Debbie Bortolussi on Startup HR, 10 Traits Great Employers Share, & More

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“I love both business and people, so I wanted to marry the two together.”

That’s why Debbie Bortolussi, President of Vancouver-based HR and marketing consulting firm PHR Resources, got into human resources.
“It was back in the ’80s; I was working in a pathology lab during the day and taking my HRM diploma at night.”

Debbie Bortolussi, HR expert, management consultant, & President of PHR Resources.

Debbie knows her stuff. Aside from being a sought-after consultant, she holds two teaching positions: Adjunct Professor at the New York Institute of Technology in Vancouver and Faculty Member at Kwantlen University’s Business School. Her company, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this past March, works with clients in challenging, sometimes desperate, predicaments.

“The challenges they bring to me, they’re things like ’we need a 100 engineers and we need to have them now’, or ‘we have no policies, no employee handbook in place, we’re scrambling’.”

From salary administration systems to health and safety programs, Debbie helps companies establish the systems they need to succeed at both scaling their business and being great, loyalty-inspiring employers.

“One startup company I worked with, when we started they were a team of five. Now they’re a billion dollar company.”

What’s the secret? How startups can set themselves up for success as an employer, even as they seek success (and crazy-fast growth) as a business?

Debbie agreed to share her insights in a little Q&A …


“I define a ‘great employer’ as a company committed to continuous improvement.”


Q: When does a startup need to start thinking about a human resources function?

As soon as you have five people, you better start thinking about HR.

You don’t need a full-time human resource professional – you can and should outsource your human resources function at this stage of growth.

But if you’re not thinking about it yet, you’re going to be in trouble. Somebody is going to be sick. Somebody is going to quit. No one will know where their role starts or ends.

“As soon as you have five people, you better start thinking about HR.”


Q: What’s HR priority #1 for a fledgling company?

You need to start with clear, solid job descriptions, and create a good compensation package to match.

As a startup, you might not be able to compete with more established employers’ compensation and benefits offerings. However, you do need to understand what the competition is doing and what you can do to create an environment to attract the top talent.

When I work with companies to create solutions like this, we might implement employee benefits in phases. Start with medical, dental. You may not be able to afford an RRSP program [or 401(k) program in the US] right now, but you can do things to build a sense of community – set up a Ping-Pong table, promote ‘company tee-shirt Friday’, that type of thing.

For a small organization, that is your edge. Your sense of community. Make them feel like they’re part of a family.

You’re setting up the infrastructure – creating the environment – so you can prosper and grow.


“You need to start with clear, solid job descriptions, and create a good compensation package to match.”


Q: What’s the biggest challenge facing startups, as new employers?

I work on this every day. It’s team building.

A new team always needs to go through the four stages of Tuckman’s stages of group development:

The first stage is forming. This when you’re hiring the team, and everyone is excited, even though they might not yet fully understood the full task ahead, their role or the members of their team.

The leader needs to play a dominant role at this stage:

First off, make sure roles and responsibilities are clearly defined.

Second, create some type of team building, to encourage everyone to get to meet their colleagues and understand who they are. Get everyone to share basic things: Why did they join the team? What do they want to get out of it? Even doing Myers-Briggs personality assessments together and sharing the results can be useful.

Doing this now will help save you from trouble as you move into the next phase:

Storming. The honeymoon is over. People start to push against boundaries, jockeying for position and challenging your authority. You’ll often see conflicts between different natural work styles – introverts, extroverts. You’ll often see employees becoming overwhelmed by their workload, working at night, working on weekends, thinking: “I don’t want to tell anybody, but I can’t handle all this work …”

This is where I work with teams, and I work to get them out of it.

If you haven’t clearly defined how the team will work together – their individual roles and responsibilities – then you’re at risk of seeing your team fail at this point.

The third stage is norming. Team members now start appreciating their colleagues’ strengths and weaknesses, and your authority. They know each other better now and feel comfortable giving and receiving constructive feedback – without taking it as a personal attack. They start socializing together, going for Happy Hour, or for lunches.

The key here, is that everyone is working towards a common goal – and you can start to see progress, as a company.

The fourth stage is performing. Getting to this stage – where the team doesn’t have friction, is really starting to achieve performance for the company – requires having a solid infrastructure in place.

Q: Once you get your team performing, what can you do to sustain the positive momentum?

Without a roadmap, nobody gets anywhere. Every company should have a strategic plan (Tweet it).

What are you working towards? Set milestones. Everybody should be working on them. At your management meetings, every person must participate and discuss where they are at reaching those milestones.

Get everyone on the same page.

Now, celebrate the wins.

This will help you remain positive, build trust and good relationships.

Share the win of the week at your meetings. Initially it’s something that people don’t like having to do, but what you’re actually doing is using peer pressure: when someone doesn’t come to that weekly meeting with a win, they don’t look very successful.

So they learn to always come with a win. And that helps create and sustain a positive environment.


“As much money as you’re spending on recruitment, you’d better be spending on a formal retention program.”


Q: Newer companies often face retention problems. What should they be doing to fix that?

As much money as you’re spending on recruitment, you’d better be spending on a formal retention program.

