When you’re disrupting an entrenched system like HR, I think it’s crucial to keep an eye on your original intent. What is the fundamental problem you’re trying to solve? And how will your solution to that problem playout for the average employee?
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Weaver.
Rebecca is the founder and CEO of HRuprise, a coaching platform that provides independent, unbiased HR coaching directly to employees. She founded HRuprise in the wake of #MeToo, when she became disillusioned with her own profession and just how much is stacked in favor of the company. As a 20-year veteran of HR leadership at Fortune-50 companies and startups, she is now on a mission to flip HR on its head and level the playing field for employees.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve always valued telling it like it is. In my 20 years as an HR leader, this helped me build really positive relationships with employees, despite the mistrust that many people have for traditional HR. I took employees’ concerns seriously, especially when they came to me for help with a harassment situation. I hated that they felt unsafe at work, and I took it as a personal responsibility to investigate every allegation fully, to hold harassers accountable, and to do it with as much transparency as possible so the whole company would know that these behaviors would not be tolerated in our workplace.
But it wasn’t until #MeToo went viral that I recognized the ways that I, as an HR leader, had unintentionally participated in a culture of harassment. It was baked into the job description. I can’t tell you how many times an employee came to me with a sensitive concern and I was prevented from telling them the full story. Why couldn’t I disclose to Jane that her harasser had several other harassment complaints already? Or advise Terrance not to quit just yet because his position was due to be eliminated next quarter and he’d get severance if he waited? Why couldn’t I tell Mia that she should ask for a raise because Marcus was being paid more for the same job?
Of course, I’d get fired for sharing this kind of information. Why? Because my job was to protect the company, not the employee.
Once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it and I felt compelled to speak up. So I launched HRuprise on Instagram and began posting my own commentary about the problematic side of HR. The response was immediate, and I realized this was more than just a social media account — this was the beginning of a movement. And it eventually inspired me to invent a new, independent, employee-centric model for HR.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
The main function of traditional HR is to insulate companies from liability. Employees sue their bosses for all kinds of reasons, and bosses need to protect themselves. That’s why everyone hates anti-harassment training — because it’s not actually designed to prevent harassment. It is designed to protect the company from being held responsible for “bad actors” in their leadership ranks. That’s right — your company’s anti-harassment training exists to protect the company from the victim of the harassment.
But most HR professionals didn’t get into HR to serve corporate interests — we did it because we care about employees. We want to change that relationship. And I think the change needs to be structural. Foundational. We need to create a new HR that works for employees, not for their bosses. And that basically involves turning HR on its head, so that HR reports not to the CEO or the board, but to the employees themselves.
That’s how HRuprise disrupts traditional HR: by creating a platform for employees to connect with their very own HR coach, and for HR specialists to share their full, unrestricted insight directly with employees. No more conflicts of interest. No more secrecy. Just HR as it was meant to be, providing honest advice to the employees who need it most.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we first launched HRuprise as an Instagram account, my Co-Founder Nickolett Hocking and I thought it would be a great idea to time the launch with an industry conference she was attending. It just so happened that I was planning a family vacation to Disneyland that same week. I didn’t think much of it, as we were mostly focused on Nickolett’s marketing tactics at the conference.
I had no idea how quickly it would blow up. Within a week we had 1,000 followers and were being talked about and reposted by grassroots organizations who were also working for accountability. I remember walking around Disneyland with my daughters, husband, and our whole extended family, watching my phone blow up with notifications and feeling like a tidal wave was washing over.
It was a wild introduction to the realities of entrepreneurship. Had I known how quickly the message of HRuprise would take off, I never would have scheduled the launch during a family vacation! It was a total crash course in figuring out how to balance my professional passions with my family life. It didn’t feel so balanced at the time and I’ve been much more intentional with launch dates and family vacations since then.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I had just been promoted to a Head of HR role when a close family member entered the final stages of brain cancer. It was a very sad time and we made countless trips from Minneapolis to California to be with him.
