Faces of HR

Faces of HR: Erin Dertouzos on the Value of Pivoting, Psychological Safety and Probity

Meet Erin Dertouzos, Chief People Officer at strongDM – a people-first access platform that gives technical staff access to the infrastructure they need to be productive. Erin believes that recruitment is about having the right people in the right roles at the right time and leaders are responsible for creating a North Star with clear goals. By removing barriers that exist, offering quick and actionable feedback and ensuring teams have appropriate resources – and getting out of our own way – magic happens.

Erin Dertouzos

We recently connected with Dertouzos to discuss how she got her start in the industry, her biggest influences, trends, as well as her best mistake. The lesson? If you can’t fix it, know when to walk away.

“I once knew on day two at a company that I’d made a grave mistake and it was the wrong culture,” she recently shared with HR Daily Advisor. “I white-knuckled it, thinking naively that I could change it, that I could fix things. For nearly a year, I tried everything I could think of to have a positive impact on the culture, to coach the leadership, and to fix things. I was in a leadership role, so I felt that I alone could roll this boulder up the hill and convince everyone that we could fix this. The toll it took on my mental health, wellbeing, and my family was not worth it.

“I’ve since learned that it is okay to acknowledge when things clearly are not a fit and it’s irreconcilable,” Dertouzos continued. “This doesn’t necessarily just mean in the workplace either. There are relationships sometimes that it is okay to say, “we’ve grown in very different paths,” or “this is toxic,” and “it’s okay, and I’m going to walk away.” I’ve since seen other people go through a similar experience. My advice to them has been sharing my experience and letting them know that some things are fixable, and some things are not. Acknowledging when something is out of your control is not only the right thing to do, but also the healthy thing to do. And it’s okay to be comfortable calling that out and having a tough conversation.

Erin was also recently featured as a guest on our HR Works Podcast. You can listen here. In our latest Faces of HR, meet Erin Dertouzos.

How did you get your start in the field?

I initially thought I wanted to be a forensic psychologist for the FBI. But after a couple summers working at a printing company in Parsippany, New Jersey in their HR department, and undertaking a social security audit at the tender age of 19, our outside council had no idea how young or under-qualified I was. I realized the impact that HR could have, both on the business and on its people. So after college I knew I wanted to work in New York City. I always loved the city. I had a great grand aunt who lived in the city. So we would visit occasionally, and I landed a role at the New York Public Library as an assistant recruiting manager for a library spanning the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. While it was an incredible cultural institution, it was very slow moving, and management at the time was a bit resistant to change, and that wasn’t really my jam at the time. So after applying to a role I found on hot jobs, I’m dating myself a little bit. I landed a role at my first startup, and the rest is history.

Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?

So, to be fair, I have not had a ton of mentors in HR. The mentors that I have had have actually been business leaders. The person that I’ve consistently gone to for advice and guidance throughout my career is one of the co-founders of the first startup I worked for, Meetup. Brendan is a serial entrepreneur. His first startup was the first online ad agency back in the nineties, and he’s seen a lot. When I first reported into him, we sometimes clashed and he has pushed me harder than any other leader has professionally. I don’t doubt he lost a few hairs managing me, but his advice has almost always been spot on. He’s taught me to pick and choose what hills I’ll die on and choose those hills wisely. He’s helped me figure out what values are most important to me. For him, it was really important that people know when he said he would do something, that he would do it.

For me, it’s very much about integrity. And in HR we are often faced with some of the hardest, most heart-wrenching stories you hear. And we need to be a safe place for both leaders and employees alike to help find solutions. There aren’t always clear solutions. On top of that, we must balance what’s best for the business, which means at times weighing impossible outcomes – and you’re often very deep in it when you’re trying to do that. Brendan has always been someone that I can call upon to help me cut through the noise and get to the crux of the problem and solve for that, even when I’m literally thigh deep in it. So his advice has always been spot on, strategic, and he has always pushed me to do the right thing, even when it’s the really hard thing.

What’s your favorite part about working in the industry? What’s your least favorite part and how would you change it?

I very much love that being in a startup, we are open to pivoting when things aren’t working, trying new things, and breaking historic norms. For example, last December I pitched to our leadership team that our cost-of-living increases should be based on how much people earned. We had four tiers of increases that were based on how much people earned. So those who earned less saw a larger percentage of increase in pay. Those who earned more saw less of a percentage because in theory, cost of living adjustments are meant to offset inflation, which largely impacts day-to-day costs. So, people who earn less in theory, are getting hit more. I had full support from the entire executive team and the company. There was kind of a rallying around this perspective. Another example is that we offer paid time off for the loss of a pregnancy, which in theory is at the intersection of bereavement leave and medical leave. Again, breaking a paradigm that most larger companies wouldn’t touch.

