HR in the Age of Disruption

By Geri Coleman Tucker Aug 25, 2016
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New hires at Blue Apron, a meal kit delivery service that’s taking on takeout, should prepare to spend some time outdoors. The company hosts an annual camping trip where new employees get a taste of its culture—and maybe even a chance to see where its locally sourced ingredients are grown. And at global home-sharing service Airbnb, it’s safe to say that employees love to travel. That’s why the company gives full-time workers $2,000 in Airbnb travel coupons each year.

Whether it involves bonfires or bon voyage bounty, innovative companies are changing the way business is done and the way talent is sourced, developed and rewarded. Not every business can follow their lead on everything—for example, some innovative enterprises staff areas of their business with contingent workers to control costs—but their practices offer much to learn from.

Here, HR leaders at five revolutionary companies—Airbnb, Blue Apron, Etsy, Uber and zulily—share some of the lessons they’ve learned about how HR can help organizations stay creative and competitive while implementing people-centric practices that keep their employees engaged, empowered and thriving.

Our HR disruptors, from left, are Mark Levy, global head of employee experience at Airbnb; Kate Muzzatti, vice president of human resources at Blue Apron; Brian Christman, senior vice president of people and workplace at Etsy; Renee Atwood, former global head of people and places at Uber; and Colleen McKeown, senior vice president of human resources at zulily.


Talent Search

Demand for talent at these fast-growing companies is high, putting pressure on hiring managers and recruiters to fill jobs quickly—and to get creative in how they spot the right person for each open position. Zulily recently invited candidates applying for a job on its social media team to submit an Instagram post that best represented themselves and what they would bring to the team. “It made the candidate selection process as relevant to the job as possible,” McKeown says. 

Airbnb’s careers site (www.airbnb.com/careers) takes an inside-out approach to the employee experience by sharing stories and images from its visitors, hosts and employees to help prospective candidates learn about the company and connect with its global community. “Our employee approach is consistent with our customer approach, so aligning the two on our landing page helps prospective candidates understand our business and how integrated the employee experience is to bringing our company vision to life,” Levy says. The site also uses lots of video to tell impactful, real-life stories about what it’s like to work at the company. 

‘Disruptors use technology to find and serve customers in ways that didn’t exist before.’

—Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen,
author of The Innovator’s Dilemma (HarperBusiness, 2011)


Even though the company is growing, Airbnb wants to be intentional and deliberate about increasing its workforce, Levy says. The company has implemented a strategy called Growth By Design to manage head count and leverage fixed-term and contingent workers based on business needs. 

Innovative companies know that their employees are often the best ambassadors for their brand and a great source for finding candidates. Referrals are especially important as companies expand across multiple locations. “Employees are our biggest drivers of recruiting—especially for corporate positions here in New York,” says Blue Apron’s Muzzatti. “We encourage referrals on a monthly basis. We send out e-mails about what we call our ‘high-priority jobs’ or our ‘hot jobs.’ We include a cash bonus for those referrals.” 

About half of Airbnb’s new hires come from referrals. Most learn about the company through word-of-mouth and social media.

But while referrals are useful for finding people who will align well with a company’s culture, they are not necessarily effective for diversity initiatives, Etsy’s Christman cautions. To expand hiring channels, many enlightened companies partner with groups that can bring new segments of the population into fields traditionally dominated by a particular demographic. For example, Etsy has partnered with Hacker School to provide grants to boost the number of women in technology, while Uber hosted global nonprofit Women Who Code and helped sponsor last year’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Technology event. Conferences such as the Historically Black Colleges and Universities’ Innovation Summit are another source of diverse hires.

Screening for Fit, Learning to Grow

Gone are the days when hiring was done in a vacuum and at the sole discretion of a manager. At many 21st century companies, co-workers increasingly get to weigh in on whether they think a candidate is a good fit for a job before he or she is hired. “Experiencing the culture firsthand and meeting the team you’ll work with is one of the best ways to determine fit,” says McKeown of zulily. 

Throughout the year, the company hosts onsite events where prospective candidates are invited to come and meet the team, take part in rounds of interviews in a speed-dating-style format, and potentially walk away with an offer. “This is an opportunity to expose a candidate to our fast-paced culture, dedication to working for our customer, embracing change and collaborative team efforts that are expected from successful zulily employees,” McKeown says.

Airbnb conducts two types of interviews: functional/technical interviews that are completed by the hiring manager and those close to the role, and “core values” interviews, in which two employees outside the function for which the candidate is being considered gauge whether the individual embodies the company’s mission and values. Two “no” answers mean the candidate is not hired. If there is a tie, a third “core values” interviewer breaks the stalemate.

Blue Apron makes its top value of lifelong learning core to its leadership training programs for every level of management within the company—from the CEO to shift managers who work in company fulfillment centers. The training focuses on three areas: how managers want to develop as leaders themselves, how they want to help their direct reports develop and how they want to lead across the organization. “We’re going to be training everyone who is a people manager across the company and across all our locations with a similar framework and with a focus around our values and competencies of the company,” Muzzatti says.

One way Airbnb supports employee learning is by hosting “Fireside Chats” that bring in industry leaders—from CEOs to musicians—to share their wisdom and experiences with staff.

Seattle-based zulily hosts monthly events at its headquarters called zUniversities, where innovators from different industries speak with employees. 

