Career & Education/Career Changes/Climbing The Ladder/Finding A Job

Ask An HR Lady: How Do I Navigate Workplace Problems In An Office With No HR Department?

By | Thursday, September 24, 2020

Hi there, and welcome to week two of TFD’s newest column, Ask An HR Lady! I’m Jazmine Reed-Clark, a career coach, writer, and podcast host of the podcast Office Politics. Prior to coaching, I worked in the human resources department, employee programming, and recruiting space for 4 years, primarily in the tech start-up industry. In each column, I’ll be answering three of your workplace advice questions — from cover letters to complaints to disgruntled employees, I’ve seen it all (and made a few mistakes myself!). I’m excited to share my knowledge and experience with the TFD family, in hopes of empowering readers to advocate for themselves in the workspace and know their rights as an employee. (And while I love to give advice, not every situation can yield a simple response. It’s important to research the employment laws in your state to make the most informed decisions.)

Question: Any tips for navigating a small workplace with no HR? Salary, vacation, etc. — Sleepless at a Start-up 

Dear Sleepless,

Ah, you’ve come to the right person. I have worked at a whopping four start-ups. I got into HR because we needed it at a former employer, and I had expressed interest in being a recruiter one day. Yep, an expression of interest was enough for me to qualify for the position. In the end, it was the best thing to happen for my career, but I digress.

I am going to make some assumptions here, but if vacation isn’t clear, I’m assuming you all don’t have an employee handbook, HRIS system (a place to track your hours, PTO, view pay stubs, etc.), or someone well-versed in employment and employee rights. If you were in front of me, I would ask if you have a COO or CFO who is acting as a ‘People Team’ leader. If the answer is yes, it would be wise to learn their vision for putting employee programming and policies in place. If they do not have one (and don’t seem interested in thinking of one), I suggest protecting yourself with information via a human resources organization. One in particular that I recommend is SHRM. Though a paid membership is helpful, they also offer plenty of free guides and resources. It can be a site to reference if you think something isn’t up to code.

Now, let’s say you’re working for a super small company, and there’s no CFO or COO, but rather, it’s the CEO wearing a bunch of hats. I will warn you: it’s going to be bumpy. Feedback and data will be your greatest tools. You can sit down with your team leader and explain why a vacation policy would be beneficial. Explain how they, too, would find it useful (e.g. they can plan for when employees will be out-of-the-office; there’ll be fewer fires to put out, etc.)

Next, have an outside confidante to have gut checks with. See what’s standard at a friend’s company, and allow that to guide your suggestions with your manager.

Outside of employee programming and policy, start-ups are draining. You are doing yourself no favors if you’re not taking time to recharge, setting boundaries between work and play, and knowing when to go home. So please remember to take care of your mental health.

Finally, small companies can be a bit…. messy. Hook-ups at holiday parties, more gossip than usual, favoritism, nepotism, asking for employees to work outrageous hours, and so forth. It will serve you to enter your working relationships with caution and to set a clear boundary with your direct manager.

Question: “Am I allowed to talk to HR regarding compensation for learning additional things needed for the job?” — Looking to Learn

Dear Looking to Learn,

Yes! Now, that isn’t a promise that they can fulfill your request, but just as with negotiating your salary, it never hurts to ask.

If it’s something smaller like a program for your job or a special keyboard, talk to your direct manager. At most companies, there is a team budget for professional tooling. At a former employer of mine’s, anything $50 or below could be bought with written permission from a manager. Anything above $50 had to be cleared by a supervisor or the IT team. As someone who fell within the corporate communications space, I was able to justify a Grammarly subscription.

If you’re speaking more towards having a learning stipend to attend a conference, pick up a new skill, or something like a student loan repayment program, bubbling up your desire to have such employee programming is important. Before Finance dishes out the dollars, they have to know there’s a need for it, and that there will be a return on it. Will this learning stipend help employees gain a certification or a skill that will increase their productivity? Tie it back to the mission and ask. Closed mouths don’t get fed.

Likely, it’s something that will need a sign-off from Finance, and won’t be approved immediately, but could be an option in the coming quarter.

Good luck!

Question: “What’s a surprisingly good thing to include in your cover letter?” — Looking to Dazzle and Deliver

Dear Dazzle and Deliver,

I love this question! Now, every recruiter is different. Someone at a traditional Fortune 500 company may want it sleek, simple, and concise. A creative agency will likely appreciate something quirky, original, and unexpected. But here’s what translates to every industry: tell a story. It doesn’t need to be a life story, it doesn’t need to be a college admission essay, but you need to be your own protagonist in your cover letter.

Tell me a time you used your “excellent communication skills,” and negotiated a new contract with a vendor, saving the company thousands of dollars. Prove to me your “passion for the industry” with a paragraph about the continued learning courses you’ve taken on since being laid-off, and how you’re eager to apply your key learnings to your next role.

I once had a creative write an open love letter to graphic design as her cover letter. Was it out there? Hell yes. Did I feel compelled to talk to her on the phone just see what she’d say? Hell yes. It didn’t feel like she did a rush job, and it didn’t feel like it was filed under “Cover Letter Template” on her desktop.

A good cover letter will answer at least one of the questions:

“What makes you so special I should call you?”

“What is your proudest accomplishment, and why?”

“What is your purpose, and how do you live it out at work?”

Happy writing!

Jazmine has been a contributing writer for The Financial Diet since 2015. While her spending habits have changed over the years, her advocacy work surrounding social change and mental health has not. She hopes her writing and activism can empower all women to occupy their space at work — and everywhere else. Outside of TFD, Jaz (as she likes to be called) is a career coach, full-time writer, and a plant + dog mom residing in Dallas, Texas. She spends her “fun money” on trips to Trader Joe’s, throw pillows, and white wine. You can follow her Target shopping adventures here, and learn more about her at

Image via  Jazmine Reed-Clark

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