10 People Operations Tips for HR Leaders in the Cannabis Space

Here’s what HR leaders in the fastest growing industry in the U.S. should do to support their workforce and business.

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Insight from HR professionals in cannabis — plus important research to consider

Heading up People Ops at any company in cannabis, the fastest growing industry in the United States, is a tall order. But with a 100% growth rate from 2016 to 2020 — doubling in size — the legal cannabis industry shows no sign of slowing down. Businesses of all sizes in the industry need well-resourced HR leaders to staff, support, coach, and train their workforces to support the needs of the business, all while remaining compliant and keeping turnover low. If you’re an HR leader in the cannabis space, here are the People Ops tips you need to know.

1. Focus on company culture

“A strong company culture will help ensure that employees have an active stake in the business, and come to work every day ready to give 110%.”

A healthy company culture is essential to any thriving workplace. But for a nascent industry like cannabis, it can be easy to overlook the importance of purposefully developing company culture in place of seemingly more pressing concerns, like compliance or simply keeping a new business afloat. But “a strong company culture will help ensure that employees have an active stake in the business, and come to work every day ready to give 110%,” said Lisa Raja, Chief of Staff at Vertosa, a cannabis and hemp infusion company. “It’s a tool for more than recruitment and retention … Company culture is the cornerstone that motivates and unites workers behind your company’s vision and values,” Raja added.

2. Use data to drive decisions

Once referred to simply as “personnel,” the HR function is now considered a strategic driver for companies big and small. Part of the function’s ascension to key business player has to do with the now data-driven nature of HR. People Ops leaders everywhere are using people analytics software to make better hiring decisions, reduce attrition, and forecast workforce trends. The cannabis industry is no different. With the right people analytics platform, HR leaders in cannabis can ensure they’re using cold hard numbers to back up the human-centric instincts that’ve forever been integral to the function.

3. Pick the right HRIS

With cannabis companies dropped from their human resource information system (HRIS) with little to no notice, choosing the right HRIS is critical. An HRIS is a robust tool that any growing business needs. It enables employees to enter and adjust personal information, provide their availability, and access their pay stubs and paychecks.

On the business side, an HRIS automates the at times mundane but essential day-to-day tasks of people ops, allowing HR leaders to redirect their energy into higher level people strategy initiatives. But in selecting many of the big name HRIS brands, like Bamboo or ADP, HR teams could be creating more problems, not solving them. Many of these companies are backed by large financial institutions in order to process the electric transfer of funds direct deposit requires.

Because cannabis is still illegal on the federal level, financial institutions can be in violation of anti-money laundering regulations by working with the cannabis industry. If and when an internal corporate audit happens, cannabis companies can be abruptly shut out of the system that handles their time tracking and scheduling, payroll, direct deposit, and more.

4. Prepare to work closely with compliance

As an HR professional in cannabis, you’ll be working hand-in-hand with the compliance team. “In Massachusetts, there are a lot of compliance requirements for HR, so we’re always working together,” said Jess Garrant, HR Manager at cannabis dispensary Solar Therapies. “We come together to write job descriptions, make sure background checks are completed correctly, and as of late, collaborate on anything COVID-19 related,” she added. Garrant said it’s helpful to have an open dialogue between the 2 functions because compliance is the engine that allows businesses in the cannabis industry to operate, and HR keeps them staffed with safe, healthy, and happy workforces. “We’re always working together, and it’s great to have the support of our Director of Compliance,” Garrant said.

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5. Make training part of your onboarding process

Compliance tends to be the number one issue and concern for cannabis businesses, and understandably so. “Compliance makes the business run,” Garrant said. Given the complex web of rules and regulations, and the still-illegal designation of cannabis on the Federal level, remaining in compliance is a near-Sisyphean task.

To protect the business and those running it, HR is wise to implement a thorough training program as part of onboarding. In addition to any state-mandated training for employees, HR should include information on how regulations work and what they employees must do to uphold compliance. Consider including mention of the rigorous training program in your job description, so new hires arrive willing and ready to complete this necessary step.

