What Facebook's 'no rules' structure means for HR

Written by
Karam Filfilan

09 Aug 2017

09 Aug 2017 • by Karam Filfilan

Facebook has come a long way since Mark Zuckerberg launched the social media behemoth in his Harvard bedroom 12 years ago. Regularly voted one of the best companies in the world to work for, Facebook has a reputation for boundless creativity and impressive employee perks, including free gourmet food, four months’ paid leave for new parents and even a friendly ‘artist in residence’, who I bumped into on my visit to its offices.

So what’s it like to be a people leader at a company where creativity trumps organisation, your CEO is a millennial and you have a culture of ‘no rules, only values’? 

“It can feel messy and chaotic if you’re used to hierarchies and having to work your way up. That simply isn’t how it’s done at Facebook,” admitted head of HR international Fiona Mullan, when I chatted to her at their London offices. “We really encourage people who join to think about the impact they can have at work and how best to go about doing that. It’s about the outcomes of the work, not just the effort,” she says.

Mullan joined Facebook in 2014 having previously spent nine years at Microsoft. Attracted by Facebook’s position as a social media platform having a revolutionary effect on communication, she believes the tech giant’s disruptiveness places it in a unique position to appeal to people in the new world of work.

“Moving from a huge organisation going through lots of change to a very young, more disruptive business gave me some interesting opportunities as an HR practitioner to think differently about employee engagement and the world of work. I certainly haven’t been disappointed,” she smiles.


Social Mission

A key influencer of Facebook’s culture is its ultimate goal. In an open letter sent to potential investors in 2012, Zuckerberg said: “Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected.”

“Having a social mission is what harnesses most people, especially the millennial generation,” agrees Mullan. “Any Facebooker will be able to tell you the mission of the company and how it connects to the work they do.”

Mullan is keen to point out that what works for Facebook won’t necessarily work for other organisations. However, she believes that, as a company born of a millennial and with an aim based around transparency and connecting people, the experiences Facebook have encountered are of the moment.

Bringing your whole self to work

One of the more interesting – Mullan calls it ‘‘possibly shocking” – elements to working at Facebook is that you’re expected to use your Facebook profile as part of your work, with boundaries broken down between managers and junior employees.

“When you join, you have this deluge of friend requests from your manager, your manager’s manager, all your peers and the wider team in general. For many, this is a challenging experience, because we’re so used to having a wall between our work self and our personal self,” says Mullan. 

“We believe that bringing your whole self to work is good for you, but also for Facebook,” she adds. 

A further example of the importance of transparency to the business is how it shares information. Rather than hierarchical managers briefing employees, projects are shared internally on Facebook groups with contributions from all involved parties.

Sharing real-time information can seem messy, but Mullan argues it allows employees to work at speed, collaborating without forgetting the ultimate aim of the project.

This focus on transparency and agility starts from the top, with Zuckerberg hosting informal weekly Q&As where employees poll on which questions to ask him, before outlining the company’s position on day-to-day business. 

By sharing information that would normally be the preserve of the executive board, Zuckerberg fosters a sense of accessibility and engagement, providing context for the work employees do and a sense of responsibility to meet those outcomes, argues Mullan. 

“Everybody has a voice at Facebook. Yes, this can lead to a little messiness, but that’s the price we pay for a culture of innovation and ideas. You need that at the beginning to drive creativity and acceptance of sharing ideas.” 

Recruiting the right people to fit this agenda is crucial, especially for such a fast-growing business. Facebook’s headcount grew 48% in a single year between 2014 and 2015, and currently stands at more than 12,000. However, rather than looking for people to fit its culture, Mullan says that the company looks for ‘culture contributors’. 

“We don’t have a particular profile for our candidates. All we ask is that you’re good at what you do and you’re passionate about our mission, the rest is to be yourself. We want people who will drive us forward,” says Mullan.

The role of HR in an open culture

While openness and an ‘anything goes’ culture make for a fun place to work, how does Mullan’s team ensure outcomes are met and boundaries respected – and that HR also sees the benefits? 

“We enable rather than interfere,” she says. “We’re at our best helping our people to own and build our culture, and then getting out of the way as much as we can.” 

An example of how Facebookers ‘own’ their culture is that they are encouraged to treat meeting rooms as they would their own homes. However, in the event of someone leaving a room messy, Mullan suggests that, rather than the next user reporting this to HR or facilities, they’ll take a photo of the mess and post it in an employee group with a comment. This will be picked up by other employees, who may add further funny or sarcastic comments.

For Mullan, this is a much more effective way of influencing behaviour than her team issuing a communication around best practice in meeting rooms. “We try not to have hard boundaries. Instead, we focus on culture and on things which help us to grow and build capability. It can feel uncomfortable, because you’re trusting employees to do the right thing. In my experience, when you have open conversations and trust people, they will do the right things.”

Staying creative

For Mullan, HR often deals in rigid practices and strategies, rather than answering a simple question: “what are you trying to achieve?” 

“I’ve been in HR for many years and I’ve learned a huge amount in two years at Facebook. Some of this learning has been about dispensing with the HR guidebook, but that’s been a lot of fun. Don’t get me wrong. We love processes and to automate, but we also want to be transparent and creative. 

“We create processes with technology, not the rulebook. By focusing on solutions and culture to build leaders, we’re helping Facebook to grow.”