How to put people first: A guide for HR leaders

Put people first guide HR leaders
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Plenty of companies say this, but it’s just a catchy phrase for an unfortunately large number.

If you say you’re “people first” without living and breathing the values that accompany it, your employees will notice and won’t stay long after that.

Putting people first is about improving your company culture and having leadership that thinks about the people driving your company forward.

Clarifying these values and embedding them into your company truly makes you a people-centric company – a place where people want to work.

This article discusses what putting people first truly means, its benefits, and the actionable strategies to actually put people first.

What does it mean to “put people first?”

Putting people first is a business philosophy focused on prioritizing employees by considering their needs and creating a positive work environment.

It began showing up in a business sense in the early 2000s, although its exact origin is unknown. Perhaps the most well-known and earliest proponent of “people first leadership” could be Karl Marx, though that could be taking the concept too literally.

Regardless of your opinion on the modes of production, there’s real value in putting the well-being of your workers before the company’s bottom line.

In recent years, putting people first has been catching on like never before. This is due to events like The Great Resignation creating a laborer’s market with more job openings than applicants.

One study at the beginning of 2022 showed that job openings have risen by 22%, but job applications have dropped by 23%

The newest generation entering the workforce is another reason that more businesses are encouraged to develop a people-centric culture. Gen Z is becoming known as the generation that demands better treatment at work.

Whatever the reason, your people are precious resources that should be treated right to increase retention and job satisfaction. 

Plus, when you put people first, it makes your organization an attractive place to work. This catches the eye of top talent and increases your total number of job applicants.

Why should organizations adopt a people first culture? 

A people first approach isn’t just for the workers. This type of culture benefits employees and the company alike.

Here are the key advantages of a people first culture from both perspectives:

Employee benefits

Employer benefits

Lower stress; Better work-life balance; Feeling appreciated; Feeling human

Higher retention; Better performance; Higher employee engagement; More attractive company

These benefits aren’t surprising when you consider the data surrounding a negative work environment.

A 2022 study by MIT Sloan Review found that the biggest driver of turnover is a toxic corporate culture. This factor ranked 10.4 times higher than compensation issues.

Top predictors attrition

A toxic work environment is unhealthy for your employees, and if they don’t quit, they could grow bitter and possibly even develop workplace trauma.

Many leaders who take a people first approach say it is simply logical. Their workers are central to their business, so it makes sense that focusing on them makes a better company.

According to Forbes, many leaders understand that when employees feel cared for, they do their work with more motivation and engagement and feel a deeper connection to company values.

J. Willard Marriott, the founder of the Marriott Corporation, once said that if you take care of your people, your people will take care of your customers, and those customers will return.

Putting people first also attracts great new talent.

James Davies, the managing director at (the aptly named) Talent, advertises his company’s people first attitude as an incentive to join the team. He describes how they genuinely care about their people and how they’ve won Gallup’s Exceptional Workplace award four years in a row.

Tips to encourage company-wide people first culture

A company that cares is vitally important to the modern candidate, so if you want to flash on their radars, being a people first company is crucial.

How to put people first: 10 ways to become a people-centric company

When you truly put people first, your employees and business reap the benefits.

But what does that entail?

Let’s take a look at the best strategies to build a people first culture.

Ten ways become people-centric company




1. Start from the top and get your leaders to commit to being “more human”

Communicate with leaders about putting people first

2. Live these values at every level

Encourage these values in every corner of the organization

3. Ensure you have people-focused managers

Train managers in essential people first skills

4. Work on your employee experience

Improve the entire employee experience, from hiring and onboarding to professional growth

5. Build a great onboarding experience

Execute a thorough, helpful onboarding process

6. Offer a robust remuneration package with customized, inclusive benefits

Offer unique and desirable benefits that employees want and need

7. Measure and manage your people factors

Assess your people factors such as satisfaction and diversity through pulse surveys

8. Hold regular 1:1 meetings that focus on development and growth

Ensure 1:1 meetings aren’t just about hitting targets and that they discuss goals and aspirations

9. Hire and promote fairly

Foster fair hiring and promotion by reducing bias and internal mobility

10. Hire people that will shape your culture

Build a positive workforce by hiring positive people

1. Start from the top and get your leaders to commit to being “more human”

Leaders carry so much power to influence your company – that’s why they’re leaders.

This means they can sway company culture and promote a people first attitude more than anyone else.

Discussing a people-centric company with them will encourage them to commit to building an organization with a clear purpose and values.

People first leadership is linked to the concept of humble leadership,[1] which means leaders:

  • Treat employees like people and not a means to an end

  • Don’t solely focus on numbers and targets

  • Don’t obsess over costs

  • Recognize employee effort and encourage a culture of noticing more than failure

This means leaders are serving their employees and helping them grow and learn instead of acting above them or, even worse, being feared by them.

People first leadership is the foundation for building a strong, healthy company culture that instills loyalty in your employees. It’s also the first step to promoting these values company-wide, which leads to the next point.

2. Live these values at every level

Every part of the organization must live and breathe these values. You wouldn’t want one part of the company to treat its team members unethically when other departments put their people first.