Something I don’t always love is the chaos that comes with working at a startup. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, things change fast, that’s part of life at a startup. Sometimes it’s completely avoidable with better planning, better data, more thoughtfulness, and better communications. And that’s where someone like me comes in handy. Experienced people and HR leaders have a unique perspective on how the business is operating and how the team is feeling. And we can offer coaching to leadership and managers about how to manage those expectations and the chaos that comes with shifting priorities, especially around internal communications. I think that that is something that early-stage startups, especially who are scaling, tend to not focus on as much. Chaos is often manageable and can be exciting, but if it’s not managed can create thrash. So I’d say I enjoy it when it’s managed properly. When it’s not managed properly, it can create a lot of distraction rather than engagement.

It sounds like through your experience, you really care about people, and you want to help them feel safe and comfortable, which is important in the industry. Please elaborate here.

I think the role of a people function or an HR function is and has always been, from my perspective, to create an environment where people can do their best work. So a piece of that is certainly to ensure there’s a level of psychological safety within the organization. Part of that mission is to make sure that employees aren’t distracted by things that are within our control. But there are limits to what my and the business’s responsibilities are when it comes to ensuring that people are safe and comfortable. For example, when someone suffers a loss in their family, our responsibility is to walk them through our bereavement leave policy. Each loss is different, and people grieve in a variety of ways, and our thinking at strongDM is it’s important to let the employee lead here.

So, for some people, they want the distraction of coming back to work right away. Others aren’t ready to process the loss and might need a couple days or a couple weeks before it really hits them and need to take time off later. My team’s responsibility is to ensure our managers are equipped to have those conversations, that they know our policy. Where I’ve seen a lot of HR practitioners fall is that they’re inflexible. They sometimes lack empathy. They become jaded or they’re handcuffed by their own policies. So they bill policies and practices that don’t really allow them to use good judgment because maybe they follow legal counsel that’s told them they have to do it this way and they don’t ask the right questions. So they end up in situations where out of fear of litigation, they can’t work with the employee on what makes actual sense. So my recommendation would be, ask your legal counsel why it has to be that way. Is it required or recommended? What happens if it’s more open-ended, if your external counsel is not being pragmatic and you can, find someone who’s more reasonable?

I do deeply care about people and believe in giving them flexibility and treating them like adults, that’s what’s most important I think in our industry. I also think that’s what’s lacking, common sense and pragmatism. And we tend to build for the exception rather than the overall average. If someone’s going to nickel and dime on a policy, chances are you’re going to see that in their everyday work, handle that as a performance issue, don’t build a policy around the exception.

When you treat people well, people notice and when you treat them with respect, people notice. So, when we say that we are people first, we really mean it. We don’t have a ton of crazy perks. We don’t have a 401K match. We are a startup. But when we have to make tough decisions, we think about how would we want to be treated? We don’t always get it right. We fall down sometimes, but we don’t build for the exception, we build for the 80% rule, which I’ve made up myself, is I’m never going to make everyone happy, I can’t. My goal is to hit 80%. If 80% of the team is happy with what we’ve rolled out, I’ve nailed it. Easier said than done. But that’s kind of how we think about things. And we’ve done pretty well in taking that approach.

How can company leaders make HR a value within their organization?

I would say HR has to make HR a value within their organizations. Business leaders who don’t value HR won’t wake up one day and have a new take on it. The responsibility is ours. It starts with my team. When I encounter a leader who might be dubious of HR, I work with them to figure out what their challenges are, what they’re trying to overcome, and how my team can help. I talk about what their problems are, and then I think about behind the scenes, how can my team help? Whether it’s providing data, coaching, resources, I figure out the best way to offer value to them.

And then I put my money where my words are. So if it’s data, whatever it takes, to show the value add, I will show them, I will not tell them. And finally I embed myself in the actual business. So I team up with our finance team to understand our books. What are our revenue targets? What’s our year-over-year growth? How do our customer acquisition costs compare with industry averages? I understand our sales processes. Where do we fall down? Where do we win? The more I understand about the business, the more credibility I have and the more helpful I can be to those business leaders who are trying to solve those problems within their organizations. I share data about my team on a weekly basis with our executives. What’s our average time to close a hire? What’s our average acceptance rate? What’s our average acceptance rate for engineers? What’s our employee engagement score? All the things that sales leaders might share, what are their top few metrics? We expect them to know those. My team as well.

Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Or are you seeing any current trends?

