HR on HR: The Birth of Modern Human Resources at a Company That Wants to Disrupt It

Modern HR practices free your HR team to focus on people. Zenefits Director of HR Dawn Nott shares her thoughts on where HR and technology meet.

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Long before Zenefits created an HR function within its own organization, the early team started with identifying and fixing the stresses of managers, leaders and employees, with the hope of recreating what HR could become when stripped of its administrative side. It wasn’t until the company far exceeded small business status at around 250 employees that Dawn Nott, now Director of HR at Zenefits, was first introduced to the platform.

With 15 years of HR experience everywhere from small startups to larger public companies, Dawn’s seen the good, bad and ugly of HR, emerging with a progressive philosophy about how HR can be more nimble and effective for businesses of all sizes. For her, modern HR starts somewhere beyond crossing the Ts and dotting the Is. Instead of slinging compliance data and policies, her strategy-driven HR world starts with people.

We sat down to get her thoughts on HR, technology, and where the two meet.

The birth of modern HR

Sarah: How did you end up joining Zenefits?

Dawn: I was first introduced to Zenefits while working at another startup. I loved the simplicity of the platform and the integration with benefits and payroll systems, which felt very intuitive, and saw the potential for HR to be able to focus on much more meaningful stuff rather than being bogged down with admin work or a bloated HRIS. The idea of working for a company that was improving the most painful aspects of HR—and being able to contribute to making it better—was very exciting.

Human resources catches a lot of flak. Its death is frequently forecasted in business publications, and HR pros are painted as preachy in pop culture. They’re perceived as the company police among their own employees—you can talk to them, but they’ll use what you say against you later. Everyone seems to hate HR. Why? What is HR to you? What should HR be?

I joke that HR is sort of a cross between law and psychology. It’s like a dance. It touches on so many aspects of the human experience and has the ability to make a huge impact. I almost became an employment attorney, but I love the variety of challenges in HR—I feel like I’m using both sides of my brain and am challenged in so many ways. In HR, you need to know a lot about employment law, but also need to be able to strategize on compensation, diversity, management development, and to coach people through sticky, interpersonal conflicts.

HR is like a dance. It touches on so many aspects of the human experience.

HR can get bogged down with administrative work and paralyzed by policies and processes, which I hate. This is what gives HR a terrible reputation and makes people view it as a roadblock rather than a resource. I’ve seen very knowledgeable HR professionals use their expertise to control people with compliance and policies instead of searching for creative solutions for them. But it’s far more interesting and helpful to think beyond that and ask, “How can I help solve this problem? What other ideas can I look into? What other resources do we have?” When HR people stay in a rigid mindset, that’s when they get a bad reputation, and employees avoid and distrust them.

What would you say is the ideal role of HR in a company? How do you view your role in the absence of administrative HR?

It’s my job to ask, “What are our goals? What outcome are we trying to achieve? How can I help us get there?” The answers come from combining our CEO’s vision for the company and product with what I hear on the ground from employees—their complaints, frustrations, suggestions. I’m responsible for getting into the heads of our leaders, understanding their goals, perspectives, and challenges, and using HR strategies and initiatives to help achieve our mission.

One of my managers at a very large company once said to me, “You have to stop telling leaders ‘yes’ all of the time.” But if someone comes to me and says, “I need to restructure my team in this timeframe in order to increase efficiency. Can I do it?” I want to say “yes.” I don’t want to be a roadblock. And the yes isn’t unconditional. I’m not necessarily saying that we should go down the road they want to go down, but we can still reach the same destination in a way that considers all of these elements—compliance, cost, cultural impact, mission.

Thinking “I must lead with ‘no’ all of the time,” or “we must follow this concrete process” doesn’t make sense. It’s not productive for anyone. While solving problems, HR should be questioning and improving its processes and asking, “What makes sense here? What can we do to be more effective for the company?” It’s really hard, and most HR leaders aren’t taught how to do that.

Inside of the HR lab

On my first day at Zenefits, I remember sitting with a group of the week’s 40 new hires and listened to one of our HR staff point to a simple chart and say, “If you have a question, you do one of three things. Search within Zenefits. Search Google. Or ask Parker.” What does this mean for the product, for us as employees, for an HR professional? How does that strategic vs. administrative split between HR and Parker (our CEO) work?

Parker was reticent to hire anyone in HR because he felt, “well, the platform should be able to do most of this stuff.” That’s changed of course, but the relationship is still unconventional. For example, Parker doesn’t want our HR team answering any internal benefits questions or system-related questions. Because we test every new feature internally first, he wants to see what questions come up and what’s confusing for employees. This helps us know what we need to build, where there are bugs, and how we can make improvements for our customers as fast as possible.

Is your approach to HR unique here given that we’re building technology that tries to eliminate a lot of manual HR compliance work and communications?

One of my favorite things is being able to make meaningful suggestions about product features. In the past when I’ve had issues with systems I’ve used, the feedback went nowhere, and I had no insight into whether my suggestions were being heard or acted upon. To be somewhere where employees have a voice and can say, “I think we can improve this by…” and then actually see it in action is very powerful and gratifying.

Diversity, training and development, employee engagement and culture, benefits, compensation models, mobility—less administrative work means more focus on impactful, fun work.

I think that administrative HR work will eventually be replaced completely by technology. My team still manually handles a few things that aren’t in the system like filing disability claims, but we’re seeing the evolution to automation now, and it’s ultimately liberating for everyone on every level. It gives us the opportunity as HR professionals to reshape our roles into something more creative and meaningful. And there’s no shortage of areas to improve—diversity, training and development, employee engagement and culture, benefits, compensation models, mobility, you name it. Less administrative work means more focus on the high-impact (and fun) parts of HR.

How to modernize your HR

Technology is ultimately about people, giving us more time, energy, and resources to engage and develop employees to be successful. Modern HR practices free your HR team to focus on people, not replace them with robots. Here’s how to take your team to the next level:

  • Work to minimize administrative work with capable tools
  • Develop three areas of expertise: compliance, understanding leadership’s vision, and keeping a pulse on the needs of employees
  • Help leaders solve people problems from this unique vantage point

See how Zenefits can help you make HR creative again.

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