Ensuring these practices are followed at every level is essential to truly having a people-centric business.

Here are a few tips to encourage a company-wide people first culture:

  • Be open and honest: Ensure transparent communication about what the company is doing and its actions. This shows that there’s nothing the company is ashamed of.

  • Hire the right leaders: Start at the top and choose ethical leaders ready to put people first.

  • Define your idea of “people first”: Clearly define what you mean by “people first” so there’s no question of what’s ethical and what isn’t.

  • Stay committed and have conviction in your values: Have courage in your conviction and enforce your ethics despite adversity.

  • Discuss a people first approach with the leadership team: Talk with your company’s leaders and show them the long-term benefits of a people first approach.

  • Weave people first practices into your company culture: Build a people-centric culture by encouraging a healthy work-life balance and inquiring about employee issues and interests.

There’s a reason why company culture is a top driver of job satisfaction. A positive company culture has far-reaching ramifications, influencing an organization passively and continuously.

3. Ensure you have people-focused managers 

A manager influences everyone in their team, so it’s imperative that they prioritize a people first approach.

Managers may have more of an impact on employee satisfaction and retention than you think. One study showed that 57% of employees have quit because of a bad manager. 

A further 32% have considered leaving due to the manager, and only 12% have never considered it.

This can be due to negative managerial behaviors, like micromanaging and encouraging work outside normal hours.

The best managerial skills for a people-centric company include managing employees as individuals, continuous coaching, and inclusive treatment.

As HR, how can you ensure managers have these crucial skills? Here are a few ideas:

  • Encourage people first goals for managers during 1:1 meetings

  • Arrange formal training sessions to boost skills

  • Build managerial skills into your managers’ development plans

  • Hire individuals who put people first with skills testing

When you use skills tests to assess your managers, you can ensure that they have the right business ethics or negotiation skills in the early stages of hiring.

You can also evaluate their personality with tests like the Big 5 test to look for agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Check out our blog post on how to be a good manager to read our entire guide on the subject.

4. Work on your employee experience

The employee experience refers to an employee’s entire journey in your company. It includes every interaction and every action involving their role, workspace, and leaders.

Too many companies focus on “the end justifies the means,” and a negative employee experience is just that. Improving your employee’s entire experience is directly tied to a people-centric company.

Improving the employee experience includes:

Improve employee experience
  • A smooth hiring process: A hiring process with clear communication that hires people for their true talent (instead of just filling a role) gets an employer-employee relationship started right

  • Excellent onboarding: Making a hire feel welcome, communicating responsibilities, and giving a clear introduction to software all make a solid onboarding process (more on this in the next point)

  • Having a great manager who knows how to coach: Having a manager that knows how to coach and develop employees shows workers that they’re valued

  • Aligning them with company culture: Understanding your company’s culture and values supports an employee’s entire experience

  • Access to learning and development: Increasingly more workers demand easy access to professional growth opportunities, and facilitating their access is worth your time

A robust hiring process cannot be overstated. It’s the first impression a candidate has of your organization, so getting it right is essential.

When you hire using methods that measure real capability, an employee can start confidently. Hiring a worker using pre-employment testing shows the employee and the company that they have the skills to get the job done before their first day at work.

5. Build a great onboarding experience

A great onboarding experience shows candidates and new joiners that you’re serious about treating them well.

It starts people off on the right foot.

Without proper onboarding, new hires won’t know their responsibilities or the right company formalities or terminology and might get lost in unfamiliar software. Nothing’s worse for new employees than feeling like they’re in the dark.

Here’s a simple example of a great onboarding process:

  1. Appoint a dedicated onboarding mentor

  2. Offer onboarding packages and send welcome messages over Slack

  3. Help set new hires up by offering I.T. sessions

  4. Appoint a culture mentor so new employees can direct any questions about culture and formality to them

  5. Clarify the new hire’s role and responsibilities

It’s also a good idea to make proper introductions to the team. Introduce the new hire and ensure they meet every relevant team member.

If they’re an in-office employee, you can facilitate introductions by having a group lunch.

However, thorough onboarding is important to everyone, even remote workers. 

Remote employee onboarding looks a little different, but it’s no less necessary and critical to engaging remote employees.

6. Offer a good remuneration package with customized, inclusive benefits

Relevant, useful benefits show your employees that you know that they’re real human beings with real needs.

Your workers do their jobs for compensation, so it isn’t surprising that fair pay is a step towards a more people-centric company.

Plus, providing your workers with a solid perks package differentiates a good job offer from a great one. The offer with unique, desirable benefits stands out from others with similar salaries.

Key advantages people first culture both perspectives

Here are a few of our favorite employee benefits:

  • Family planning and childcare

  • Financial planning assistance

  • Mental health support

  • Flexible working arrangements

  • Learning and development assistance

  • Work-life balance policies

Demands surrounding employee benefits have changed since the pandemic, and increasingly more jobseekers want these creative employee benefits. 

For some potential candidates, these benefits are a necessity to their lives, so excluding them from your perks package means excluding these candidates from your talent pool.