Ongoing Onboarding

While onboarding approaches vary among the disruptors, the goal is always the same: making sure everyone on the team understands the values and mission of the company and their role in it. Uber flies new full-time employees to San Francisco for a three-day event called Uberversity in which employees get an overview of the company’s business and learn about its culture. That is crucial, Atwood says, because about 40 percent of Uber’s employees are from outside the U.S. 

In addition to seeing headquarters, invitees meet other new employees from around the world; attendees often remain close after the program ends. Each group is given access to its own chatroom so that “people continue to interact virtually,” Atwood says.

Etsy assigns new employees an HR partner to assist them throughout their first year. “We believe [onboarding] needs to be immersive and ongoing,” Christman says.

Rest and Rewards

Life at a startup often comes with hours that don’t fit the typical 9-to-5 weekday mode. At the same time, HR leaders at these companies are acutely aware that their employees need and want work/life balance and try hard to encourage that. They urge employees to work with their managers to set expectations and schedules and to build fun into the work experience. “We really want people to own their own schedule and figure out how to balance everything,” Uber’s Atwood says. The company has an unlimited vacation policy and encourages managers to make sure employees take paid time off.

Etsy offers a six-week paid sabbatical to “rest and recharge” for employees who have been at the company five years. It is also one of few companies that provide an astonishing 26 weeks of paid parental leave to new parents. “That could be viewed as a lot of time,” Christman says. “We tend to take the long-term view. We believe [that] by giving that person that time off, [he or she] is going to come back to Etsy and be even more engaged and even more productive.” 

Airbnb shuts down its operations (except for customer service) for two weeks at the end of the year. “People work hard, and it’s nice for all of us to have a break at the end of the year to be with family and to recharge our batteries and travel,” Levy says.

Perks are a complex topic at any company, McKeown says, because “what is important to one individual or department may not be as valued by another.” But some benefits seem to have universal appeal—employee discounts, for example. At Uber, full-time employees get credits to use the ride-hailing service, which is a perk that not only helps workers but also gives the company access to employee insights into Uber’s products and services and provides feedback for ways to improve and expand service. 

Along the same lines, Airbnb provides its full-time employees with $2,000 worth of travel coupons each year. In keeping with the company’s principle of human-centered design, workers are also surveyed about what would help them be more productive. “No one likes things done to them, so we are always involving employees across the world to provide us with input,” Levy says. 

Rethinking Reviews

Forget the annual review. Fast-moving companies opt for real-time feedback so that they always know where employees stand and where they are headed. These companies are assessing performance more frequently and with different twists. The HR team at Uber focuses on harnessing and perpetuating the strengths of their best and brightest by developing training intended to replicate the characteristics demonstrated by its top employees. “At other companies, the focus of reviews is on backward feedback,” Atwood says, “whereas we’re more focused on a forward-looking exercise, where we can actually help people grow and develop.”

Etsy’s feedback system is designed to maximize the role of managers as coaches rather than evaluators. Employees can choose when they get feedback purely for the purpose of learning, Christman says.

At least once a year, employees can poll their peers and direct reports to learn how they are perceived by others. Those asked to give feedback can choose whether to give comments anonymously, and those who receive it can decide whether to seek additional training or coaching from an HR partner or manager.

At zulily, transparency and alignment are built into the review process. Not only can employees set their own goals, they can review their managers’ and company executives’ goals every quarter to “see what the leaders are focused on, ask questions and stay in step with where zulily is growing,” McKeown says.

Mixing and Mingling

Smart companies understand that today’s workers want to be able to talk directly to colleagues on every rung of the corporate ladder. That’s why many are creating opportunities for employees at all levels to have frequent access to top executives and learn about strategic initiatives and challenges firsthand. Zulily holds monthly executive happy hours where employees can visit with executives in an informal setting, McKeown says. There are no presentations at the meetups—it’s just a chance to chat and ask questions.

At Etsy, CEO Chad Dickerson holds weekly office hours that allow employees to drop in for an unscripted Q&A session. Remote employees are included in almost every corporate and departmental meeting via the company’s high-quality video streams, Christman says. 

Blue Apron conducts a culture audit twice a year that focuses on how employees feel about their roles and about the management team.

Even though employees work hard, these HR leaders make sure fun and fellowship are also on the menu. Employees are encouraged to share their passion not just for their work but for their outside interests as well, by teaching a course on a favorite subject to co-workers or sharing a talent during lunch. Zulily recently held an open mic lunch at its headquarters where employees could showcase their musical talents. “When you walk the floors of our offices, you will see firsthand our employees living our values and working together to create something special every day,” McKeown says. “There is a really positive energy here.”

Airbnb’s Air Share program allows employees to teach colleagues about their favorite hobbies. The company also has 11 employee resource groups to foster inclusion.

Blue Apron holds a wine happy hour that brings people together to build rapport and allow for networking. “We include overviews of wines that we are selling that month as part of our Blue Apron subscription,” Muzzatti says. The company also hosts a giant annual camping trip for full-time employees, which this year includes working on a farm for part of the weekend. “The engagement for camping is huge,” she says. “Overall, the biggest challenge I have for every part of my job is just keeping up with a highly engaged workforce.”

Surveying the Culture

Blue Apron conducts a culture audit twice a year, asking employees no more than 20 questions that focus on how they feel about their roles and about the management team. The survey is designed to elicit specific feedback on the leadership team. “We ask questions around work/life balance, we ask if people are thinking of leaving the company and why, and then we give people an opportunity to give us feedback,” Muzzatti says.    

Geri Coleman Tucker is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.
Illustrations by Travis Foster for HR Magazine.
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