How Does the Head of HR Work?

Read what L.V. Anderson asked Kevin Fanning about his experience in human resources departments—from startup companies to more hierarchical environments. 

Kevin Fanning.
Kevin Fanning.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo courtesy of Kevin Fanning.

We’re posting transcripts of Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day, exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for Season 5, Episode 2.

This week on Working, Slate’s L.V. Anderson interviews Kevin Fanning, vice president of talent and culture at Cogo Labs, a startup incubator in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the author of the job search guide, Let’s All Find Awesome Jobs. Fanning talks about the difference between recruiting and HR, why he believes people have trouble dealing with problems in the workplace, and the process of firing people.

In a Slate Plus extra, Fanning explains the potential dangers of not having an HR department and the kinds of policies he would implement if money were no object

We’re a little delayed in posting this episode’s transcript—apologies. This is a lightly edited transcript and may differ slightly from the edited podcast.

Laura Anderson: Welcome to Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day. I’m Laura Anderson, a writer and editor for Slate. On today’s episode, we talk with someone whose job is bridging the gap between executives and employees. What is your name, and what do you do?

Kevin Fanning: Well, I don’t want to start with the hard questions. My name is Kevin Fanning, and I work in recruiting and HR for a tech company in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Anderson: This may sound like a dumb question, but what is the difference between recruiting and HR? Is recruiting a subset of HR, or are they kind of seen as two different things?

Fanning: It varies from organization to organization. But they are definitely two different things. Recruiting is often seen as a subset of HR, but in some organizations, it could be a completely separate thing. Recruiting is more about attracting and hiring people, and HR is much more about managing them and keeping them happy after they’ve been hired, and a little more about tending to be the culture of the company, as opposed to adding to it.

Anderson: OK. So, when you’re having a conversation with someone, like if someone comes to your office and they have a problem—a problem with their coworkers or a problem with their boss—what are some of the most common issues that people bring to you? How do you sort of approach that conversation and try to find a solution for people?

Fanning: I find that when someone comes to me with a problem, it could be something with a manager. It could be something with a coworker, something that bothered them. Irrespective of what the problem actually is, I often find that the solution or the advice that I’m giving almost 95 percent of the time is: communicate. OK, yes, you’re complaining about this to me, but why don’t we actually talk about this with the person? People come to HR with: “I have this problem; can you fix it for me?” It’s often my role to say, “No, you can fix this. It’s OK to talk to that person. It’s OK to communicate to that person in a non-judgmental, adult way about your interaction, and process it together, and kind of work on a solution together.”

So, almost all of the problems that I see working in tech companies is just getting people out of their heads and communicating directly with each other in a more thoughtful manner.

Anderson: Why do you think people have so much trouble with that? Why do you think they have to come to you, and you have to tell them this very obvious thing, which is yeah, you need to communicate with your coworkers, instead of people just sort of getting it and doing it on their own?

Fanning: I think it’s uncomfortable for people. I think if someone has like a difficult interaction or they’re bothered by something, they recognize in the moment that if they were to respond right away, it would not be in a very helpful or thoughtful way. It would maybe make things worse. I think that people often come for me for confirmation of, was it OK that this bothered me? Am I reading this wrong?

Anderson: Mm-hmm.

Fanning: In sort of the world where I work, with startups and tech companies and things like that, it’s a lot of really young people. It’s people who are maybe just out of school, or they’ve only been in the workplace for a year or two. They’re really good at software engineering; they’re really good at data analysis. But they’re not as good at the interpersonal stuff, the kind of soft skills like how do I communicate my needs in a way that’s respectful and doesn’t make things worse by upsetting this person?

Anderson: When there’s a conflict and you are advising people to talk it out, are you in the room when this talking out is happening, or do you tell people to go try to have a conversation on their own and then report back to you?

Fanning: Yeah, I don’t want to insert myself into too many conversations unnecessarily. I want to work with people to get them comfortable having those interactions on their own, to make my life a little easier down the road, and to make it more natural for them. If it gets into a situation where we have a three-way conversation with me involved, that’s a lot more awkward and feels a lot more serious than it needs to be. It goes like this: “Hey, you did this thing. It bothered me. Can we process that and maybe work out something where that doesn’t happen again?”

