need to have in place on your human resource checklist:

  • Offer letter

  • I-9 legal employment verification

  • Employee data for payroll purposes

  • Relevant employment agreements, including non-compete, intellectual property, confidentiality, non-solicitation agreements.

  • Equity paperwork (we recommend eShares to help with this)

Startup compensation and benefits

After you’ve recruited employees, you need to entice them to stay with your organization. One way to do that is by offering competitive compensation packages, including health care and retirement benefits. For compensation and benefits, you’ll want the following to be in place:

  • A general outline of your salary structure (this should reflect fair and competitive compensation for your industry)

  • A system for managing and processing compensation and payroll

  • Paid time off policy for vacation, sick, and holidays

  • Health and retirement benefits, or a plan to make them available

Work with your accounting department to clarify potential payroll questions and create documentation.

Related articles:

Employee relations

With all the excitement of launching your business, you may not be able to imagine a day when an employee comes to you with a grievance. Unfortunately, it will happen. Make sure that from the first day you have:

  • A policy outlining the standards of business conduct

  • A method in place for gathering feedback or complaints

  • A plan for how you’ll address issues if they arise

Checking these plans off your HR checklist for startups doesn’t just make it easier to handle your first grievance, but it also protects the company from liability and protects your employees from toxic workplaces without clear rules.

Related articles:

Traditional HR: Compliance, health, and safety

Fair employment practices and a safe, healthy workplace are all critical elements of employee productivity. As an employer, you are subject to federal and local labor regulations related to compliance, health, and safety. Startups are not exempt from record-keeping related to healthcare reform, tax codes, and labor laws. HR for startups need to have processes ready to roll out on day one.

As part of those laws, employers have a responsibility to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses and comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) provides information about workplace safety requirements on their website.

Some examples of basic workplace safety requirements include:

  • Emergency action plan

  • Sufficient exit routes

  • Safe walking and working surfaces

  • Medical and first aid supplies (as appropriate for the specific workplace)

Employment policies not only help protect a startup in the event of potential litigation, but they also establish a precedent and understanding among your employees about what behavior won’t be accepted. With a small number of employees, it may seem unnecessary to create formal policies, but there are at least two standard policies that a startup should have in place:

Check out the DOL’s FirstStep Employment Law Advisor to help determine which major Federal employment laws administered by the DOL apply to your business, as well as record-keeping and reporting requirements, and which posters you must post. Labor and employment regulations change often. Be sure to avoid mistakes, delays, and legal action by working with an HR or legal expert who can provide you with the information you need to ensure you are complying with necessary regulations from day one.

Training, development, and performance management

When you’re getting your business off the ground, you’re not as concerned about training and developing your employees… and you may not think about managing their performance until there is a performance issue. But if you ignore these two important components of an HR plan, you will likely regret it.

By your first anniversary of being in business, you should have a performance management method in place so that you can provide employees with a review of their performance, as well as offer them an increase in pay if their performance warrants it. Every employee should have a personnel file and have performance evaluations.

To facilitate employee growth and consistent improvement for your business, it’s also important to commit to establishing a plan for employee training and development. It doesn’t need to be expensive or elaborate. But if you wait too long, you risk losing employees who are focused on increasing their skills and developing their careers. Every HR checklist for startups should have talent development measures ready so your business can transition from being a startup to an established company.

Using an HRIS

To effectively manage these HR-related aspects of your business, it’s prudent to have a human resource information system (HRIS) that will allow you to recruit employees, track their time, pay them, and manage benefits. HR software can help startups automate administrative tasks, record-keeping, and compliance tracking. Most cloud-based HR technology solutions offer options for mobile access, tools for talent management, and employee self-service access that makes an HRIS a useful tool for all members of the organization.

Start by checking out these HRIS solutions that are designed specifically for startups:

A word of caution about selecting an HRIS: before you begin the search process, make sure you identify your needs (separate from your nice-to-haves), your existing systems, and what HR data you must track. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and over-sold when it comes to HR tech.

Some final thoughts for your HR checklist

Ultimately, every HR task should protect the company. Part of this is keeping documentation of every step and change you make to prepare for potential audits. All of your document plans should be organized, be clearly accessible to the employees who need access, and comply with good standards of business management. As you develop your action plan in each category listed above, you can create a comprehensive employee handbook for new and current employees. This transparency will help you create a strong company culture.

Don’t let a limited budget or the fact that you have a small team fool you into thinking that you don’t need to worry about determining an HR approach for your startup. Find an attorney or HR consulting firm that can assist you in setting this area of your business up for success, or at the very least, do some online research about best practices. With some luck and a lot of hard work, your company will start to grow and expand. That’s when you’ll be grateful that you took the time to put an HR plan, policies, and infrastructure in place.

Human Interest works with startups like Joyable and Buffer to help their employees save with a great, scalable 401(k). Click here to learn more.

Low-cost 401(k) with transparent pricing

Sign up for an affordable and easy-to-manage 401(k).

Related article: Startup Founders’ Early Stage HR Roles and Responsibilities

We believe that everyone deserves access to a secure financial future, which is why we make it easy to provide a 401(k) to your employees. Human Interest offers a low-cost 401(k) with automated administration, built-in investment education, and integration with leading payroll providers.

Subscribe to our Retirement Roadmap newsletter

Retirement isn’t just a destination. It’s a journey, and we’re here to help you. Our newsletter delivers succinct and timely tips, reviewed by Financial Advisors, to help you navigate the path to financial independence.

By providing your email above or subscribing to our newsletter, you agree to our Privacy Policy. You also elect to receive communications from Human Interest.