Meet Your New Co-Worker, the Boss’s Kid

Office morale often slumps, at least temporarily, when a principal’s progeny walks through the door
Office morale often slumps, at least temporarily, when a principal’s progeny walks through the door


  • When executives’ adult children join the team, the office can get awkward

New college graduates and student interns are out to make a name for themselves this summer. Some are arriving with names that colleagues already know. They’re the adult children of top executives.

Cue the groans from co-workers.

“I can’t ever remember someone being excited that the boss’s kid was coming to work," says Sarah Lopez, a recruiter in Cincinnati who has worked in human resources for companies in software, construction and other industries.

Lopez has observed that office morale often slumps, at least temporarily, when a principal’s progeny walks through the door. Flimsy résumés draw the biggest eye rolls, she says. Several people who’ve worked with managers’ adult children told me that even if Junior is qualified, they can’t help wondering how many other strong candidates never got full consideration. They also fear that their promotion opportunities are diminished. Scions might start at the bottom, but aren’t they being groomed for leadership from the start?

Those who’ve joined their parents at work say they know people talk (and judge), so they have to work extra hard to prove their own merits. Sure, there are perks to being the boss’s kid, but it’s hard to escape asterisks on their achievements.

CEO parents who have hired their children say the key is making them work their way up and assigning them to supervisors who are willing to give unvarnished feedback. Undeniably good performance is the only way to quiet critics, they add.

The scrutiny is particularly intense this year as the term “nepo baby" has permeated the popular lexicon. It started as a TikTok meme aimed at perceived nepotism that benefits Hollywood stars’ children. Now the phrase is sometimes slapped on anyone in entertainment, sports or business.

Research by Harvard University economist Matthew Staiger indicates that 29% of Americans work for a company that employs one of their parents early in their careers. He estimates that people who take a job with Mom or Dad earn 19% more than they otherwise would.

“Kids from high-income families are disproportionately benefiting," he says. “This is something that I think most people would say is unfair."

Staiger adds, however, that he found blue-collar workers generally enjoy the greatest income gains from familial connections. Someone without a degree or skilled trade might jump from a minimum-wage, fast-food job to a higher-paying, entry-level position at Pop’s general-contracting firm, for instance.

Paying their dues

Some parents open doors, then make things especially difficult for their children. Oscar Munoz, who was chief executive of United Airlines from 2015 to 2020, says he facilitated a management-training internship for his teenage son one summer—and also assigned him to work with an airport runway crew.

“I told them, ‘When animals get run over on the tarmac and somebody’s got to pick them up, I want him doing that and worse,’" Munoz says.

He tells me he was tough because he recalls feeling disadvantaged many years earlier when he worked with an executive’s son at another company. He’d rather his own son smell like a raccoon carcass than carry a whiff of entitlement.

Complacency can creep in when you think you’ve got it made because of your DNA, says Jay Zagorsky, who expected to become the fourth-generation leader of his family’s Massachusetts mattress factory. He sweated on the floor to earn the rank-and-file’s respect during summer stints but didn’t treat school like someone who would have to compete to advance through the ranks.

“I never studied in high school or college because I knew I was going to run the business," he says. “There was no pressure on me to get A’s."

Then the factory went out of business before Zagorsky got his chance. He went back to school, tried harder this time, and ultimately earned a doctorate and became an associate professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

Dealing with doubt

Zagorsky introduced me to a BU colleague, Patrick Abouchalache, who teaches a course aimed at students who hope to take over family companies. Most are humble and hardworking, Abouchalache says. They generally view being the heir as a weighty responsibility.

About 10% graduate straight into the family business. He says most want the experience of building a career on their own and understand that they’ll have more credibility if they join a parent’s company later, with a track record.

Amy Binder interned at her father’s communications firm after college and excelled, according to her former supervisor. (Yes, I checked.) Still, the perceived advantages of being the boss’s daughter contributed to her decisions to pursue an M.B.A. and eventually launch her own company, RF Binder.

“It was a very different feeling because it was all mine," she says. “Whatever questions I had about my abilities while I was working in my father’s business, I didn’t have anymore."

Binder was empathetic, though a little disappointed, when her daughter Rebecca Binder initially rebuffed offers to come aboard. After several years in consulting, the younger Binder relented five years ago and was named president of the firm last summer.

Amy Binder says her daughter started out reporting to another executive, not Mom, and had to prove she could transition to a different industry; her promotion to the helm wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Binder adds it’s been satisfying to watch her daughter win over the team. She also knows firsthand that a measure of skepticism is inevitable.

That’s life as a nepo baby: Someone at the top sees your potential while some others see your privilege.

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