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Why Are People Ops Leaders Quitting in Droves? And What Can We Do About It?

What you'll learn in this episode:

Why supporting your people and culture managers is key to the overall health of the rest of your employees, and how to do it.

Here's the edited transcript:

HR is Burned Out

Today, I want to talk about something that’s been coming up for me a lot lately - whether it’s in conversations, LinkedIn posts, or recruiter emails. That is just how hard it is to find and keep amazing individuals in People and Culture leadership roles.

In the past few months alone, I’ve had four different conversations with individuals leading the People and Culture practice at their organization that have all included the phrase, “I want out.” One wants to shift into consulting, because it seems less emotionally taxing. Two were exploring demotions - both moving from a director-level position in startups to a less senior role in a larger organization, where they felt they’d be more resourced and supported. The last didn’t know what was next - only that the role she was currently in wasn’t sustainable. All of them sounded extremely stressed and completely exhausted.

And I don’t blame them. In fact, I’ve been in their shoes and know exactly how it feels.

My time as a Director of People and Culture was simultaneously the most rewarding and absolutely overwhelming period of my career to-date. Granted, I was navigating the role during the pandemic, an unprecedented time for even the most experienced HR professionals. Still, I have never had a role that’s required so much of myself both mentally and emotionally.

I’m sharing this, because I don’t think that many people truly understand just how difficult leading the HR/people function at an organization is. Besides being the founder, it’s probably the most nuanced, lonely role someone can sit in. You are constantly trying to put out fires while also building foundational systems, being a champion of positive culture norms, and trying to ensure the overall employee experience is being considered and upheld. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s also compliance, hiring, payroll, benefits, training and development, performance management, equitable compensation, DEIB, internal communications, onboarding, offboarding, and thought leadership to consider. Oh, and don’t forget navigating the new in-office, remote, hybrid decision - along with planning the quarterly team offsites that are now so crucial to team bonding and cohesion.

It’s a LOT.

However - more important and impactful than all of that - is the fact that any People Ops leader worth their salt cares, REALLY CARES, about their people. That layoff they have to facilitate…it’s not just the planning, decisions, and execution that’s hard. It’s the hours spent awake in the middle of the night thinking about how their customer service lead is going to make it as a single mom of two kids now that she’s lost her source of income.

On top of everything else, it’s often expected that your People and Culture lead cannot only handle it, but will also be the one who maintains a positive, supportive attitude through it all.

Does it sound impossible to anyone else?

These oversized (often under-resourced) expectations are exactly why people ops leads are trying to find their way out. Because not only is it overwhelming, it’s lonely. So much of the job has to happen in secrecy - meaning you rarely have the ability to pick up the phone and process with someone internally and instead must turn to your partner, family and friends to navigate all the emotions you’re feeling.

I know I did. And I will forever be grateful for the people who held me up, so I could hold it together for my team.

It feels a little exposing to be sharing this, but it’s the reality that so many people ops professionals find themselves in – yet, I don’t think we talk about it often enough.

Recently a friend asked me where I got my podcast closer. If you stick around to the very end of episodes, you know that each one ends with the same message:

I see you. I believe in you. And keep going. The work you’re doing really matters.

The truth is I recorded that ending, because it’s what I really needed to hear when I was in my last people and culture role. And that if I needed to hear it, I felt like there were others out there needing the same encouragement.

And as I continue to hear from overwhelmed people-focused leaders looking to get out of HR, I know it’s true. But I also know that the people who are looking to get out are the exact people we need to better support so that they can stay in.

These are the people who don’t see employees as a number or a budget line to cut at the first sign of a recession but rather inspire leadership to get creative in cost-cutting other places.

They are the leaders who know a sales team member's mother has been diagnosed with cancer and can help coach the manager on the best way to support them.

They are the leaders who will advocate that the company shuts down completely between Christmas and New Years because they can see just how overworked and burned out their team is - and know that the productivity lost that week will more than make up for itself in the new year between recharged batteries and less turnover.

They are the champions who know that we’re in the biggest workplace revolution in decades and that thriving will take considerable experimentation and ongoing adaptability.

We need these people to stay and have the hard conversations with CEOs. To continue building trust across organizations. To lean in when it’s easier to just roll with the status quo. It’s the only way things will really change.

The question is how?

In order to keep these incredibly, passionate, hard-working people in HR roles, we need to support them like they’ve never been supported before. And we need to do it fast.

In two weeks, I’m going to do an episode covering five ways CEOs can proactively work to retain their people leads in 2023. As always, all five are actionable, concrete ways any founder can support their people ops lead by the end of this year.

In the meantime, I want to share where all this reflection on the state of people ops has brought me over the last few months.

If there’s one thing that’s been hard for me as a business owner, it’s been focusing. I am SO passionate about helping create better work environments, that I have REALLY struggled to narrow down how and when I help companies.

Over the course of my consulting career, I’ve specialized in employer branding, operationalizing core values, employee feedback collection and analysis, internal communication strategy and management training - just to name a few.

No matter the project, that is one piece of feedback I hear more often than any other. “You’re like a workplace therapist. I feel SO much better and clearer every time I talk to you.”

To me, there is no bigger compliment. Creating space and supporting individuals lights me up.

But it wasn’t until I really started reflecting on the current state of people ops and its exodus of incredible people leaders that I realized it’s exactly the strength I should be leaning into.

During my time as Director of People, I had both a personal therapist and a coach. They kept me sane and were a safe space for me to process all the emotion that came with such a stressful job. I can honestly say I wouldn’t have made it through without them.

In talking with the four HR leaders I mentioned at the beginning of this podcast, it hit me - I could hold this space for individuals in these roles who are feeling overwhelmed and alone.

Not only would it play into my “workplace therapist” strengths, but I’ve been in their shoes. I know what they’re going through. And I can offer guidance and support based on the latest findings and best practices, so they can feel confident they’re putting their energy into the next right thing.

So that’s exactly the new service I began to offer. And it really seems to be resonating with people. The word that continues to come up is relief. Relief in not being alone in their work. Relief in being able to open up to someone who gets it. Relief in being able to process emotions, ideas, and strategies BEFORE bringing them to the CEO or leadership team.

And let me tell you, there’s no role I’d rather be playing than providing this relief to the incredible humans who put everyone else first.

If nothing else, I hope this episode has made a few individuals feel seen and pause to reflect on how big and important the work you're doing really is. Whether it’s me, a friend, partner, or mentor, I sincerely hope you’re finding ways to fill your own cup first. It’s truly the only way you can keep doing this incredibly important work.

Blonde woman in a white and black striped shirt lays on her bed exhausted from all the demands put on her as a people and culture manager. Can she please get some support??

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