I am deeply, deeply disappointed to see so many companies demanding a return to office, especially because they’re claiming productivity issues and culture building despite so much data to the contrary. I can’t help but wonder what those CHROs and VPs of HR are saying in those meetings where the decisions are being made. Or maybe they’re saying a lot and the decision is just elsewhere. What goals are being missed? If it’s a productivity thing, why were they missed? What are the indicators of cultural erosion? Are they looking at their engagement scores? Are there retention issues? Have exit interviews been done? It is costlier in so many ways to manage physical offices. Head count is involved, there’s CAPEX expenditures. While some people need to work from an office just to be productive, there’s different working modes, I understand that.

So many people prefer to work from home and are more productive. So my hope is that HR leaders are digging deeper into the data to push leaders on their assumptions about topics like these that are so deeply impactful to their workforce that they’re questioning assumptions that aren’t landing right, that I’m seeing in articles, that they’re questioning why the data behind some of the decisions that are being made. And that for those returning to office companies, that they are running studies internally so that if there is turnover, they’re ready to say, here’s why it’s happening guys. This is why we’re losing our best staff. And that they’re partnering with finance on the downstream implications of that. So where I think the people function and the HR function is going is much more reliance on data, a much stronger partnership with senior leadership, A seat at the table, certainly.

But my hope is that when I’m seeing Facebook, when I’m seeing Elon Musk, when I’m seeing these big companies speaking up about this, we need more productivity and if people aren’t willing to come into the office and produce more, they can find other jobs. The question that I’m not hearing is what are the productivity failures and why isn’t leadership being held accountable for that? What were the goals that were missed? How are we measuring productivity? And that’s where HR can really have an impact. And that’s our responsibility, is to ask those questions. So my hope is that the leaders of those people functions have the confidence, have the strength, and have the courage to speak up and say, if we have productivity issues, that’s a management failure. Let’s not jump straight to the ICs and start cutting headcount. You need to start with management. It’s so easy to start cutting the rank and fire employees, but that’s not where the problems start with productivity. It starts with management.

What are you most proud of?

The thing that brings me joy, its watching people grow, seeing them stretch in their careers, taking on new challenges, being spot lit by the company, and getting incredible feedback from their peers. That’s just the best. But once in a while, there’s a moment that really gets you in the feels where you know you’ve truly impacted someone’s life in a tangible way. And the thing that comes to my mind was a tragic moment, but it was a tragic moment that a policy I rolled out softened the blow on. So, at my last company, and I mentioned this a little bit earlier, we rolled out pregnancy loss leave. And we’ve done the exact same at strongDM. So when someone loses a pregnancy, it’s often at the intersection of bereavement and medical leave. And most companies have no idea how to handle this.

At my last company, someone on the team had just shared with me they were newly pregnant, super early on. This was maybe a week before I rolled out the policy. A few weeks later she came to me and shared the heartbreaking news that she had lost the pregnancy and this policy gave her the room to be able to get the medical care that she needed and the time she needed to recover. She came to me and told me that had she not known about the policy, she would’ve felt obligated to tell me very awkward about it. And she would’ve felt obligated to return to work right away. And I was incredibly proud that we created a safe space for her because again, my team’s goal and mission is to remove barriers that prevent our team from doing their best work, worrying about your sick time balance during a time like that is exactly that type of barrier, which is why we incorporated that same policy here at Strong.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

Some people enter HR because they’re told they’re great with people or they don’t know what they want to do. A lot of us fall into it by accident. My advice is do not take this choice lightly. There’s some really serious things we deal with. The responsibility is incredibly high. There are very few playbooks and we carry a lot. Our days are always different. We are coaching leaders, we’re hearing about personal health struggles. We’re working through performance issues. We’re selecting benefit plans that will impact the care people can access. You will sit on a call with someone whose role was just eliminated and they’re the primary breadwinner and they have to figure out how to tell their partner. You will never make everyone happy. Ever. I talked about the 80% rule. Consider that a win. You’ll also have to deal with things that are petty like bathroom issues.

There are moments of incredible joy though. You will see people grow, get promoted, and have huge impacts. You will watch employees through their career journeys and their life journeys. You will build relationships that span companies. It’s hard work. Your integrity will be challenged at some point. You will have to push for what is right, and there may be a moment where you have to choose whether or not to die on the hill. Having a strong moral compass, a sense of self and a strong support system is really important.

The CEO of my current company recently told me that he thought I had the hardest job at the company. I think he might have me beat as a CEO, but I don’t disagree with him because there is not really anyone at the company that I can talk to about the things that I deal with. So it can often be a very lonely role because I can’t just go talk to the director of customer support about the things coming in. So I would say don’t take the choice to get into HR lightly. Really reflect on the types of things you’re going to be working with and whether or not you can carry some of the things that you’ll be working on because you’re going to impact people’s lives in an incredible way.