Helicopter Parents in the Workplace: It Happens and It Needs to Stop | Lindsey Pollak's Blog

Helicopter Parents in the Workplace: It Happens and It Needs to Stop

The concept of helicopter parents buzzing around the workplace, just like they hovered and swooped on the elementary school soccer field, sounds like a joke.

No doubt you’ve heard of this phenomenon parents sitting in on interviews or calling to re-negotiate a child’s compensation package. NBA recruit Lonzo Ball has recently received a ton of attention for his dad’s, um, involvement, in the draft process. Some of the stories are so egregious that you may wonder if these incidents are bizarre outliers, blown out of proportion by the media.

Let me assure you: They are not.

My clients tell me that parents calling to discuss their child’s needs, performance or compensation has become a common occurrence in HR departments. Let’s take a look at why it is happening, and more importantly, what we should do about it.

The Roots Of Helicopter Parents

First, I want to emphasize that helicopter parenting is usually (but not always) a middle class/upper-middle class phenomenon, and by no means applies to every member of the millennial generation. However, due to several different reasons, parenting norms in the 1980s and 1990s, when millennials were growing up, leaned toward closer involvement with one’s children. Parents became more involved with virtually every aspect of their children’s lives, from education to friendships to extracurriculars and more. More than half of millennials consider a parent to be their best friend.

As these parents’ kids grew, it’s easy to see how their parenting progressed from calling the kindergarten teacher or soccer coach, to emailing the high school teacher, and then contacting the college admissions office, and now corresponding with recruiters and employers.

When Is Parental Involvement Okay?

Some companies view parental interest as a boon and welcome employees’ parents as their “secret weapon,” inviting them to employee orientations or encouraging them to sign up for the company newsletter. Every November, LinkedIn hosts a “Bring In Your Parents Day,” a concept embraced by many other companies with younger workforces.

The reason organizations are catering to parents is to build loyalty from their youngest employees: Millennials and their parents are still tightly connected, and a parent’s opinion of an employer could sway a young employee to stay with that organization. Recent studies show that 1/3 of millennials still live with their parents, the top living arrangement among this age group. A parent who likes an employer can help a child retain a positive perspective through the daily ups and downs of work.

Land the Helicopter

Of course, behind-the-scenes support and attending social events is one thing; active outreach is another. Parents should not directly contact a child’s employer. It is uncomfortable for the employer and often works against the employee rather than helping him or her. Here’s what to do if this situation does, however, occur…

If you’re a manager

The good news is that most parent calls will likely go directly to HR the equivalent of a parent calling the principal rather than a teacher.

But there will occasionally be times a parent will reach out. And while a mom or dad’s call might annoy you, don’t automatically let it diminish your respect for an employee. In fact, don’t always assume the son or daughter knows. It’s quite possible they would be horrified to find out. Instead, politely but firmly inform the parent that you’re not at liberty to discuss your employee’s salary, review, etc.

It might even help keep you out of hot water, says Jaime Klein, founder and president of Inspire Human Resources. While sharing with a parent is not in violation of a specific law, it is unprofessional and definitely goes against an employee’s expectation of privacy, she says.

“What the parent is contacting the employer about — whether it’s benefits, performance or salary — is likely confidential, and without knowing if the employee has authorized the call or the sharing of information, it’s in the best interest of employers to say nothing,” she says.

On the other hand, it’s perfectly fine to let parents know that you’re interested in them as part of your employee’s “work/life integration.” So perhaps create a FAQ that describes your company or department or invite them to a company picnic. As discussed above, recruiting them as allies can be a powerful asset to your retention efforts.

If you’re a millennial

Even if your parents used to intercede with a teacher when you got a poor grade or argued with a coach for more playing time, having them try to finesse a less-than-stellar performance review will backfire on you and make you appear immature.

In my book Getting from College to Career, I mentioned that while it’s fantastic to have your parents as career advocates, it’s critical that they be in the background rather than interfacing with your clients, boss or HR. If you want advice from your mom on how to handle a client visit, definitely call her and role play some Q&A, but don’t do it on speakerphone during a ride-along with your boss, as one manager told me a millennial employee recently did.

If you’re a parent

Just. Don’t. Call. Cheer all you want, but please, stay on the sidelines rather than running onto the field. A call to an employer will likely do more harm than good. It’s time to land the helicopter.

Have you had to deal with helicopter parents in a work situation? Please share your experience in the comments or on Twitter.

Lindsey Pollak is the leading expert on millennials and the multigenerational workplace, trusted by global companies, universities and the world’s top media outlets. A New York Times bestselling author and keynote speaker, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her presentations have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.

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  1. Joe Kosinski says:

    Great post Lindsey! In the 25+ years that I recruited, it happened twice. The first time was “parental interference”. We had interviewed a woman, and her mom called to advocate for her daughter to be hired.

