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Have helicopter parents changed how companies attract employees?

On Take Your Child to Work Day, you’d be hard pressed to find an employer who bothers to explain concepts like “software service compliance” or “experience-driven” work culture to your 7-year-old. But it’s a different story on Take Your Parents to Work Day.

Once a year, Cornerstone OnDemand, a tech company based in Santa Monica, California, hosts an event where they pull back the curtain for parents of adult employees who are interested in learning more about their children’s jobs. Cornerstone is one of several companies—including Google, LinkedIn, and Amazon—that have started hosting these events in recent years in an effort to better attract and retain millennial hires. Why? Many young professionals seem to value a different kind of close relationship with their parents than previous generations. And that’s a trend that goes back decades, but also has roots in socioeconomics.

About 20 years ago, Phyllis Hartman was working as the director of human resources at a plastics factory outside of Pittsburgh that produced household goods and pet products. Hartman said it was generally a nice place to work.

It was still a surprise, however, when several job candidates showed up to interviews with their parents.

“More than once in the five years I was there, I had parents that would show up for the interview with the young person,” said Hartman. Surprised, she recalled telling them, “if your young person can’t survive an interview with me, they’re not going to be really successful out there in the plant.”

About three years ago, recruiter Brian Hart received a call from the mother of a job applicant who had applied for a job through his agency in Austin, Texas. “The mom reached out and said, ‘I’m wanting to find out why this person wasn’t selected,’” Hart said. When he told the woman he wouldn’t be able to share information with her, he said she became argumentative.

Hart said that since then, he’s also received calls from parents looking to set up interviews for their children, and witnessed them physically bring their kids into the lobby of the agency looking for their first jobs. He believes this kind of “coddling” is detrimental to the candidates who come to his staffing agency: “Not allowing them to experience failure on their own; that’s huge,” he said.

“I hear about parents applying on behalf of their kids, either covertly or openly, filling out an application,” said Alison Green, who runs the blog Ask a Manager and regularly receives messages from perplexed hiring managers that receive such requests from parents. “They will even email an employer directly, which is crazy.”

How ‘helicopter parents’ evolved

The term “helicopter parenting” first entered the American lexicon in 1990 to describe parents who had become overbearing in their kids’ lives. In the words of child development researchers Foster W. Cline and Jim Fay, these parents were compelled to “hover over and rescue their children whenever trouble arises.”

The dean of freshmen and transfer students at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims, noticed that hovering parents were hindering their kids’ success through this type of behavior as far back as 2005. In an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune published that year, she blamed the baby boomer generation for fostering an attitude of “protectionism” that “depriv[ed] the children they love so much of learning to do for themselves.”

“This generation does not know how to make their way forward without an adult handling them,” said Lythcott-Haims of millennials. She was so troubled by what she saw at Stanford that she wrote a book addressing the issue, called “How to Raise an Adult,” which delves into the issues created by raising a generation that she argues never had the chance to psychologically separate from their parents.

As millennials went to college and entered the workplace, the term “helicopter parents” evolved. By 2013, “snowplow parents” was being used to describe those who went a step beyond helicopter, working to “preemptively eliminate any obstacles from their child’s path,” in the words of Carolyn O’Laughlin, then director of residence life at Sarah Lawrence College. And it was the “snowplow parents” who found ways to make their way into their kids’ offices well before companies started launching initiatives to involve parents in the workplace.

There’s little evidence that such intensive parenting improves their children’s shot at getting hired. Thirty-five percent of senior managers said in a 2016 study that they became annoyed when parents got involved in their children’s search for work. “They’re making their kid look like they’re not self-sufficient,” said Alison Green, who added that such behavior could undermine the applicant, and lessen their chances at the job.

Not all parents see it this way. One NewsHour viewer, Jan Balcom, responded to a callout on this subject, saying that “different kids need different kinds & degrees of support/direction to succeed at finding, getting, and even keeping employment that fits their needs, interests, and abilities.” Balcom noted that while her daughter pursued her career independently, her son “lacked the self-direction and initiation” to do so. She said her son found a career that’s kept him employed for eight years “with a great deal of parental involvement every step of the way,” and that his dad continues to have infrequent conversations with his employer.

Whereas many HR professionals see over-involved parents as a warning sign, a number of companies have seized upon the trend.

“We would see people bringing their parents to work to show and explain it, to see what they do,” said Cornerstone OnDemand’s chief talent officer Kim Cassady, who noted that hires will often bring up their family during contract negotiations, saying things such as “my parents told me to ask this.”

When your parents meet your boss

Cornerstone’s Bring Your Parents to Work event at the company’s office in Santa Monica. Photo courtesy of Cornerstone OnDemand.

For Cornerstone, launching a Take Your Parents to Work Day was an opportunity for parents to see first-hand what their kids do at work, and ask executives questions about everything from the company’s 401(k) plan to stock purchasing options.