I was fully prepared to work remotely during these trips. I wanted to prove to my team that I was still committed to my job even in the midst of family turmoil. But my boss told me not to worry about it. “Do what you need to do. Family comes first,” she said. It was the first time I had had a boss be so direct about putting my work obligations to the side. I’d had plenty of supportive bosses before, but the way she communicated her expectations left a huge impression on me. It taught me that everybody has something that they’re going through in their private lives, and they should be allowed to make their own decisions about how to balance it with work.
Five years later, I was a new mom, breastfeeding my first child while working in a regional HR job that required three nights of travel per week. I experienced too many people asking me during my pregnancy whether I was going to come back to work — I felt like it was part of my role to prove to all of them just how committed to the job I was.
But my boss went out of his way to make it doable, in ways I never even thought to ask for. He rearranged our monthly team meetings so they’d all occur in the city where I lived, sparing me one week of travel per month. He let me take full control of the rest of my travel schedule, which allowed me to minimize my overnight trips and maintain my pumping schedule. I could never have predicted how hard it would be to parent a newborn, breastfeed, pump, and stockpile milk while working in a full-time travel-based job. But he gave me total freedom to figure it out, and never questioned my commitment in the slightest.
These two experiences fundamentally changed how I lead. It starts with trust. I strive to treat my direct reports as real people with dimensional lives, and the intelligence and integrity to balance their home and work obligations without micromanagement from me. My mentors showed me just how life-changing this trust can be when you believe in your employees as whole people first.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
I don’t think disruption is necessarily a virtue. I think it must be grounded in a practical application and sound planning, otherwise, it’s just an interesting thought experiment.
A number of years ago, I led HR for an organization that was operating with a form of self-management. Essentially it meant that we had roughly 300 employees with no people managers. Rather than organizing the work around the people in a traditional org chart fashion, the work was organized into types.
Because it was such a radical departure from the way we think of company structures, an elaborate set of rules and requirements were put in place, ostensibly to ensure that everyone’s voices were heard. In reality, what I found was that the structure was so foreign that most of the employees’ time was spent wondering whether they were following the rules correctly, rather than collaborating together. We clearly lost the original intent.
When you’re disrupting an entrenched system like HR, I think it’s crucial to keep an eye on your original intent. What is the fundamental problem you’re trying to solve? And how will your solution to that problem playout for the average employee? A disruption theory might sound great around a conference table, but I guarantee you it will have unanticipated, likely negative effects on the employees’ day-to-day lives. You have to plan for that, be receptive to it, and adapt accordingly. Otherwise, you’re just disrupting for disruption’s sake.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
In my first role as a people manager, I had a boss tell me that the goal as a leader is to be respected, not necessarily to be liked. For someone like me who had been a raging people pleaser up to that point, it was a hard message to internalize. But focusing on building mutual respect with my coworkers kept me committed to telling people the truth and it’s a lesson I never forgot.
When I was in that same role, I worked in a 2 million square foot distribution warehouse and supervisors used scooter-like vehicles we called “chariots” to get around. Our General Manager had a rule that supervisors were never allowed to talk to direct reports while standing on a chariot — they must always step down and speak to employees on “level ground.” This simple rule taught me to be more aware of the subtle, unconscious ways we reinforce hierarchy and assert power in how we communicate with people in the workplace.
In a later position as a newly promoted HR manager, I remember teasing my predecessor about a decision he’d made and I was now having to deal with the consequences of his decision that I thought was less than wise. He said to me, “You know, someday you’re going to be in a position where someone behind you questions your decision-making. I want you to remember this moment when that day comes.” His counsel taught me to always remember that most of the time, leaders are trying to make good decisions at the moment and that it’s much easier to criticize from the sidelines than from the playing field.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I’m launching a podcast called Problem Performers, where I’ll highlight the stories of fellow employees who are breaking the mold at work. All the most interesting people I know have been labeled a “problem performer” at least once in their career. I’m excited to tell their stories.