    A better story came when a candidate cancelled a second round interview. The candidate was to miss the recruiting season. Her mom called me to explain that her daughter had contracted a severe infection. She was near death, but was recovering. I confirmed with faculty at her school. We did the interview four months later after she had returned to school. She made up the lost time, and we hired her. She has been a high performer for the company ever since.

  2. Amy Smolenski says:

    I once had the father of a young male employee, terminated for sexual harassment, show up with his son in tow. He relayed to me how his son didn’t know any better but was sorry and learned from his mistake. He asked to give his son a second chance while the former employee looked sheepishly at the ground and shuffled his feet. He wasn’t so shy when he was sending pornography to the female staff.

    I also received a phone call from an angry parent screaming at me for hiring her daughter. The applicant had been given a conditional offer pending successful completion of a physical and criminal background check. The physical determined she was unable to complete the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. She had a visible limp due to a childhood medical problem and the doctor determined her unable to maintain the balance required to complete the physical requirements of the job without injury to herself or others. I of course had noticed the limp but when asking if she was able to perform the essential functions with or without accommodation listed on the job description, she told me she could. The mother was angry I had not just refused to hire her based on my observation of her physical challenge. I was able to transfer her to another job opening which did not have the same physical requirements and she was a top notch employee for several years.

  3. Rosemary says:

    What happens in the case of a 16 year old teenager who is considered a minor applying for a summer job and the parent is asked to sign the employment contract along with the child. Is it reasonable for a parent to ask a question to the hiring manager regarding the employment contract that the parent is being asked to sign? The parent has not intervened during any of the application or interview process. 32 hours of mandatory trainings are listed in the employment contract that were not disclosed during the 5 month long application and interview process and there is unclear language in the contract as to whether these trainings are considered work hours and if the child will be docked pay if unable to attend for any reason. And it is not stated how much pay will be lost if these trainings which are happening during the school year can not be attended do to school related conflicts.

    • @Rosemary, I would encourage you to reach out to an attorney with your questions. Good luck! – Lindsey

  4. Maria Anna says:

    I want to know if it is acceptable for Me, as a small business owner, to call and verify the reason a 17 year old misses her work shift or a paid staff meeting. The employee missed it due to babysitting a younger sibling but is it okay to call the parent to verify this excuse as valid. More and more young employees make up stories when they dont feel like showing up to work, One 18 year old said she was attending funeral services for a family member but when the funeral web site was brought up, it was listed the person was already buried so missing work for that reason was a lie. So back to my isssue where The parent of the 17 year old called furious the next day saying he did not raise his daughter to be a liar and how dare I tell her that her mother may be called to verify the babysitting excuse. I expalined to the parent that she did not seem incredible but any excuse of absence she needs to know can be followed up on for validity. Is there anything wrong with advising a 17 year old or an 18 year old that excuses need to be valid and verifiable?

    • Steve Comeau says:

      Hi Maria,

      I’m not an HR expert, though I have been a manager of people in the past. To be clear, I work in the corporate world with salaried employees. I don’t know what it’s like to be a small business owner dealing with hourly-paid employees. And, I don’t know what kind of recruiting challenges you may be facing, e.g. limited pool of candidates. That said, here are some ideas for your consideration.

      Rather than focus on the legitimacy of excuses, I think it’s better to have absence policies that clearly set expectations and limit the potential for abuse – e.g. how much notice is required/expected, how many absences will be allowed in a given timeframe (per month/year), etc. If an employee has too many last-minute absences maybe it’s better to part ways and find another employee. What difference does it make if the excuse is legitimate?

      Finally, think about any positive incentives (and I don’t necessarily mean money) you can offer for good attendance. I know these employees are young, but if you can find ways to make them feel emotionally connected your business and it’s success they might feel more inclined to respect the need for good attendance.

      Good luck.

  5. Anna says:

    Great article! I own a small business and I had a parent that would harass and argue with me over her daughter’s hours and pay. Although her daughter had great potential, I had to let her go. The mom’s behavior was not worth the hassle. Parents, please allow your child to make adult decisions on their own. Learning how to navigate work relationships will only help them in the long run. Always be there to give advice, but don’t intervene.

  6. Tina says:

    I just had a mother of an employee who is 20 years old call about a final paycheck. When the young man was hired, he did not tell me this was only for the summer before attending college. I would still have hired him but in a much different role. The mother called to tell me that she was having trouble depositing his final paycheck and would we cut him another one. This is four weeks after he left the company. I certainly do not feel comfortable speaking with her in regards to his check and will ask her to have him call me. She has also called out for him before and I thought it was strange at the time. Reading the above at least lets me know that I’m not alone in feeling weird about this.