So, I encourage people to just go have those conversations, and if it doesn’t go well, or if something terrible happens, then I’m happy to get a little more involved. But that’s not how I primarily want things to go.

Anderson: Mm-hmm. So, what kind of training did you have to go through in order to become and HR professional? Or is it just all on-the-job, learning how to deal with people?

Fanning: I didn’t grow up thinking, I want to grow up to be an HR manager. I didn’t—it just sort of happened. It turned out that it was something that I was really interested in. There are degree programs now. There are certifications and things like that. But I never have been through any of that. It’s been much more of learning from, and being mentored by, other HR professionals. A lot of it has been using my skills of interacting with people, my desire for people to get along, and my desire to have a company where everyone gets their needs met. Those are the things that I rely on to do my job well.

Anderson: Do you think that the degree programs that you said are currently being offered—do you think that they’re useful? Or do you think that it really is just the kind of thing where you just need to do it and learn by doing?

Fanning: It’s still kind of the early days for those. I guess I’m a little skeptical about how useful an undergraduate degree in HR is. I mean, sometimes I go to a career fair at a school, and I meet people who are about to graduate, and they say, “I really want to be in HR.” And that could be true, but I’m always respond, “Really, are you sure? How do you know? You haven’t even really worked in a real job yet; you’ve only had internships. How do you know that that’s what your passion is?”

It could be true. There must be people who that’s true for. But to me, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I worked so many places where I had really negative interactions with HR people. So, when I got more involved in it, I thought, “Oh, I’ve seen this go really horribly. This is my learning opportunity; this is my chance to actually try to do this right for people in a way that it didn’t happen for me.”

So, I think that kind of experience—seeing what workplaces can be like—is really valuable to factor into your career and your value as an HR person.

Anderson: Can you describe some of the negative interactions that you had with HR people before you got into HR?

Fanning: Early, early on in my career, many years ago, I had some interactions where I was having difficulty with a coworker, or I was having difficulty understanding why the company was making certain decisions. I remember situations where the HR person would say, “Well, maybe you don’t belong here; maybe you should find a job somewhere else.”

Anderson: Oh, wow.

Fanning: I was like, “Really? But I thought I liked working here.” So, it was that kind of thing where I was thought, “Wow, OK, well, I guess A) maybe I don’t belong at this company if that’s sort of how we treat our employees, and B) I think I could do this better.”

Anderson: That seems like the one thing that an HR person should just never say is, “Maybe you don’t belong here.”

Fanning: Well, it’s a factor of how organizations are set up. I mean, I think of HR as being part of this thing that they call people operations. It’s about keeping people motivated and happy, working to the best of their ability, and engaging in their work. But depending on the work of the company and the structure of the organization, HR can take on a lot of different types of kind of flavors, I guess. My career early on started out in a university, which is a huge organization with hierarchies within hierarchies.

That was much more of an administrative role, where you’re just taking paper from one pile and trying to get it into another pile as much as you could each day. It really wasn’t about interaction with people. It’s also a factor of how the companies are structured and set up. I, in my current role, report up through the CEO of the company, so that means that HR becomes very much about the people and getting them to be as effective as they can be at their jobs.

In a lot of companies, HR is a subset of the financial part of the organization. They may report up through the CFO, which automatically makes HR more about money, dollars, and the cost of the people—what can we do to reduce and contain costs. Immediately, you can see that it takes on a very different shade. That’s a very different set of interactions that you’re going to have with those HR professionals.

Anderson: Do you see people in your company who are wary of you or wary of HR in general because they think that maybe you are mostly concerned about containing costs, or because maybe they’ve also had bad experiences with HR in the past? Do you find yourself overcoming mistrust and people who aren’t really that interested in opening up to you?