I’m also in the early stages of outlining my book! It’ll center around my experience with breast cancer last year, and how it informed the next phase of HRuprise.
Let me tell you, getting a cancer diagnosis a month before the onset of a global pandemic was NOT how I expected to start 2020. To make it even harder, my husband was treating Covid patients every day as an emergency physician, and we agreed he should move out of the house while I underwent chemotherapy, in order to protect me from his potential Covid exposure at work. That’s how I essentially became a single parent and homeschool teacher to our two young girls while fighting cancer and launching a startup.
During the first few days of my radiation treatments, the medical team assigned to me was the model of efficiency, but a vital part of the connection was missing. I realized that I had just been a part of them getting through their workday and my humanity was being lost. And I had a similar realization to those conversations in the wake of #MeToo: How many times had I been part of a system that left others feeling dehumanized in the workplace, when they were at their most vulnerable? How could I create a different HR system that would help employees feel seen, empowered, and valued?
Even though my physical prognosis is good (after chemo, multiple surgeries, and radiation), I live every day with a very aggressive reminder of my own mortality. I’ve found that it has a way of sharpening your focus. On a daily basis, I have a talk with myself that goes something like this: “Okay, so you’re not entirely sure how much time you have left. So, now what? How you spend your time had better count.”
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I was first introduced to Arlan Hamilton when her story was featured on a season of the Gimlet podcast Startup. Arlan is the ultimate disruptor and I’ve tried to study her moves ever since. She also has a book called It’s About Damn Time that is excellent as well. Arlan has long had an amazing clarity around creating opportunities for traditionally underestimated founders — women, LGBTQ+, and people of color.
I’m particularly drawn to Arlan’s unbelievably clear vision. She sees massive opportunities where others don’t and she’s unapologetically ambitious. She never tried to claim a seat at the existing table; she built her own table, her own room, and now spends her career inviting women, LGBTQ, and BIPOC-owned businesses to have a seat.
As I’ve built HRuprise, I look to inspirations like Arlan to remind me that yes, people will resist something new, but that doesn’t mean I’m on the wrong track. It actually means I’m exactly where I need to be. The key is to show people a new way, not just tell them about it. That’s what Arlan has done so successfully, and what I hope to do too.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s an ancient proverb that says: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”
My journey with HRuprise has been both explosively fast in terms of public interest, and excruciatingly slow in terms of the pace of actual change. The scale of transformation needed in the HR space is overwhelming, and the systems we’re challenging are firmly entrenched in decades, if not centuries, of practice. I have to remind myself that I’m building for the future and that I have to focus on what’s in front of me and take action where I can.
Sometimes I wish I had 20 years of HRuprise growth already behind me, so I could really dig into this work with substantial resources and structures and history to back me up. But I have to build that history starting now, for the sake of the future. You have to start where you are. And you just have to start.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Well, not to sound too lofty, but inspiring a movement is what I’m trying to do right now. My dream for HRuprise is that we start a sea change in the power dynamics at work through the democratization of HR. I want to use my platform to show the world how different our experience of employment can be when we have real equity and protection in the workplace, and when employees can make informed decisions for their own careers and lives.
I’m not trying to take all the power away from companies or beat up on people who’ve devoted their lives to HR. But I do want to change the system that forces company leaders and HR professionals to perpetuate inequities against their employees for the sake of liability, compliance, and profit. And the way to do that is to put more knowledge into the hands of employees.
I also want to transform HR for the people who work in it. Most HR professionals chose this career because they genuinely care about people. But when your whole professional life is built on a system that tips the scales against the people you’re there to serve, it’s scary to admit that to yourself, much less to stand up and say it out loud. But HR professionals have a responsibility to confront their own role in perpetuating inequities at work. And I hope that while they wrestle with this, they’ll consider becoming independent HR coaches and helping us push this movement forward for all employees.
How can our readers follow you online?
People can learn more about the platform and browse independent HR coaches by expertise, identity, and lived experience at hruprise.com. We’re also available on social media (where it all began!) @hruprise.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!