There are five areas a retention program needs to target:

  1. Coming to work needs to be a great experience (Tweet it). You need to create a great workplace culture. Relax your dress code on Fridays. Have socials once a week. Most people are bright and smart and want to learn, so offer brown-bag lunch presentations. Supply a pizza lunch, once and a while. And create an open door policy – one that fosters openness but respects confidentiality. Doing these little things goes a long way.
  2. Involve all of your employees, to create a sense of belonging and community. Give them the opportunity to provide input. Create cross-functional committees, so you can get everybody’s opinion on important decisions, and so that instead of reinforcing silos, employees build relationships outside of their teams or departments.
  3. Give a great welcome to the company (Tweet it) with a strong orientation program. Orientation helps new team members get excited for their new role. And set up a buddy system, so new employees have someone to help them find their footing.
  4. Support ongoing education (Tweet it), whether formal or non-formal. Help your employees with tuition. Help with conference funding. Create in-house mentoring and coaching programs – I’m a big believer in that. Offer book subsidies: buy them the books they ask for, and collect those books into an organizational library.
  5. Reward your people – both teams and individuals. Celebrate every achievement, small or big. Buy a Starbucks card for someone who went beyond the call and did something special. I love corporate apparel, to show what your winning team looks like. In a startup, maybe you just have a newsletter that celebrates achievements and recognizes somebody’s great work.

This is all part of understanding people’s interests and values, recognizing and identifying their motivations.

5 Steps for Employee Retention:

  1. Make coming to work a great experience
  2. Involve all of your employees
  3. Give a great welcome to the company
  4. Support ongoing education
  5. Reward your people
Debbie Bortolussi


Q: What distinguishes a great employer, from just a good one?

Good to me is mediocrity. Who wants to be mediocre? I want to be great.

To be a great employer, your goal should be to exceed expectations. Does your company just meet, or does it exceed expectations for both your external and internal customers?

It’s like when you go to a five-star hotel, and you sit down in their restaurant and they’ve already got the napkin in your lap. It just exceeds your expectations.

To do that, you need tangible, measurable – SMART – goals. You need to hold yourself to them.

And you need to commit to continuous improvement. I would define a ‘great employer’ as a company committed to continuous improvement (Tweet it).

What I was two years ago, that’s out of date. The way we used to work twenty years ago – even five, four years ago – it doesn’t happen that way anymore.

It’s my personal and professional philosophy. It’s how you avoid becoming stagnant.


“Offer a flexible work schedule. The ‘nine to five’ age is dead. So dead.”


What are the traits that make an employer great?

Here’s my list of ten things you need to do to be an exceptional employer:

  1. Offer a flexible work schedule. The ‘nine to five’ age is dead. So dead.
  2. Foster a culture that is creative AND fun. Startups can be so good at this, but what can a small, bootstrapped startup do to foster this type of culture? It doesn’t need to cost a lot. Put a basketball hoop out in the parking lot. Ping-Pong is great – get a Ping-Pong table. You’ll get everyone – extroverts, introverts – out of their shells.
  3. Cultivate the whole person. By that I mean, don’t just focus on their most obvious work-related skills and attributes. For example, at one of the company I was working with, one of the employees happened to be a kayaking teacher. Why not take advantage of that? Take the team out to go kayaking. Or at another company there was a baseball coach. Why not create a company baseball team?
  4. My favourite: Do not tolerate jerks (Tweet it). Or toxic people. Every one of us has worked with a jerk – knows what it’s like. That’s why companies need to have a rigorous hiring process. Test your candidates’ emotional intelligence, test what they understand customer service is, internally, and externally. Maybe do some psychological testing on this. Don’t hire jerks.
  5. Reward people for great customer service, both internal and external. Do that through pay for performance.
  6. Understand that people have lives outside of work. Oh my God, we need balance. If someone has to leave because of a personal crisis, send them home! They’re useless at work.
  7. Have a purpose. It’s okay to have a mission and vision, but does your company have a purpose? Something that inspires employees that they can buy into? For example, if you are a company that makes toasters, and your stated purpose is to bring toasted bread to the world – well I’m sorry, that is not a sense of purpose that inspires me. But say, for example, you are a pharmaceutical company whose purpose is to help people improve the quality of their lives – that is a purpose that inspires me. The best companies own a strong sense of purpose that inspires their people to do their best.
  8. Listen. Employees must feel their suggestions are being listened to.
  9. Offer a great incentive program – short term and long term. All the Fortune 100 companies have creative incentive plans that reward employees for a job well done. You need one too.
  10. Pay a decent wage (Tweet it). Let’s face it, of all the reasons people work, the main one is pay. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You can’t be a great employer if you don’t pay well. Doesn’t need to be above the norm, but you must offer a good, honest, fair wage. If you don’t have all the fancy creative benefits in the world, you have got to at least offer decent pay.

All of these things can be affordable, in different ways. And you need to focus on all of them (but especially the jerk part!).

10 Traits that Make a Great Employer:

  1. Offer a flexible work schedule
  2. Foster a culture that is creative AND fun
  3. Cultivate the whole person
  4. Do not tolerate jerks
  5. Reward people for great customer service
  6. Understand that people have lives outside of work
  7. Have a strong driving purpose
  8. Listen
  9. Offer a great incentive program
  10. Pay a decent wage
Debbie Bortolussi


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by Christian De Pape, Communications Consultant