Fanning: I don’t very much. I mean I think I’m lucky in that I have a lot of people who are right out of school. This is one of their first experiences working in a company. It’s much easier for me to gain their trust and for them to see that my role in the organization is to be the person on the executive staff who is most accessible to them. I’m the person whose door is always open, the person who’s not in meetings because he’s worried about deadlines and money and things like that—the person whose sole job is to be there for people to address concerns with or get advice from and things like that.

I’m really blessed, especially in my current job. I’m able to have a reputation as someone who is not terrible—someone who is not there to make life difficult for you.

Anderson: So, you said a part of your job, or part of your title, is culture. You’re in charge of making workplace a good place to work, with a positive culture that people enjoy. And to me, that seems just overly optimistic to think that that is something that can be within a company’s control.

I guess I feel like culture is something that happens organically when you get a whole bunch of people together. It depends on their personalities, and it depends on you know, what motivates them. Can you talk to me a little bit about that aspect of your job, and how you actually influence the culture of your company?

Fanning: I mean I share your concerns. I think it’s something that I think a lot of companies may take a top-down approach to culture, and almost view HR as your CEO of happiness or something like that, where it’s like, “Today we’re going to do this. And tomorrow we’re doing trust falls, and we’re building team exercises. And we’re going to go do this thing tomorrow that I read in a magazine that will be fun for us.”

That kind of top-down approach to culture, where it’s like, here’s what we’re going to do next, here’s what we’re going to do next—that’s very inorganic. It doesn’t end up being very fun for people, and it doesn’t really add to the real culture of the company in any meaningful way, I don’t think. So, I view my role as encouraging teams in groups within the organization to do the things that they want to do— to help define the culture in the ways that they can.

It’s difficult in the start-up tech world because you start out with this small company, and there’s maybe you know, 20 or 30 of you. Everyone is contributing equally to the culture. You’re all doing stuff together. Somebody has an idea about like, “Hey, it would be cool if we went bowling after work.” You organize the thing, you’re going bowling. It’s fun, whatever, that’s very easy. But as the company grows and scales, it becomes very difficult for that sort of company-wide culture to scale with it.

As teams get more diverse and hierarchies get more complicated, it’s been my role to encourage the culture at the team level, if that makes sense. Making sure that managers are doing fun things with their teams, and making sure that there are surprises for employees and interesting things happening so that not every day is the same. I don’t come to work thinking, “Here’s what we’re going to do to the culture today.”

I come to work ready to listen, be open to ideas, and try to figure out how we can get people’s needs met with all these crazy ideas that would be fun for the company. What are the things that are achievable? And what are the things that would be the most fun for everyone?

Anderson: At what stage in a startup’s development do you think they should hire someone who handles HR, or have an actual HR department?

Fanning: I was employee number 15 at my current company. I was actually surprised that they had hired me so early on in the company’s lifetime. But in retrospect, I think it was a really smart idea because everything was still so new. There weren’t a lot of processes. There was just a lot of room to create the culture, make the company what we wanted it to be, and try to define it in the ways that we wanted.

I think by the time a company gets to 50, it really needs a dedicated HR person, and beyond that, it’s really pushing it.

Anderson: Mm-hmm. Talk to me about the process of firing people, how involved you are, and what your checklist is when you have to let someone go, in terms of making it as positive a process as possible.

Fanning: Yeah, firing people is really, really difficult. I guess it’s kind of the thing that you get better at the more you do it, which is kind of a bummer. You don’t really want to get super good at it. You want to get good at it enough that it goes as smoothly as possible for all the employees affected because it is really difficult and stressful. It’s not super, super fun for anybody involved.

My thing with letting people go is that the worst case scenario is when it’s a surprise to someone. For example, someone comes in someday, and their manager says, “I’ve had it. I can’t take it anymore. That person is going to get fired.” I’ve seen that happen in organizations, where someone says, “All right, we’re just getting rid of this person.” You can’t do that. That’s not good for your company or for the employee who is affected. That’s not good for the other employees who are left behind because it creates this culture of fear, like, “Oh, my God, am I next?”

