Why Does So Much HR feel ‘Parent-Child’?

So much of the language we use in HR still feels too ‘parent-child’ to me. It shouts out ‘we make the rules and you’re going to follow them’.  ‘We will micro-manage you to within an inch of your life to ensure the work gets done’.

We need to treat people as adults in places of work, not children.

Take a moment to check out the language and approach you are currently using in your organisation.  What sort of messages are you sending through your communications?  In a lot of cases, the message HR sends is ‘we don’t trust you’ whether this is the intention or not.

Too often, the inference in our communication is ‘we don’t trust you enough as a grown adult to make reasoned and informed decisions for yourself’.

You may want to invite a fresh outside looking in perspective to see what I am getting at.  Often, we can become blinkered when we are working in one organisation.  Our focus becomes too narrow.  I have seen many examples of HR communications over the years which simply come across as patronising.  It annoys people.  The difficulty is when we send a message that says ‘we are going to treat you as children’ we ought not to be surprised when child-like behaviour results.  It frustrates people who just want to be treated as the adults they are.  Too often, the inference in our communication is ‘we don’t trust you enough as a grown adult to make reasoned and informed decisions for yourself’.  I have seen many times HR have a strong impulse to have to parent team members.  Often this comes from a good place, the desire to want to protect and care for people.

I recently had a conversation with a fellow HR professional who was explaining the challenges they were facing in their organisation.  They had a problem with increasing sickness absence, so HR started doing mandatory return to work interviews, rather than the manager.  ‘Why is HR doing this rather than the manager?’ I asked.  ‘We don’t trust managers to do them properly or fill in the return to work form’ was the response.  ‘Why are you employing managers you don’t trust’? was my next question.

It was a great conversation and I could almost see the proverbial ‘lightbulb’ moment with the realisation about what this absence of trust meant. It got me thinking about the plethora of HR policies and procedures which are motivation killers.  They infantilise the workplace.   We are weakening retention and damaging our brand and culture with such practices.

What would happen if HR started from the premise that we trust people as adults?

At our company, Apex HR we have decided to run some experiments to put this into practice. We recently introduced some new initiatives to support our team members based on a concept of ‘total trust’.

The first is a mindset which is ‘we don’t measure time, we measure impact’.  What we are saying is ‘look, you’re accountable for your time and what work you produce.  We are not going to measure this.  We trust you to use your time in the most effective way that works for you.  We realise we all have different natural energy rhythms, some of us are better in the morning, some may be in the afternoon. What we will measure is impact and outcomes for our customers and each other, it’s what we achieve with the time which is important’.

This change has meant no need for micro-managing, no need for ‘supervision’, no need for clock watching and monitoring.  We have seen productivity increase as people can adopt the working patterns which best suit them and allow them to juggle the other significant responsibilities in their life.

People are trusted to take the holiday they need.  Some years they may take more, some years less.

The second change is an ‘unlimited holiday’ policy.  What we are saying is that there is no set holiday entitlement every year.  People are trusted to take the holiday they need.  Some years they may take more, some years less.  I remember when I talked to a friend about my plans, the suggestion was met with surprise.  They said, ‘are you sure that’s a good idea, I mean, won’t people just abuse it and take 5 months holiday every year’?  The thing is here, people do not abuse it.  Not in our experience anyway.  They like and enjoy the freedom and flexibility and use this responsibly to meet the best needs of our customers.  If someone joined the team and start taking advantage of the freedom it would become obvious, and team members themselves would take responsibility for ensuring as a team it is worked in a fair way for everybody.  As a team, we all agreed that the only thing that would change our view was if it meant our clients were getting an inferior service resulting from these changes.  The team would never let that happen, in fact, the corollary is true, service levels and customer satisfaction has increased exponentially.  I believe this is down to happier more energised and focussed people, trusted to deliver, with the freedom and trust to make great things happen.

There have been other benefits flowing from these changes.  We have done away with internal holiday request processes, holiday entitlement records, it has saved significantly on our administration.  More importantly, it has conveyed a strong sense that when we say we trust people, we really mean it.  I would love nothing more than to see a team member take advantage of this flexibility to go travelling for an entire month in an amazing part of the world they have always dreamed of visiting.  So many HR policies on holiday restrict holidays to a maximum of two weeks.  This rules out so many opportunities in life that are waiting to be explored.

So, a challenge for HR colleagues is this.  Are the HR practices and policies we are delivering in our organisations trust builders or trust killers?  Are they treating people as adults whom we trust or are they stripping away trust and treating people more like children?

In the words of Dennis Bakke ‘If you treat people like adults they will act as adults, but if you treat them like children they will act like children’.


Kevin Miller
Kevin Miller
My 'Why' is to inspire a movement towards truly people-centred organizations. Organizations which see the person first and the employee second. A Coach, facilitator, and catalyst for positive change, I thrive on the challenge of making the world of work better and more humanized for people in organizations. I love networking and collaborating to share fresh ideas, insights and to learn. I have an in-depth knowledge and practical 'hands-on' experience of leading HR and Organizational Development projects. I am a visionary who rethinks what is possible when it comes to HR, leadership and the future of work, igniting positive change in others. Never forgetting the real reason behind my work, I love spending time with my wife Kelly and my children who are the centre of my world and the reason behind my 'Why'.

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  1. I like this, Kevin. I believe you are in the UK, so this may not be as applicable, but in the US, HR has grown up using the ever-expanding regulatory requirements to enact compliance and have allowed themselves as a basis for their credibility. Those in leadership positions were more than willing to abdicate their responsibilities and let HR do the dirty work. Even now, after 40 years in HR I still get queasy when I think of giving the leadership role back to leaders. That, however, is exactly the end goal I have for my clients.

    I feel the same way you feel about job descriptions and performance evaluations – why perpetuate a process that only makes work and doesn’t add value. Yet, too many industries are locked into this busy work because they are held accountable for compliance by some regulatory body. So their time and resources become a thorn in leaders’ sides, rather than an advisor in maximizing commitment and engagement.

    I am somewhat disheartened that we continue with more regulation, which then perpetuates more compliance mentality. I applaud your company’s work in treating both leaders and employees as adults. It is a difficult shift for many organizations to make but it can be done – it seems you and I have both seen it.