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  • My Best Parenting Advice as Applied to Human Resources

    Employers Group | 10/09/2019 | News

    By Jo Ellen Whitney

    I’ve been to a lot of baby showers lately where it seems like the parents-to-be are showered with as much advice as they are gifts. I’ve seen this as a parent myself—people like to give parenting advice. Strangers offer advice as they evaluate the contents of your shopping cart at the grocery store, at Super Target as they question your toy choices, and pretty much whenever your kids have missed nap time or are having a bad day.

    HR is in a similar situation: Advice cascades from people about how to manage employees, how to address problems, and how to apply the latest and greatest new theory to management. Trends and issues in HR and parenting come and go, and they seem to intersect.

    Always Contain the Damage

    One thing that frequently happens with new parents is the baby gets sick and starts to throw up. The minute you’re holding a vomiting baby, you run to the bathroom, but all that does is spread the mess everywhere. You can always yell for someone to bring you a bucket or towel or take one step so you’re standing on the tile floor, but don’t spread the mess everywhere you go.

    The same is true of HR. How many times have we decided to move a problem rather than resolve it because moving it just seems easier? Remember that a short-term gain typically results in long-term issues. It’s certainly possible performance relates to poor management, or maybe there’s a mismatch in skill sets and a move would help, but you want to avoid simply moving a problem because you’ll have to deal with it later.

    Don’t Threaten Things You Aren’t Going to Do

    In line at Super Target the other day, I heard a mother say to her children, “If you don’t stop that, we simply won’t go to the lake.” Everyone in the line knew they were going to the lake. The kids could have set fire to the shopping cart, and they probably still would be going to the lake. I knew it, the checkout person knew it, the people behind me knew it, and the kids knew it. Which means it had no effect.

    Do that long enough, particularly in an employment situation, and a couple of things will happen. One, your employees believe they can continue to behave inappropriately or fail to meet performance expectations with little to no consequences. Two, employees who have complained or have raised concerns about performance or perhaps discrimination begin to believe HR “does nothing,” which affects your effectiveness and ability to manage in the future.

    How many times has a final performance warning turned into a second, third, fourth, or fifth final warning before an employment action is taken? You need to assess your corporate culture very carefully and not threaten things you won’t follow through with. If you tell people you’re going to terminate their employment for certain behaviors, you should be willing to terminate their employment for certain behaviors. Failing to do so creates not only the risk already discussed but also the risk of future liability in the event you have a discrimination or some other type of claim.

    Your Kid (or Company) Is Yours, Not Somebody Else’s

    Everybody’s got advice, much of which is really good, but it might not apply to your kid/company. You know your company, your culture, your behaviors, your expectations, your staffing patterns, so it’s important not only to listen to good advice but also to pick and choose advice that may be applicable to your circumstances and corporate culture.

    Sometimes you need someone to help you step out of the role when you’ve gotten bogged down in the emotions of a bad employee or situation, just like parents need a little adult conversation. So it’s important to have places where you can fact-check or gut-check and obtain that advice, always remembering that you ultimately need to weigh the specific circumstances.


    Jo Ellen Whitney, an attorney with the Davis Brown Law Firm in Des Moines, Iowa—and an editor of Iowa Employment Law Letter