Clark Savage, a certified public accountant whose daughter is a social media strategist at Cornerstone, participated in the event last year. When he visited the company’s Santa Monica office, he was struck by the design, which he described as “completely diametrically opposed” to his vision of what a workspace should be. “That was my ‘OK Boomer’ moment,” he said of seeing Cornerstone’s office, which features an open office space and on-site massage rooms–a departure from the office spaces he is used to.

Cassady said that the primary questions her team gets from parents during the event are financial. “One year we did it and our stock was down slightly,” she said, recalling that one observant parent asked Cornerstone leadership about the drop. When it comes to the questions of the company’s financial health, said Cassady, “that’s when you…see that dragon or tiger parent come out.”

It’s no surprise that economic stability is at the top of many parents’ minds when it comes to their millennial children. This is a generation, after all, that earns less overall than their parents did, and enjoys less job security than their predecessors.

“They came of age in really difficult economic circumstances,” said Kim Parker of the Pew Research Center, which published a study on millennials and financial independence last October. The economic uncertainty spurred by the Great Recession has led more millennials to move home than previous generations, with nearly a third of men aged 25-29 living in their parents’ home, and 17 percent of women—shares that have nearly doubled since 1980. Around six in 10 parents who responded to the survey said they had offered some help to their adult children in the past year.

A 2019 study published in the journal Social Forces found that rising income inequality had caused a more intensive parenting style to take hold in the U.S., as those with the means to put resources toward their children’s future, became more anxious about helping them compete for education and jobs.

In an article for the Washington Post, economics professors Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti noted that in countries where there is less inequality, such as Sweden and Germany, parents were less inclined to put pressure on their kids to succeed from an early age. They argued that the issue of helicopter parenting in the U.S. could be solved by creating policies and institutions “that push back against rising inequality by offering children paths to success that aren’t overly shaped by grades and class rank.”

As it stands now, parents with higher socioeconomic status in the U.S. tend to provide more material resources to their children, because they can.

A number of NewsHour viewers said they had concerns about their kids’ financial well-being as they entered the job market. “I think a lot of money…is wasted while a child flounders through various college programs, ‘finding their passion,’” wrote Janine Fader, who said that she encouraged her kids to pursue degrees where they would gain “marketable skills” rather than rack up college loans.

Nevertheless, the economy has more or less recovered since the recession, and many millennials have more options when it comes to jobs than they would have had 10 years ago. While a majority of economists have predicted a recession will happen by 2021, companies want to stay attractive to young talent now.

“People have choices,” Cassady said. Hosting events like “take your parents to work” days are “the new way to be competitive as an employer,” she added.

“The concept of bringing your whole self to work, for millennials, sometimes includes parents,” said Ask a Manager’s Alison Green. “If you are attracting young people, it’s helpful to understand the mindset and realities for these young people.”

Amazon has tried its hand at this by hosting parent-child sessions on “demystifying” the company’s leadership principles (of which there are 14). And at Google, parents have the chance to participate in product demos and a Q&A with the CEO at the company’s Mountain View campus during their biannual event.

Lythcott-Haims remains critical of companies that aim to capitalize on millennials’ close relationships with their parents, calling them “completely capitulating” to these “helicopter” tendencies.

Gen Z rebels?

Will the generational pendulum swing back as Gen Z enters the workforce? Not necessarily, said one psychologist who has studied young people born between 1995 and 2013. “iGen’s parents may even be more heavily involved than parents of millenials were,” Jean Twenge, who wrote a book about the post-Millennial generation, said. “They don’t have as much experience with independence in the workplace, and they take longer to grow up.”

Twenge cited a nationally representative survey of teens conducted by the University of Michigan that shows that today’s high school seniors are less likely than millennials were to have a driver’s license, to have tried alcohol, and to have had sex at their age.

As Twenge noted in a September 2017 article for The Atlantic, members of this generation — the oldest of whom are now 15 — have also grown up with smartphones, which have “radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.” This means, too, that their parents can track their children more closely than ever before. But, as Twenge detailed in the article, the level of accessibility by Gen Z has taken a toll on their mental health. (The location-sharing app Life360 has been the recent target of backlash on the short social video platform TikTok, where young people complained about their parents closely tracking their movements.)

Gen Z actually puts more emphasis on their personal connections and their parents when looking for jobs than their older counterparts do, a 2015 survey by Adecco Consulting found. Forty-two percent of Gen Z respondents to the survey said they followed their parents’ influence when it comes to their careers, compared with 36 percent of millennials.

But the same group has also shown a greater willingness to push back against their elders’ actions than previous generations, speaking out in public forums about issues such as gun violence and climate change. Employers may focus on issues such as corporate social responsibility and offering reliable health insurance plans, as much as getting parents involved in the job search process, in an effort to hire and retain Gen Z employees.

As Gen Z edges closer to the workforce, it’s clear that some parents seem eager to let this generation navigate all these career factors themselves. “Kids need to make their own choices and make their way,” Meg Finch wrote to the PBS NewsHour. “If you take that away from them, they lose faith in their abilities. Encourage them? Absolutely. Brainstorm with them? Yes. Help with resume? If they ask, of course. But the real work is theirs to do.”