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How to Hire and Train an HR Professional for Your Cannabis Business

By Bart Schaneman

Cannabis companies are typically slow to hire human resources professionals. Most marijuana business owners are more concerned about growth and revenue in the early stages of their companies, and HR employees represent a nonrevenue-generating expense.

“It just takes companies a little while to even wrap their heads around the fact that they need someone in HR,” said Joe Hodas, chief operating officer of General Cannabis, a Denver holding company that acquires businesses across multiple sectors in the industry.

But business executives wait to their own detriment to fill this position.

An HR professional can execute a number of important duties, including helping your company with:

  • Recruiting and reviewing employees.
  • Setting vacation policy.
  • Developing an employee handbook.
  • Creating processes for disciplinary actions.
  • Onboarding employees.
  • Monitoring payroll.
  • Negotiating health-care benefits.
  • Setting up retirement plans.

“There are a lot of different moving parts within the HR area,” said Leah Heise, chief experience officer of Mission Partners, a multistate chain of medical marijuana dispensaries owned by the Phoenix-based MJ investment and management company 4Front Holdings.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

When hiring for this position, Heise wants someone who is detail-oriented.

“The ability to look at the big picture in an organization and distill things down to smaller, itemized tasks” is crucial, she said.

The person should also be very good with people. The HR office is often also the complaint department, dealing with disciplinary matters or dissatisfied employees.

You also want someone who has a vision for the company’s future. The HR person should be able to help the CEO work out which positions are going to be filled as the business grows and help create the foundations of the whole company.

“The human resources professional is going to be integral to the growth of the company,” Heise said.

Steve Gormley, a member of the board of directors at Juju Royal, Julian Marley’s brand of medical cannabis products, wants someone who is even tempered.

“There are some pretty volatile personalities” in the industry, he said. “Anyone who’s worked in the black market that has managed to survive, then thrive and legitimize, has ridden a rough path; so, temperament is critical.”

A successful hire should have the ability to maintain composure when dealing with high-stress situations – such as sexual harassment allegations – and with various personality types unaccustomed to the traditional corporate world.

“Someone in HR has to be a peacemaker and a problem solver,” he added.

Hodas wants someone who understands the cannabis industry’s culture.

“By that I mean you can’t have the HR manager from a bank come over and put in place policies from a bank,” he said.

Cannabis companies are typically staffed with people who might be resistant to that type of management.

“There has to be an understanding of the organic culture within the industry and within the individual companies,” Hodas added.

The person should also have a good understanding of cannabis in the workplace and of marijuana the industry as a whole.

“Those are very specific challenges in HR that don’t necessarily exist for other industries,” he said.

In addition, the right candidate needs to understand that not all vendors want to work with cannabis businesses, so it might take a little more effort to find providers of payroll or time-management tools, for example.

“Functionalities that you might find in other industries simply aren’t available to us here, so it’ll have to be homemade in some ways,” Hodas said.

BACKGROUND

Heise isn’t necessarily looking for someone with cannabis industry experience.

Paralegals who have worked for law firms are good candidates, she said. They know how to comply quickly and don’t have to continuously look up processes.

“If somebody actually has human resources experience, that’s a huge benefit,” she said. “But really there’s not much difference between human resources in the cannabis industry versus human resources in the normal world.”

Gormley, by contrast, prefers employees with industry experience.

“Having someone who understands the intricacies of the plant and the consumer, I find, is really critical,” he said. That way, the employee knows the challenges and difficulties a cannabis business can experience.

“It’s always my preference to hire someone who has had some failures and success in cannabis,” he added.

Hodas prefers a candidate with an HR background, but he really wants someone who is flexible.

That’s because situations will come up in this industry that don’t come up in others. For example, workers might have a misunderstanding that because they’re working for a cannabis company they can consume marijuana on the job. A good HR professional can deal with that type of situation and carry on with their business.

“That’s a hallmark of anyone in this industry,” he said. “You have to be able to roll with the punches.”

WHERE TO LOOK

Heise will use online job boards and job sites such as Indeed to recruit for an HR pro.

But she also finds that old-fashioned methods work well.

“I’m a strong believer in networking and word of mouth,” Heise added.

Gormley agrees with using traditional methods.

“It’s really word of mouth at this point,” he said. “You have to keep in mind the culture of requiring excessive levels of trust that people want personal referrals when they’re hiring people.”

Hodas has used a variety of recruiting services and online job boards, including Vangst and Andrew Hudson’s Jobs List, which is local to Colorado.

Hodas is also a fan of LinkedIn’s search function.

“I’m always going to go first to LinkedIn and post that I’m looking for somebody,” he said. “I generally get a good assortment of resumes that way.”

HOW TO TRAIN AND MANAGE

Heise puts her new hires through a multi-week training period.

Her company has an onboarding and employment template through its project-management software, Asana. The new hire is taught how to use the different platforms the business employs.

That person also has time to learn about the company culture and interact with people before diving into their work.

Management is tough for Heise. Because her employees work remotely from around the country, it’s important to select the right HR employee.

“Working remotely makes its own unique challenges,” she said. “You have to be absolutely very trusting of the people you’re hiring.”

Heise finds Asana invaluable in determining whether someone is on task. She can carefully monitor her employees to see what kind of progress they’re making.

“When you’re hiring them, you’re looking for independent thinkers who are capable of jumping in – and if they don’t know the answer to a problem, they’re going to research that problem before they come back to you with that question,” she said.

Gormley takes a hands-on approach to training and likes to have new HR hires apprentice first.

“I look to develop a training strategy that’s based in mentorship,” he said.

He has his new hires learn from someone who has experience with the job.

“Someone they can turn to when they make mistakes and feel safe getting the adjustments they require,” he added.

As for management, he wants his HR employees to know he’s watching, but they have his support.

“I like to empower people, but I also like to extend oversight,” Gormley said.

Hodas prefers to have his new HR hires learn how all parts of the business work when they start.

“Spending time with each of the divisions so they understand the cultures inside and out is critically important,” he said.

He said he’s not a micromanager; he believes in goal setting.

“I believe in hiring people who have an expertise that I don’t, so they can build and manage their own destiny within those departments,” Hodas said. “I am simply an enabler and a roadblock remover.”