In addition to any state-mandated training for employees, HR should include information on how regulations work and what they employees must do to uphold compliance.

6. Focus on DEI

Creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive workspaces has been a challenge of the cannabis industry since its inception. With renewed emphasis on the Black Lives Matter movement and attention to the deep structural inequality of the United States, focusing on DEI is more important than ever for HR leaders in the cannabis space. “It’s considered to be a progressive industry,” said Liesl Bernard, founder and CEO of Cannabiz Team, a cannabis staffing agency. “However, diversity is still lacking, especially among executive and leadership teams,” she said.

It’s what led Bernard and her team at Cannabiz to launch CT Board Placement, a staffing division dedicated to increasing diversity and effective leadership in the cannabis industry. “Having more diverse boards not only supports the fight for equity and inclusion, but also helps companies evolve with the industry and drive innovation,” Bernard said.

Approximately 70% of cannabis professionals self-identify as white, and 83% of those holding “Executive” or “Director” positions self-identify as male.

Research has shown again and again that diverse teams are more innovative and perform better than their homogenous counterparts. Yet despite the apparent push for more diversity in the cannabis industry, Vangst, a leading talent resource and researcher in the cannabis space, found that over 50% of employers don’t know if they have a DEI plan in place or don’t have one at all. Moreover, Vangst also found that approximately 70% of cannabis professionals self-identify as white, and 83% of those holding “Executive” or “Director” positions self-identify as male.

7. Get comfortable with remote/hybrid models

From “illegal to essential,” cannabis has come a long way. With its designation as an essential business throughout the pandemic in many states, the cannabis industry pivoted to remote work like every other industry and sector. For HR professionals, this required growing comfortable with recruiting, interviewing, hiring, onboarding, and supporting employees, virtually — and fast.

While the return to our new normal is closer than ever before, remote workforces are here to stay. HR leaders who may have put off building out remote operations, policies, and practices in the hopes that we’d be back in brick-and-mortar locations soon, should make time to circle back. Revisit how you’ve adopted your HR practices for remote work to ensure these are lasting strategies. The hybrid model is here to stay.

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8. Pay competitively

Cannabis is a nacest industry that’s growing like a crazy, and “If you don’t pay competitively, you’re going to have a lot of turnover, which we all know is costly,” Garrant said. The challenge is that because the industry is so new, there’s not a ton of reliable data available. “There are almost no surveys on this, so you have to get creative in how you handle a compensation analysis,” Garrant added.

She shared the challenge of doing a comp analysis recently for a kitchen manager role, which is not like a kitchen manager in any other industry. “There’s almost a pharmaceutical component to it because they have to ensure the correct dosages,” Garrant said. She recommends using a software that allows you to blend roles from different industries, like Payfactors.

9. Write detailed job descriptions

Align applicant expectations with the tasks, duties, and requirements of the job by writing accurate job descriptions. HR professionals in cannabis will likely have to dedicate time to learn the ins and outs of each role, both because cannabis is a new industry and unlike any other.

For example, Garrant pointed out that while growing cannabis, companies have to replicate the seasonal changes in light that plants experience in nature, which means pruners sometimes have to work in the darkness. “If you’re not aware of that as an HR person and don’t include it on the job description, you may get someone who’s just started and then is asking themself, ‘Wait, am I going to be ok working in the dark for 6 hours?’” she said. “Writing meticulous job descriptions is really important, because that’s how you drive talent in the door.”

10. Make a list

With an abundance of startups in the industry, it’s likely that as an HR professional, you’re the business’ first People Ops hire. You’ll be on the hook for implementing vacation time policies, selecting an HRIS, and creating a talent strategy, from the ground up — all while handling the day-to-day of HR, like recruiting and hiring. “Don’t get overwhelmed,” said Garrant. “It sounds simple, but make a list and check things off as you go. That way you can do what you have left to do, but also how far you’ve come.”

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