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‘Helicopter parents’ of young employees soaring into the workplace

Not so many decades ago, a vocal segment of the youngest members of the adult population warned their peers to never trust anyone over 30. They were eager to leave the nest and make the world their own. But today, not so much — at least among a noticeable group.

Human resources professionals are noting a change in the youngest and brightest they’re bringing into the workforce. They’re seeing young adults much more tolerant — even encouraging — of parental involvement. And in many cases, they’re meeting those parents personally.

“Helicopter parents,” those who hover over their offspring in school, sports, and all kinds of adolescent activities have graduated to the workplace. The anecdotes are getting more frequent. HR professionals swap stories of parents submitting resumes on behalf of their children, sometimes without the children’s knowledge. Others relate stories of parents sitting in on interviews, trying to negotiate salaries, and even intervening in disputes with their kids’ coworkers.

Is the phenomenon limited to a few stories of over-involved parents, or is it a sign of a new normal in a young person’s transition to adulthood? The answer may not be clear, but employers are facing the question head-on.

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Cutting the umbilical cord
JoAnn Corley, an employee training and development specialist, author, and coach, says she sees the subject of helicopter parents in the workplace come up in seminars where she speaks. A parent coaching a child is one thing, she says, but it can go too far. “When do you cut the umbilical cord? That’s what I want to know.”

Corley sees the transition to adulthood being extended a few years as parents stay active in their children’s college life and on into the workforce. She says young adults need to be allowed to navigate for themselves as they enter the world of work. Sometimes young adults are “not allowed to develop professional muscles because the parents are doing it for them.”

HR has a role to play, Corley says. She believes there comes a point when HR needs to instruct parents on the value of creating a professional boundary. “If there’s not a cutting of the umbilical cord, all of a sudden that person becomes a very dependent, entitled employee, not empowered,” she says. “We want our kids to be empowered professionals. Where does that start?”

Corley says employers struggling to navigate in a challenging economic marketplace need tough go-getters who are motivated and resilient. She asks, do employers want employees “who can take a hit and bounce back or take a hit and whine and complain?”

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On the front line
Megan Huffnagle saw the issue firsthand when she was the human resources manager for a theme park in Denver, a job that gave her a lot of experience with a young workforce. In that job, she dealt with the mother of a 20-year-old who called to negotiate her son’s salary. She also saw parents regularly attend disciplinary meetings and call to complain about their son’s or daughter’s coworkers. One father even called about a paycheck issue for his 33-year-old daughter.

Huffnagle also saw parents come to interviews with applicants. “When one such applicant was called back, his mother cornered the interviewer and promptly gave him a list of reasons why he should hire her son,” she says.

Huffnagle says it didn’t surprise her when parents got involved, particularly when they came to disciplinary meetings. Many employees at the theme park were young and experiencing their first jobs, and she says as an employer, she felt a responsibility to teach them work and life skills such as “coming to work on time, proper grooming standards, how to work in a team environment, how to follow direction, how to respond to coaching.” But she said it’s equally important to show young employees “the same amount of professionalism and respect we do for any adult or seasoned employee.”

“I know parents were taken aback when HR would look at the child directly and ask the employee if it was all right that the parent attend the meeting,” Huffnagle says. We did this for disciplinary meetings for those under the age of 18 years old.”

It’s not just HR that has to deal with employees’ parents. Huffnagle says she had a mother who called weekly to negotiate her son’s schedule with the department manager. She said she believes it was a learning experience for the managers, who also were often young, in their 20s or 30s, since they had to learn “to stand their ground and to clearly outline their communication expectations with the employees.”

Hovering: good or bad?
HR professionals can trade stories of parents that most would agree have stepped over the line, but parental involvement can be a positive. Some companies even reach out to parents, inviting them to job fairs and sending them information packets with the hope that such actions will give them an edge in the recruitment process. After all, young job candidates are likely to seek their parents’ advice.

Professors from West Virginia University tackled the subject of parental involvement in job searches in a 2010 paper. They acknowledged it can make sense to involve parents, but employers also have concerns about employees who are accustomed to so much parental support.

“With the hypercompetitive customer-oriented markets in which most companies find themselves today,” the researchers wrote, “they need to hire employees who can think on their feet and make sound decisions quickly, effectively, and often independent of direct supervisors. The fear is that the constant doting and intervention by parents throughout their childhood may leave the millennial without the ability to cope in such an environment.”

But the researchers also found “a few employers who accept the philosophy that they want the best and the brightest and are going to actively recruit millennials and their parents simultaneously.” Such employers reason that those young people “have had strong support from their families as they grew up and are therefore well adjusted, have attended the best schools, and thus are the best job candidates.”