So, it’s really important for there to be a framework for firing, or what they often call managing people out. If you’re a manager and you come to my office, and you say, “Oh, this person, I can’t believe this person on my team did this thing.” OK, that’s fine, you’re venting in my office—that’s OK. If you come back a second time, and you’re venting about that person again, then I’m going to start asking questions about what’s really behind that and what’s going on there.

If it happens a third time, then you’re not leaving my office without creating some kind of performance improvement plan for that employee, so we can set objective goals. For instance, here’s what you need to do in this timeframe in order to prove that you’re committed to the team, capable of doing the work, and on board with the mission. That way, by the time it actually gets to a point where that person needs to be fired, there’s paperwork, a record of conversations, and a history of setting goals. So that person, in an ideal situation, is well aware of what’s going to happen that day when they come into the office.

Anderson: How often do you have to deal with firing people?

Fanning: Not very often luckily. It happens every so often. I think I’ve only had one time in my career where I had to deal with a real mass layoff situation, where the organization had to lose 100 people or something like that. It was a whole day of telling people that it was going to be their last day because of changes to the organization. It was awful. It’s bad because you’re the one delivering this news. You had nothing to do with the decision.

You just have to be the one to implement it, and you have to explain to people, here’s the next steps for you, here’s what’s going to happen. They’re so shell-shocked, and they’re so angry. Understandably, they vent that at you, and it sucks. You don’t want to be firing them; you don’t want to have that conversation with them. But you also want to do as much as you can for them. You want to give them as much information as you can, like how are benefits going to work, how does unemployment work? What can we do to help you network and find another job?

There’s so much that you want to try to do for people, but it’s just a really terrible conversation to be having.

Anderson: So, you are, as you said, the layer of communication between executives and employees. What are some of the main things that you’ve seen executives fundamentally misunderstand about their employees, or the employee concerns that executives just don’t really intuitively get?

Fanning: One of the things that I’ve seen is executives who don’t really understand their power to affect the mood of the company or the morale of the people. I remember I had one job where there had been some firings, there had been some stuff in the marketplace that had really affected profits and things like that, and the mood of the company was really, really low. It was around the holiday season and everyone was dragging around work.

I remember I had a conversation with the CEO, where he was really beaten down. He was like, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say to the company. Everything is terrible, and blah, blah, blah.” And I said, “You know, I think at the next company meeting, it would just be really great if you would just say that you really appreciate everyone. Just say that you’re really proud of the hard work they’re doing. Acknowledge that things are hard and difficult right now, but that you appreciate them.”

And he did. That was huge to me—he said that. He got up in front of the company and he said, “I really appreciate what you’re doing. I’m sorry things are difficult right now. We’re going to work together to figure stuff out. I value everyone’s hard work.” People need to hear that feedback. They need it pretty regularly. You can’t just assume that people understand that they’re valued or appreciated. You really need to give verbal respect to people in that way.

I’ve seen that in a few different organizations. It has such a big impact on the people.

Anderson: Then, the other way around, what do you think employees misunderstand about their bosses, the executives, and the managers?

Fanning: I think at any organization, it’s often really difficult to connect the work that you’re doing on a day-to-day basis sitting at your desk with the vision that people are talking about at the executive level. It’s their job to not really be thinking about today, but to be thinking about, where are we three months from now? How do we get to where we need to be six months from now, a year from now?

I think what’s frustrating for the employees and the staff is the miscommunication of the vision. How is the work that I’m doing relevant to the stuff that you’re talking about for next year? It’s something that really needs to be explicit and something that really requires continual attention. It’s easy to lose sight of that stuff when you’re just buried in work day after day. You have things that you’re doing, but you’re not sure what it all means sometimes.

It’s really important for managers to help their employees see why what they’re doing matters, however insignificant it seems to what they’re talking about in their quarterly earnings call. There’s a reason why that person is employed there, and there’s a reason why we’re paying them to do that work. Making sure they understand what that is—that is hugely valuable to the organization.

Anderson: Do you think it’s possible to have a good company culture, even if people don’t necessarily like each other, don’t really want to spend time socializing, but they’re all good at what they do, and they’re adults so they work together anywhere? Or do you think that a real affection and bond is an important part of a healthy workplace?

