First-Person Account: Getting On Board with Helicopter Parents

By Susan Jennings Lantz Dec 1, 2013

December Cover

I wasn’t always a human resource professional. After teaching high school and middle school in the early 1990s, I became an academic advisor for West Virginia University students who wanted to be teachers. I then moved to the university president’s office as the country’s only parent advocate. At the time, we had 26,000 students. At freshman orientation, the president gave parents cards with my telephone number and told them to call me anytime. I was busy.

After seven years of answering questions, soothing frayed nerves, encouraging empty nesters and visiting prospective students, I moved on to our college’s Career Services Center. Later, I helped establish an Office of Student Employment for the university’s human resources branch.

When I left the parent-advocate job, I naively thought that I had left parents behind. I was wrong. Instead of working with students and all their parents, it seemed I was working with students and a distinct subset of parents who really wanted their kids to get jobs. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I could get twice as many participants in a seminar about internships if I held it during family weekend. At new-student orientation, I ended up having more parents than students in my session on "How to Get a Job While You Are in College." It’s common to have students standing in our lobby on a cellphone assuring their parents that they are "in the office and will talk to the jobs people" as soon as they hang up. (Eye rolls on the students’ part.)

About two years ago at a job fair, I had to stand on a chair and insist that parents wait in the hall while their adult children interviewed with employers. I had to explain that we wanted students to make their best impressions with hiring managers and that having parents along didn’t always help. They all left—eventually.

At last year’s job fair, I reserved a room, put a sign on the door that read "Parents Lounge," and stocked it with doughnuts, coffee and other drinks. Before the end of the day, 60 family members of participants helped themselves to coffee and ate all the doughnuts.

Despite the overzealousness of these "helicopter parents," at times I can’t help but have affection for them. They want the best for their children, although they may not realize that their presence is off-putting to recruiters. They know that jobs are hard to come by in this economy and that student loans take decades to pay off. My career has been in higher education, where the "parent thing" has been going on for a long time, so I am used to this perspective.

What was new to me were the stunned expressions on my HR colleagues’ faces at that job fair last year. While I was accustomed to working with parents, it was evident that many seasoned human resource professionals are not.

Parents in HR Offices

After speaking to a few of my HR colleagues outside higher education, I learned that helicopter parents are popping up more often in HR offices. Chris Willis, director of human resources and information technology at Shaft Drillers International in Mount Morris, Pa., told me: "This is such a common occurrence among college new hires. When I managed the recruitment for Bayer’s intern program, I often felt I was recruiting the parents as much as I was recruiting the young professionals."

He attributes the parents’ interest and participation to the strong connection they have with their Millennial children: "The parental attachment and involvement in both educational and professional activities of the students seems to hold strong until graduation and sometimes beyond."

In 2007, Michigan State University researchers reported on a study of parental involvement in workplace recruiting. They found that 32 percent of the companies studied had witnessed some sort of parental involvement during recruiting. Though significantly more parents worked behind the scenes (obtaining information on a company, for example, or submitting a resume on behalf of a student) than tried to negotiate salary or benefits, clearly parents of this age group are not shy about helping their children comb through the recruiting information they receive.

For some recruiters, this is a definite problem and indicates students’ lack of competency or motivation. Several HR managers have told me that candidates who bring parents along for interviews are automatically rejected. After all, if you are hiring for jobs that require working independently or taking initiative, parental involvement doesn’t send a positive message.

Rose Chavez-Uncapher, a senior HR generalist at Monongalia Health System Inc. in Morgantown, W.Va., notes that she sees parental involvement more often with entry-level positions, because parents are still invested in their child’s education at that point. But she notes that the trend is less prevalent in health care, perhaps due to the practical experience required during students’ formal education. Clinical rotations, labs and internships require medical students "to function independently very early on. They have to demonstrate proficiencies," Chavez-Uncapher says.

What’s a Recruiter to Do?

Based on my experience with parents in the world of education, and the advice from my HR peers in other industries, here are some suggestions on how to cope with helicopter parents:

Understand the context. Many parents have been conditioned to think they are supposed to help their children get through life. In 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 19 percent of men ages 25 to 34 and 10 percent of women in that age group live in their parents’ homes. These statistics represent a rather significant increase from 2005 to 2011. The trend began before the recession and has continued. Parents showing up to job interviews with their adult children makes more sense when you realize that many of these young adults are still sharing housing, household chores, transportation and meals with their parents.

Recognize cultural norms. Many cultures around the world expect parents to weigh in on job selection. In more-provincial Eastern communities, a young person’s employer is still viewed as an extension of the family. Manjunath Dattatreya, a management consultant in Bangalore, India, and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Global Special Expertise Panel, notes that in India, "It was actually a norm during the preglobalization era. However, after the advent of Western companies, this habit is on the decline, though slightly. The fact is that in most Eastern cultures, people look at the employer as a patriarchal figure."

Establish boundaries. Just because parents show up and want to take part doesn’t mean they have to be allowed to do so. A colleague often ushers parents down the hall to have coffee while she interviews the candidate. She politely conveys to parent and child that her time is for the candidate, not the family member.

Researchers at the University of Georgia at Griffin recently studied parental involvement and children’s development as college students. Though the majority of parents were highly involved in their kids’ lives, most were "willing to work … within parameters when they are given to them," said Sheri King, assistant director of student affairs. You don’t have to be rude to parents. Offer them a drink and some reading material. Set the agenda, and most parents will follow your lead.

Explain why you set boundaries. If someone doesn’t seem to understand why you are being polite but firm, explain.

Last summer one insistent mother at a job fair thought it made sense to follow her son around. She had been asked to wait outside more than once. Finally, I pulled her aside and said, "Ma’am, I know why you want to be in here, but I am really concerned that if you attend the interview with your son, the hiring manager won’t be convinced that he is mature enough to handle the job. We really want him to make his best impression so that he has the most options available." Surprisingly, it hadn’t occurred to her that she was casting a negative light on her son’s abilities. Once she understood that, she was out of the room like a shot.

Thomas Burwell, senior human resources consultant at Westinghouse Electric Co., told me that once, while he was working at a previous company, a candidate brought a parent to the interview. He simply said, "This is a closed interview. We’d like to meet with the candidate. We didn’t offer all candidates the opportunity to bring their parents." He says the parent was gracious and left.

Make the best of it. Parents who are involved can be great advocates for your company. The Michigan State researchers pointed out that when you are trying to hire a candidate who has several job offers, being responsive to parents will give you a leg up. Parents often have their grown children’s ears—and they can be excellent mentors.

But not all college students want to take advice from parents. Richard Jordan, who has worked for nearly 27 years in HR and has global experience, says, "I’d love to be my son’s career coach, but I seem to be the last one he’d want."

Susan Jennings Lantz is assistant director of student employment at West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va.


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