Helicopter Parents

by Bev Sinclair, Human Resource Services Consultant, MBA, SPHR-CA

Bulletin,  Performance Management

I hired a 26-year-old administrative assistant who performed poorly and either showed up late for work or didn’t bother to show up at all. I coached said employee, gave her more than one written warning, and coached her some more, all the while rooting for her to succeed. Administrative assistant, however, was her own worst enemy, and she continued down the path of self-destruction, which eventually ended in her termination. Two days went by, and then it happened–Administrative Assistant’s mother called to let me know how terrible I was and demanded that I rehire her ADULT child! I had never heard of such a thing, and I was floored!

Unfortunately, more and more parents are inserting themselves into every aspect of their adult children’s careers, including scheduling interviews, participating in interviews, negotiating salaries, opposing poor performance reviews, and challenging terminations.

Why is this happening? According to Lindsey Pollak, author of Getting from College to Career, “helicopter parents” are generally parents of Millennials and are typically, although not always, from the middle to upper-middle classes. When Millennials were coming of age in the 2000s, parenting standards changed, and parents developed closer relationships with their children, involving themselves in every aspect of their children’s lives, including their careers. The Great Recession (2007-2009) intensified this phenomenon.

Should employers welcome parental involvement? Are there any benefits to this trend? Maybe. A few organizations have embraced parents and their presence in the workplace. LinkedIn began sponsoring Bring in Your Parents Day in 2013, and Amazon has hosted Bring Your Parents to Work Day since 2016. PepsiCo’s former CEO, Indra Nooyi, was known for contacting job candidates’ parents and enlisting their help in getting their children to accept her job offers! She also famously wrote notes to her direct reports’ parents to thank them for the “gift” of their children. Companies that cater to parents say they do it because it increases the feeling of community, which leads to measurable increases in productivity.

Don’t jump on the bandwagon just yet–there are issues you should consider. Employees have a right to expect confidentiality and privacy from their employer. Parents are NOT employees, and neither HR nor managers have an obligation to discuss an adult employee with a parent, unless a law requires it. This will be rare and will usually involve a dire situation. HR professionals and managers who do elect to speak with a parent risk being confronted by a furious employee, possibly threatening legal action.

There are some situations in which speaking to a parent about your employee is OK. It’s fine to speak with an employee’s parent(s) during a work function or other social situation; just keep the conversation general. And emergency situations may dictate that you speak with one or both parents of an employee. (Employers Council can help you assess your obligations in these situations.) Of course, if an adult child gives you permission to speak with a parent or other family member, then go ahead, but limit the discussion to just the information the employee has given you permission to discuss.

How should employers handle parents who attempt to become involved in their children’s careers? This is really up to management, but again, employers are generally not required to speak with family members about their employees. If you ever find yourself in a situation similar to the one described at the beginning of this article, you can simply say it is not company policy to discuss such matters with anyone but the employee, and you can convey the same message to your employees. You can also turn down a parent’s request to sit in on a performance review, salary negotiation, or any other employment-related matter, because when it gets right down to it, they aren’t your employee!

About the author
Bev Sinclair, Human Resource Services Consultant, MBA, SPHR-CA