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Helicopter Parents Show Up in the Workplace

Anxious parents have shepherded their kids through high school, college and a pandemic. Now, they’re entering the workplace.
Anxious parents have shepherded their kids through high school, college and a pandemic. Now, they’re entering the workplace.

Summary

  • Anxious parents are filling out job applications, appearing at interviews and mediating work conflicts; ‘my mom doesn’t think it’s a good idea’

Robi Williams was headed into a Dollar Tree in Loganville, Ga., recently when she saw an angry woman on her phone entering first.

“She was walking like she was on a mission," recalls Williams, 22 years old. Turns out, the woman was: A customer had been giving her daughter, a cashier, a hard time, and the mother had showed up to give the customer a piece of her mind.

Anxious parents have shepherded their kids through high school, college and a pandemic. Now, they’re entering the workplace. Recruiters and hiring managers say they are seeing an uptick in parents inserting themselves into their children’s’ professional lives, calling up hiring managers, applying for jobs on their behalf and even showing up on the job to help mediate conflicts.

During the pandemic, while Williams was working at accessories store Claire’s, a mother came in to apply for a job for her daughter. Such interventions, Williams says, aren’t particularly helpful—her manager, unimpressed, never called the girl for an interview—but she says parents sometimes do have a role to play.

At one point, when Williams was a teenager working a retail job, she called her own mother in to help defuse a situation when a customer grew irate after Williams had accidentally knocked his phone off a pile of clothes, breaking its screen.

“Especially if you’re a teenager, you need an advocate, and your parent is going to be your best advocate," says Williams of the incident. “I was really grateful to her."

Human-resource professionals say they tend to take a dim view of parental pop-ups on jobs sites, and that too much intervention risks making their children seem unmotivated, or excessively dependent on help from others.

“Parents are really interested in their kids applying," says Kate Gebo, executive vice president of human resources and labor relations for United Airlines, who recently has seen parents sending her their children’s résumés. “I need the kid interested."

At Smugglers’ Notch Resort in Jeffersonville, Vt., parents haven’t only applied for summer jobs on behalf of their children, they frequently try and sit in on their interviews, too, says human-resources coordinator Sam McDowell.

“They generally come in the door first, and their children come behind," McDowell says. “Sometimes it’s a little bit confusing about who’s actually there to interview."

Hiring managers at the resort occasionally allow parents to stay, but most don’t allow them to do so, he says.

Some parents go further still. The mother of a teenage lifeguard at the resort recently confronted McDowell to argue that her son deserved a bigger raise.

Since Covid, the phenomenon of parents applying on behalf of their children and shepherding them through the workplace has accelerated, several hiring managers say.

During the pandemic, many young people didn’t have the same chances to learn how to interact with the outside world, which might account for the extra hand-holding, says Harley Johnson, who runs children’s and youth programming at Smugglers’ Notch. “It was like life paused," she says.

Johnson’s 15-year-old daughter works for the resort as a counselor, though Johnson says she didn’t push her to do so and that she isn’t her daughter’s boss. Still, Johnson says she delights in getting to see her child hold impromptu dance parties with campers and play with them in the pool.

“I can spy on her during the day or see her in action, though I try to give her distance, obviously," she says.

Helicopter parenting has been around for decades, but especially given the ubiquity of remote work, when children enter the workforce, their parents are increasingly lurking—often literally—in the background, says Shawna Lake, a recruiter and career coach in Zionsville, Ind. The pandemic pushed many young people to move to their parents’ homes, she notes, and many have stayed there. More than half of U.S. adults ages 18 to 24 lived in a parent’s home in 2022, according to census data.

Lake says she has been hearing from more job candidates who have cited their parents’ influence in determining what salary or benefits to push for, or whether to accept a job in the first place. “They’ll call and say, my mom doesn’t think it’s a good idea," she says.

In Zoom interviews with prospective candidates, she sometimes sees parents moving around in the back of the room. “You’ll sometimes even hear them talk, whispering, ‘say this,’ or ‘ask about that,’ " she says of questions about perks and whether a job can be done remotely.

While it’s reasonable for companies to raise eyebrows at parental involvement, they also have sent mixed messages, in some cases hosting events like Take Your Parents to Work Day, says Lindsey Pollak, an author who studies generational differences at work. “A Gen Zer could say, why is this so shocking? You say you should bring your whole self to work," she says. “I’m living in a multigenerational home. My parents should support my career."

When he was an undergraduate, Malik Williams, 25, says he appreciated it when his mother helped him apply for internships. At the time, he had applied for hundreds and felt like giving up, he says. None of his mother’s outreach yielded fruit, but he was grateful for the encouragement.

“It was the thought that counted," says Williams, who is based in Raleigh, N.C., and currently works for an IT corporation, a role he landed on his own.

Kylie Bayer, who works in human resources for a water utility in Beaverton, Ore., says her organization has gotten calls from parents asking about employment for their children. She says she empathizes with the instinct to help one’s offspring, but that parents are stunting their children’s’ self-reliance.

“Let them deal with it on their own," she says. “They’re going to have to do it all their life."

Too much interference can backfire in other ways, too. In Seattle, Wash., Houston Wade, 42, recalls working at a restaurant where a co-worker’s parent called the manager, asking to reschedule her son’s shifts so he could watch Sunday football games. Word got around, and the employee became a laughingstock. His schedule stayed the same.

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