Fanning: I think a real bond is important. I meanI have worked in organizations where people were technically competent, but nobody really talked to each other or liked each other. They just came in, had their heads down, put their headphones on, got their work done, and then left. I think there’s probably a lot of places like that, and they probably thrive, but I don’t think that’s what a company should strive for.

I think that you spend a lot of time with these people, and you should at least try to create a place where people like each other. I think that people interacting with each other, communicating with each other, enjoying working together, doing things together, that’s only going to make the work that the company does stronger.

Anderson: How do you balance out wanting to create that kind of culture that you’re describing where people actually sort of have things in common and enjoy one another’s company, with wanting to have a diverse workplace? I know that an issue in many fields is that people hire within their social networks, so they end up just hiring people who look like them, who come from the same kind of background, instead of hiring people from a variety of backgrounds.

Is that something that you think about actively in hiring situations? How do you balance out those two competing concerns?

Fanning: This is why I often tend to think about things on the team level more than a company level. I think that diversity is really important. I’ve worked for companies where there were all white dudes, no women, and no people of color of any kind. That’s not the kind of company that I want to work for.

Increasingly, it’s not the kind of company that really anybody wants to work for. I don’t think that having fun together and diversity are mutually exclusive or anything like that. I think when you’re working with a team of people, it’s important for them to generate ideas for the things that they want to do and the things that they want to define their culture. Then it’s the company’s job to implement them.

I don’t think that as the company gets more diverse, it gets more difficult for there to be something about the culture that is fun, or that people appreciate about working there.

Anderson: Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. We’d love to hear your thoughts about this podcast. You can email us at, and dig through our first four seasons at This episode was produced by Jason De Leon. Our senior producer is Mike Vuolo, and our executive producer is Andy Bowers. I’m Laura Anderson. See you next time on Working.

* * *

This podcast extra is part of your Slate Plus membership.

Anderson: What are the dangers of not having HR? Are there legal issues at stake? Do you think that companies are more vulnerable to legal action or to harassment suits or something like that if they don’t have HR keeping an eye on things? Or do you think that the company culture will suffer if there’s not someone looking after the company culture as a whole?

Fanning: I think it’s a little bit of both. There are things that I have done in my career as an HR person that weren’t necessarily about the legal stuff. They were about giving the employees things that they were asking for that nobody else at the company had either the bandwidth or the expertise to do. So, you’re creating everything from scratch as you go when you’re growing a company.

One of the things early on was that we had these employees, but there was no real formal review system. There was no real way that people were getting feedback on how they were doing, and what they needed to do to grow in their careers.

So, creating that process and encouraging managers to have those conversations with their employees on a regular basis and creating a structure for those conversations was really critical for us from an HR standpoint. The employees were really asking for it— they really wanted it. I think there are definitely more legally tricky areas where it’s really great to have an HR person in the room who has experience with certain situations, whether it’s sexual harassment or firing people.

I think there’s ways that those things can go very, very wrong without someone paying attention to what are we legally required to do—both from the corporate standpoint and from the perspective of the employees who are affected as well.

Anderson: Hypothetical question: let’s say you were starting a company and money is no object magically. You have the freedom to invest in all different kinds of policies that you think are going to make this a great workplace. Which policies would you invest in?

Fanning: That’s a really difficult question that I’ve never even thought about.

Anderson: I can’t believe you don’t think about this all the time.

Fanning: Well, my job is all about the reality of how do we square what we have with what the employees are asking for?

Anderson: Oh, yeah.

Fanning: I think that the things that are important to invest in are benefits. Things like really good medical and dental, retirement things like matching and 401Ks. Training and education—helping people develop their skills is super, super important. I think a really significant part of your budget should be spent towards fun things like outings and getting to do things as a team—creating experiences together because work is work. Every job has different things that you do and different buttons that you press. That’s going to be true everywhere.

Creating experiences for the people to have together is what creates memories and bonds. I think that’s what makes you emotionally attached to the people, the job, and the work that you do.That’s the kind of thing that I think is most important.