Finding Balance With Traditional HR In Creative Agencies


From Mad Men to The Internship, creative industries have inspired many screenwriters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, protagonists never work in the HR department. Scenes where they set foot in it are few and far between, if they exist at all. It’s not just because the HR department isn’t the most “sexy” (that would be an HR violation). It’s because in creative industries, HR doesn’t wield as much clout as it does in the corporate world. In the startup scene, it’s not uncommon to find companies freewheeling without any kind of human resources — but this never lasts for long.

So, let’s talk bringing order to creative chaos, shaking up office culture and whether a creative agency is a place for you as an HR practitioner.

1. Human-Centered HR: It’s “Bring Your Whole Self To Work” Day, Every Day

If you find yourself in a company that has been “getting by” without HR, you’ll have a big job ahead of you. If it’s your first time working in a creative environment, it can take a big mindset shift to fully comprehend the approach to employee engagement and performance. There’s something … humane about it. It’s assumed that employees have chosen to be there and want to produce inspiring, high-quality, meaningful work.

It’s also accepted that sometimes people have off days, and that they might want to chat outside of their allotted lunch break. There is a culture of “bringing your whole self to work,” and that whole self includes everything from difficult breakups to family tragedies to the old classic, hangovers. People aren’t afraid to talk about these things. We’ve also had people share vulnerabilities with the studio about mental health issues, losing a pet and health scares. It’s a real spectrum of humanity.

Going into this environment for the first time as an HR practitioner can be daunting. Years of best practice, corporate culture and legacy policies can lead to institutionalization. Even after choosing to bring you in, if you mention things like “performance management,” you may still be met with blank stares, eye rolls or worse, “We don’t do that here.”

2. Performance M*#£?!*$#!: HR, The Instigator And Arbiter Of Dirty Words

So, what is performance management?

It’s a dirty term. Or at least, that’s what it’s become to many people. The connotation of a lengthy formal bureaucratic process with endless documentation, terminations and strict adherence to performance to hit business goals has prompted a move away from the phrase. Progressive organizations prefer instead to talk of “performance development,” which focuses on the continuous development of the whole individual. But, cards on the table, they’re the same thing. 

3. Pick Me, Pick Me: HR As A Credible Strategic Partner

If you didn’t excel in sports at school, you’ll know what it feels like to be an HR professional in the tech industry: You’re always picked last. Even though HR is usually one of the last roles to join, it can be one of the most valuable — if hired well.

Unfortunately, we’ve ended up with a bad name, and it’s sticking. We have not managed to embrace new approaches quickly enough or rebrand our profession in a way that is attractive to the new model of organization, where there’s no place for Taylorist principles, automation is clearing out administration and there’s no shortage of employees ready to challenge your approach. If you’re still leaning on the old faithful, “because it’s always been this way,” expect to be firmly separated from any credibility you started with.

4. Disciplinary Procedures: We’re All Friends Here

Let’s assume the majority of employees in your creative team want to be at work. It would be reasonable to draw the conclusion that the carrot is going to be more effective than the stick. This brings the value of formal performance management into question. If we look at the disciplinary process in a humane way, it’s better to settle things discreetly, quickly and, where possible, with everyone’s dignity in tact. The cost of lengthy disciplinary processes is on par with offering a settlement and ends with less bad blood between the parties at hand.

5. Policy Creation: It’s About Principles, Not Punishment

Western countries have a lot of legislation protecting employees, and the way you enhance and socialize these can have a huge impact. Complexity theory supports catering “for the many, not the few.” If we still assume that we have a team of people who want to be at work, then our “many” likely won’t extort money on their corporate card or skive on sick days. They’re not looking for policies that lead with punishment. They want principles, frameworks and guardrails in which they can focus on being as creative as possible.

6. The Rules: You Can’t Break Them If You Don’t Know Them

Playing the role of HR in an environment that has a distrust of process can feel isolating. You’ll have to build governance frameworks in which creativity can flow, without feeling restricted. This requires knowledge of legislation, but also experience of applying it in situations that are open to interpretation. You’ll need strength of character, because there will be instances where someone’s integrity is called into question — and it’s in those moments you’ll be thankful you weren’t matching the team shot for shot.

You’ve Got To Let Some Things Fly

This role suits seasoned hands, those who have been around the block a couple of times and had their fair share of the fun. You don’t want this to be your first rodeo, and you don’t want to be famous for all the wrong reasons. Disciplinaries may be a hard sell, but you need to be able to navigate that process the moment the unthinkable happens. They’ll thank you later.



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