Read our article on non traditional employee benefits for our comprehensive guide on the topic.

7. Measure and manage your people factors

A lot can happen if you aren’t watching, and most toxic behavior is only an issue because it’s neglected until workers believe it’s acceptable.

To properly put people first, ensure people factors don’t go unmanaged. Measure factors like satisfaction, diversity, and inclusion to reinforce a positive environment.

We recommend using pulse surveys to gather this important information. 

You can send out different surveys for each metric containing questions to help you measure them better. For example, a job satisfaction survey might have questions like:

  • “Do you feel connected to your coworkers?”

  • “Do your managers value your feedback?”

  • “Do you feel recognized for your contributions?”

  • “Do you feel communication is effective and timely?”

  • “Do you find your work meaningful?”

  • “Does our organization offer good opportunities for career growth?”

This is clear feedback from the people themselves. What better way to put people first than to ask the people what they need?

With this information, you can build a strategy for managing areas of improvement. For instance, if too many employees answer that your company does not offer good growth opportunities, you can look into building a professional development program.

Additionally, if a survey shows a lack of diversity, you can begin a recruiting initiative to specifically hire for diversity, such as hiring more older employees or more LGBTQIA+ individuals. 

For more on this, read our blog post on why intentionally hiring for workplace diversity is not negotiable.

8. Regular 1:1 meetings that focus on development and growth

Too many underestimate the power of regular 1:1 meetings (think every one to two weeks). In reality, these meetings can benefit employees, managers, and the company alike if done right.

Frequent 1:1 meetings enable managers and employees to discuss meaningful topics – not just hit targets. Great 1:1s focus on development and growth, as well as struggles, family, and hobbies.

Good 1:1 meetings let workers know you care about them and recognize their humanity.

You can encourage these positive meetings in your company in a variety of ways:

  • Promote 1:1s from the top down: Leaders having 1:1 meetings with other leaders encourages the entire organization to have positive meetings

  • Offer training sessions for managers: Teach managers critical discussion topics, like employee aspirations and goals, as well as struggles and mental health

  • Build a positive culture: Nurture a culture where 1:1s are a positive experience and an opportunity to discuss growth and development

We believe that regular 1:1 meetings are a stellar opportunity to show your employees that they’re valued and are a critical component when you put people first.

If you’re interested in our whole guide on the subject, read our article on 1:1 meetings.

9. Hire and promote fairly 

How an employee moves through your company communicates whether or not you’re a people-centric company without putting it in words.

Unfair hiring and promoting come in two main varieties:

  1. Passing over loyal employees for roles or promotions and only hiring externally

  2. Hiring new employees based on connections, nepotism, or bias

It can be extremely demotivating when a long-term worker is continually passed over for promotions or new roles. It tells them that you don’t believe in their continued growth.

It isn’t surprising that companies that excel at internal mobility retain staff twice as long.

Unfair hiring processes also communicate values that don’t put people first. 

The ideal hiring practice for putting people first is skills-based hiring.

Hiring based on capability rather than experience and connections shows current and potential employees that your organization is fair and puts people first.

You can do this through skills testing. Applicants go through assessments to determine whether or not they possess the technical and soft skills to do the job right.

For example, an assessment for an accountant may look like this:

  1. Intermediate Math test

  2. Critical Thinking test

  3. Advanced Accounting test

  4. Accounting Terminology (US) test

  5. Attention To Detail test

These tests evaluate if the candidate has the right skills without the need for a CV or resume, opening the doors for far more potential candidates.

Skill tests not only reduce bias and encourage fair hiring in an external hiring process but also lets you facilitate internal mobility.

Check out our blog post on internal mobility for an in-depth guide.

10. Hire people that will shape your culture

If you recruit positive employees, they can help you transform your company into a people first organization.

Your culture naturally shifts and evolves the more you hire individuals that prioritize a people first approach. This move has far-reaching effects that continue to nurture a people-centric company for years down the road.

Skills testing facilitates this process, enabling you to assess if a candidate is right for your company through personality and culture tests.

TestGorilla’s Culture Add test enables you to set criteria for your company’s culture, then assess the candidate to see if they would be a healthy addition to your organizational culture.

Additionally, our personality tests evaluate a candidate’s lifestyle, worldview, and how they communicate and solve problems, among many other things.

Adding a positive employee to your company is like adding a starter to bread dough. The yeast spreads and grows, causing the entire loaf to rise from just a handful of starter.

Put people first and see a stronger workforce

Putting people first isn’t just words on a careers page. Your people first approach should be seen through your actions and company culture.

Truly putting people first increases retention and satisfaction and is one of the most powerful ways to attract top talent.

Candidates want to see that you prioritize people, not just numbers. And when you do, it positively impacts employees and the company alike.

For more reading on how to improve your workplace for your people, read our article on quiet quitting.

Try our Enneagram test in your next pre-employment tests to assess a potential hire’s core beliefs and worldview.


  1. Cable, Dan. (April 23, 2018). “How Humble Leadership Really Works”. HBR. Retrieved January 14, 2023.

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